‘Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes’ by Melissa Katsoulis

This is a great book in many ways.  It’s easy to read in small chunks, its table of contents is useful and provides a good idea of what you will encounter in each chapter.  It addresses the reactions of diverse minority groups when their cultural identities were appropriated as part of hoaxes.  It has a great cover, though arguably a real hoax cover would not be so sloppy or honest about its derivative nature.  But!  I could not finish reading it, for reasons I will explain in a little bit.

Melissa Katsoulis is perhaps the opposite of me.  A legitimate literary journalist, an officially married person, someone who has a job and an income.  Perhaps that’s part of why I find it hard at times to resonate with this book.  I’m a reader and dabbler in fiction, and I’ve focused more on academic analysis of things in my education than in journalism.  She’s come into this book as a journalist and writer from a very different culture and perspective.  There was bound to be some dissonance between her words and the way my brain reads them.

‘… it does suggest that the Antipodean creative scene allows things to happen that other countries might not.  One important reason is that racism and far-right politics is less taboo there than it is in other parts of the English-speaking world…’ (p.11)

While I’d be the first to bemoan some of the xenophobic attitudes some Australians hold, I can’t help but feel that this section in the introduction is odd.  Why single out Australia, when there have been throughout history equally xenophobic and racist views in both the United Kingdom and the United States of America (and literary hoaxes with racist and political motives are cited from these places within Telling Tales)?  Racism and race tensions are just as bad in London and Los Angeles as they are in Sydney!  She comments one hundred pages later that all the Australian hoaxes she mentions involve race somehow, though by ‘race’ she means ‘non-white’, and in at least one of the instances mentioned involve a Jordanian-born woman writing a hoax involving Jordanian women’s stories.  Katsoulis can’t have missed the logical gap between ‘all Australian hoaxes in my book involve non-whites’ and ‘most racist hoaxes are Australian’, yet she makes precisely that statement several times.  Maybe this is my academic background speaking, but I would have issues using deliberately misleading language like that.  The statements themselves come across as racist without context at times, and I can imagine a lot of readers being put off before they get to the relevant sections.

Perhaps this is simply my personal experiences here, but in the last couple of years I’ve heard from a few friends undertaking postgraduate studies in the US and UK who’ve encountered (especially in England) people that see Australia as some sort of cultural backwater full of cockneys, rednecks and the cast of Neighbours.  There’s more strange and old-school Colonialist perspectives still around out there than I had believed possible.  I can’t help but feel that Katsoulis wrote those words not from any actual investigation into Australian attitudes towards racism, but from preconceptions she’s inherited from her own culture and media soundbytes.  I hate to tell you, Melissa, but Australian racism is an imported chain franchise; we’ve got all kinds of racial tensions and racist attitudes, but the majority of our cultural heritage comes from good old Mother England.

Though I really enjoyed reading about the hoaxes, a lot of them were not new to me, and I felt often the style of writing was very journalistic; more about the scandal and punchlines and spin than the facts of interest. Perhaps I’m still sore that Australia seems singled out as racist amongst all the other global racist, sexist and bigoted examples in the book.   Still, it’s certainly worth reading, and is a good quick background in historical literary incidences of cultural appropriation.  I would recommend, if you want to write on the topic of any of these hoaxes, that you conduct your own research rather than relying on this alone.

In the end, I had no luck searching for other blogger reviews.  I shall try again later, because I want to know how other readers received it.  For the moment, there is a convenient collection of newspaper reviews on Katsoulis’ website for the curious.

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