HOW THE STORY OF PROFESSOR KENT JOHNSON—AKA ARAKI YASUSADA, WITNESS TO HIROSHIMA AND POETIC VOICE OF SOME DEEP TWENTIETH-CENTURY SCARS—EXEMPLIFIES THE CONTEMPORARY LITERARY HOAX: SMUG, PURPOSELESS, AND SELF-CONGRATULATORY.
As you may have heard—although you may very well not have, and although such stunningly uncultured innocence, however widespread, might come as a shock to the system of our loud but trifling herd of lit scholars, critics, and gatekeepers—some of the finest American literary journals began in the mid-1990s to publish poems by a poet who did not ever exist. Not that editors knew it at the time: the Araki Yasusada poems, coming completely luggaged up with pure cock-and-bull biography, bibliography, annotations, transnational gray areas, and an abundance of seemingly authentic cultural traction, were proudly disseminated as the real deal, a perfectly cool example of international “witness poetry,” a true voice from the ground zero of Hiroshima scar trauma and radioactive anguish. Then the rumors began to proliferate: Yasusada was a charade, a persona rigged from whole cloth and devised, at the very least, to exploit and/or investigate the prevailing yen for “exotic” first-person culture. In 1996, Eliot Weinberger exposed the hoax in print for the first time in the Village Voice, just weeks before American Poetry Review straight-facedly published a suite of Yasusada poems, including by way of an author’s photo a charcoaly, third-generation Xerox portrait of a Japanese man, identity unknown.
Well, identity known by at least one person, one cackling goldbricker, right? Who would do such a dreadful thing to world literature? Naturally, the bamboozled editors, critics, and Nipponophiles were outraged to tears—the public statements, symposiums, and sociocritical knuckle-whitening quickly became a cottage industry (a Web search will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the man who wasn’t there), and the top-shelf project quickly became a lynch-mob campaign to peg the blighter. Suspicion instantly fell on an Illinois community-college prof and editor named Kent Johnson, “executor” of translator Tosa Motokiyu’s estate—but Motokiyu is a pseudonym of Johnson’s old university roommate, Johnson has admitted without divulging the man’s true identity. “Motokiyu” “died” conveniently before the hubbub broke in any case, we’re told. Johnson’s buddy, Mexican folksinger Javier Alvarez, keeps popping up in the discourse as well, for no better reason, it seems, than to be proffered as a possible straw-man suspect. The conspiracy-theory mill churned mightily for the handful that cared: writing in the journal Rhizomes, a Russian gumshoe-critic named Mikhail Epstein traced Johnson back to a St. Petersburg lit conference also attended by a pair of well-known Russian lit-hoaxers, both of whom had announced long-brewing “Japanese” projects. Professor Plum attended as well, with a candlestick.
There’s more to the story, for the simple reason that every time Johnson opens his mouth he deliberately contradicts what he’s said before, at one point (as reported in Lingua Franca) telling several different editors who the mendacious author really was, but giving each a different name. This man should go into politics, but in the meanwhile many fanciful scholars have justified both their own tenures and Johnson’s cunning duplicity by suggesting that, aesthetically speaking, Johnson’s intention to protract the ambiguities indefinitely creates a “hyperauthorship,” a state of nebulous text-author association in which the reader is never certain who exactly wrote what he or she’s reading, or what their motives were, or how much is “true,” or whether or not the entire work, down to the glue in its binding, isn’t a beachload of gull crap.
Which is what fiction is, right? But no: as Brian McHale points out in his essay on literary hoaxes in Richard J. Griffin’s new scholarly book The Faces of Anonymity, fiction is forthright about being fiction… usually. Does forthrightness differentiate art from bullshit? Anyway, should it matter so much in this, the era of neo-meta-post-deconstructionist ironism?
Well, yes, actually, it matters. What we’ve got a tail-hold on here is the very nature of authorship—exclusively from a reader’s point of view, which is the only perspective that matters absolutely. Readers read creative writing for pleasure—an immense, beastly, and complex quantity that, most of the time, feeds lustily at the trough of empathic association. That is, the author is my compadre, and the writing is, simply, a communication between us. It’s an a priori cornerblock of culture: another human made this so I can experience it, and a large part of why I’d bother is the experience of that other human’s impulses, ideas, creative reasoning, and emotional current.
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