Faith or Doubt?

Reviewed by Kate Douglas

Why do we still believe in autobiography in this post-hoax era? Why do readers, en masse, continue to succumb to hoaxes, believing in fraudulent texts and authors? The hoax has fascinated many life-writing scholars in recent years with the publication of a plethora of articles, book chapters, and journal issues on autobiographical hoaxes, particularly in relation to legal, ethical, and moral standards. Susanna Egan’s Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography is, however, the first full-length exploration on this subject.

For Egan, the central issues in understanding how and why hoaxes have proliferated autobiographical (and indeed, literary) practice over hundreds of years are faith, doubt, and identity. Egan is interested in the relationship between the author and the text, how this has been constructed historically, and how autobiography has become a test case for considering the availability of truth in non-fictional storytelling.

Egan locates imposture within historical and cultural contexts, asking: Why have particular hoaxes emerged at certain cultural moments? According to her study, imposture reveals the sorts of identities we believe and invest in at particular historical moments. Imposture shows what readers expect from and believe about people who tell their life stories. As Egan argues, imposters exploit the so-called “truth” of autobiography, as well as cultural norms about what readers will believe and care about.

Egan presents different types of imposture, and in suggesting their implications again locates imposture within history and culture and also shows how imposture is relational: it is never only about the writer nor will it only affect them. Egan is careful to demarcate between deliberate and overt “imposture” and other literary issues that have affected life-writing genres, such as memory loss, literary crafting, and the deliberate fictionalization of true stories. The author rightfully contends that imposture is different because it is a “pretense; impostures are frauds, fakes, plagiarists, and phonies.” What is fascinating here, as Egan suggests, is that despite everything we know (and have known throughout history) about the proliferation of astonishing stories and our ideological predispositions towards doubt (the need for proof, for witnesses), these tall stories continue to arise and are believed. Egan reminds us that faith and doubt share a long and intricate history (that is perhaps mutually sustaining).

Burdens of Proof is a literary history of autobiographical fraud—from the beginnings of Western civilization through to a series of pertinent case studies (for instance, on the media, on textual identities, and on European Jewish identities during World War II). Egan covers a lot of ground; however, her chosen foci are explored with great attention—offering a depth of discussion that is impressive for a single book. For example, a recurring theme is the complexities that ethnic imposture brings to a discussion of hoax, revealing (in particular) moral and ethical questions on the role of non-fictional literature in redressing social inequalities in post-settler nations.

Egan’s arguments here are topical and consistently persuasive. The strength of this book lies in Egan’s expansive knowledge of life-writing scholarship. As one of the pioneers of contemporary life-writing theory, Egan seamlessly integrates the theories of her life-writing peers with her own hypotheses to produce sophisticated and thoughtful inquiries. The most fascinating of the chapters (for me) is chapter three, which explores the role that the media plays in exacerbating imposture. Egan reminds us of the degree to which many hoaxes were “made” by the media (we wouldn’t know about them otherwise). Further, the media has worked to instill particular types of faith in readers when it comes to autobiography: for example, a belief in Western redemption narratives and in setting norms for acceptable levels of pretense in non-fiction. Egan points to the damaging effects of imposture (and indeed the media’s focus on it): its harmful effects on autobiographical writing.

Burdens of Proof is an intriguing study which will be of interest to scholars and students of life writing and contemporary literary studies in particular. As always, Egan’s prose is what academic writing should be: sophisticated and challenging whilst clear and accessible. Egan writes about what is both topical and intellectually exigent. She reminds us of the continuing relevance of autobiography to our everyday lives and cultures.

This review “Faith or Doubt?” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 154-55.

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