A false document is a form of verisimilitude that attempts to create in the reader (viewer, audience, etc) a sense of authenticity beyond the normal and expected suspension of disbelief. That is, it wants to fool the audience briefly into thinking that what is being presented is actually a fact. This is not to be confused with a mockumentary, an admittedly fictional film done in the manner of a documentary.
In practice, the device takes a very simple form. The work of art (be it a text, a moving image, a comic book or whatever) usually is composed of or includes some piece of forgery. The false document effect can be achieved in many ways including faked police reports, newspaper articles, bibliographical references and documentary footage. The effect can be extended outside of the confines of the text by way of supplementary material such as badges, ID cards, diaries, letters or other objects.
The moral and legal implications of false document art are, by necessity, complex and perhaps insoluble. The difference between a great artistic achievement and a stunning forgery is slim. Sometimes the false document technique can be the subject of a work instead of its technique, though these two approaches are not mutually exclusive as many texts which engage falseness do so both on the literal and the thematic level.
Origin of the false document technique
One of the earliest examples of the technique is the 18th century French novel The Nun, by Denis Diderot. It was begun originally not as a work for literary consumption but as an elaborate practical joke aimed at making a wealthy philanthropist give support to a spurious cause.
It seems to grow out of the epistolary novel but has more in common with the newspaper serial from which it draws most of its technique. The conceit is most commonly used where a heightened sense of authenticity is required for the desired effect of the story to be maintained. Blurring the line of reality and fiction is an important component of horror, mystery, detective and fantasy narratives because they wish to engender in the reader a sense of wonder, and of danger, both of which need to feel more present than a typical narrative form would allow. For this reason, false documentary techniques have been in use for at least as long as these literary genres have been around. Frankenstein draws heavily on a forged document feel, as does Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and many of the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire is a particularly elaborate variation.
False documents in art
Orson Welles' F for Fake is a prime example of a film which is both about falsification (art forgery and the journalism surrounding art forgery) as well as having falsified moments within the film. The movie follows the exploits of a famous art forger, his biographer Clifford Irving, and the subsequent fake autobiography of Howard Hughes that Irving tries to publish. The issues of veracity and forgery are explored in the film while at the same time, Welles tricks the audience by incorporating fake bits of narrative alongside the documentary footage.
Another artist who has run afoul of the technique is the artist JSG Boggs, whose life and work have been extensively explored by author and journalist Lawrence Weschler. Boggs draws currency with exceptional care and accuracy, but he only ever draws one side. He then attempts to buy things with the piece of paper upon which he has drawn the currency. His goal is to pass each bill for its face value in common transactions. He buys lunch, clothes, and lodging in this manner, and after the transactions are complete his bills fetch many times their face value on the art market along with accompanying evidence (receipts, photos, and the like) which prove the veracity of the actual transaction. Boggs does not make any money off of the much larger art market value of his work. He only exists on the profit of the actual transaction. He has been arrested in many countries, and there is much controversy surrounding his work.
Mostly, however, the technique is employed in more mundane ways that hark back to its nineteenth century origins. Whether or not a particular piece of art is a false document, or is using false documentary techniques in a central way, is of course arguable. Usually, the character and extent of the use is examined.
False documents, fakery and forgery
Documentary filmmaking, and other attempts at actual documentation, can wittingly and unwittingly participate in the form as its goals of authenticity are so closely aligned with direct false documentation (that is, in both cases there is an element of authenticity and an element of narrative fudging). In Schwarzenegger's Pumping Iron for example, Arnold talks about how his father died in the months preceding a major body building competition. He uses this anecdote to illustrate how important the final months before a competition are to a truly dedicated bodybuilder. He says that, though his father's funeral was set during the penultimate month, he did not attend because he could not be distracted from training. However, in the companion book it is revealed that at the time of printing, Arnold's father had not died. It does not say the story was a lie, it merely provides contrary evidence. Schwarzenegger was executive producer of both the film and the companion book. It has been theorized by Professor Sally Robinson that Schwarzenegger was intentionally undermining his own narrative, effectively creating a mildly self-deprecating re-examination of his own obsessions for perfection at any cost. In the end, whether Arnold intentionally fabricated the story for a desired effect is left to the audience.
False documents in theory
- Boggs by Lawrence Weschler
- Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler
- Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
False documents in fiction
Several fiction writers use the technique of inventing a piece of literature or non-fiction and referring to this work as if it actually existed, often also quoting from the work. The following is a list of such fictional documents:
- Miguel de Cervantes claims that all the chapters but the first in Don Quixote are translated from an Arabic manuscript by Cide Hamete Benengeli. He is parodying a plot device of chivalry books. For instance, Joanot Martorell in the introductory letter to Tirant lo Blanc claims to be not the creator of a fiction, but the translator of an English historical manuscript.
- Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was supposedly the autobiography of the title character, an English castaway who spent 28 years on a remote island. The account was presented as a factual event, in a genre called histories.
- Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels was originally attributed to "Lemuel Gulliver", a ship's surgeon, and purported to be a factual account of four of his sea voyages. It even includes a rather irate bogus note from Gulliver to his publisher. It may be debatable whether the book is an example of a False Document, but is included because it initially bore little or no indication that it was a work of fiction.
- Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is told in the form of numerous documents, including journals and newspaper articles. A brief introduction claims that they are all real.
- The Necronomicon appearing in the works of H. P. Lovecraft
- Author William Goldman claims in his book The Princess Bride that the story he tells is an abridged version of the Florentian literary masterpiece by the great (and fictional) S. Morgenstern.
- Fritz Leiber's novella Our Lady of Darkness revolves around the secret occult studies of fictional author/occultist Thibaut de Castries and his book Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities.
- First Encyclopaedia of Tlön appearing in the short story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Jorge Luis Borges, plus several other fictional books invented by the same author, including an entire bibliography for the fictional author Pierre Menard.
- Several works of the fictional author Fanshawe appearing in Paul Auster's The Locked Room in The New York Trilogy.
- The Red Book of Westmarch and a surviving copy of it called The Thain's Book, portions of which were "translated" by J.R.R Tolkien into his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
- Never Whistle While You're Pissing is the work of the fictional character Hagbard Celine in the Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.
- Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead is a fabricated recreation of the Old English epic Beowulf in the form of a scholastic translation of Ahmad ibn Fadlan's tenth century manuscript. Many of his other fictions, such as The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, also incoporated large amounts of fabricated scientific documents in the form of diagrams, DNA sequences, footnotes and bibliography.
- Dozens of fictional footnotes referencing events, books of magical scholarship, and biographies in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the debut novel by Susanna Clarke.
- Milorad Pavich's Dictionary of the Khazars is a work of fiction in the form of three fictional encyclopedias, which incorporate viewpoints that provide inconsistent descriptions of the events they describe.
- A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs claims to be the manuscript of John Carter except for the first chapter explaining how the manuscript was received.
- Main article: hoax
A number of hoaxes have involved false documents:
- "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"
by Alan Sokal, (Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text). See Sokal Affair
- "The endochronic properties of resublimated thiotimoline", Isaac Asimov.
- Ova Prima
- Salamander Letter
- Journal of Irreproducible Results
- The Report From Iron Mountain
- The Oera Linda book
- The Hitler Diaries
False documents as a field of study
False documents were recently the topic of a graduate level seminar in the humanities at the University of Michigan. The seminar was taught by Professor Eileen Pollack. While the form has existed for at least two hundred years, focused study is fairly recent.
- Conspiracy theory
- Epistolary novel
- Fictional guidebook
- Frame tale
- Literary technique
- Questioned document examination
- Urban legend
- Voynich manuscript
- A Racial Program for the Twentieth Century, an anti-Semitic forgery