Between Fact and Fiction

Cover artwork by Kanut55 on DevianrtArt

Fandom loves playing the lines between fact and fiction; pseudonyms, tuckerization, imaginary histories, pranks, tricks, and hoaxes are all intrinsic to the culture.

I suspect I first encountered this with the traditional hoax issue of the newsletter at BayCon. Most con newsletters already teeter between their ostensible mission and the smart-aleck tendencies of their fannish editors, often including obviously silly items not intended to be taken seriously. At one recent convention the publications team kept it straight as an arrow, no foolishness allowed. Fandom could not let that stand and a guerrilla hoax issue was produced anyway. Quite right, too.

Programming has been guilty of a hoax or two, which less clear success. I remember a convention where one fan was listed as being on every panel, which seems an obvious enough joke. At another, which took place over Daylight Savings change day, the program included a series of impossible panels in non-existent rooms, focusing on outlandish topics and featuring panellists who were either imaginary or no longer among us. I found it amusing, but there was at least one complaint. And, of course the hoax bid, a venerable tradition dating back almost as long as there have been bids. Minneapolis in ’73 didn’t happen, but the bid committee enjoyed throwing so why not keep going? And then there’s the famous case of the hoax Westercon bid that became a real, and very successful, convention after the single real bid failed to get their act together.

Outside of fandom (if such a place even exists) there is a lot of fun, some confusion, and often real trouble to be had in this area. Orson Welles’ career was made and then broken by the blending of fact and fiction. The Beatles may have been the first to play a fictionalized version of themselves in A Hard Day’s Night. _Spinal Tap launched a thousand mockumentaries. Andy Kaufman took it all to a new level, and nowadays ‘meta’ is a household word.

History is full of examples. The Middle Ages sometimes read as little more than a series of wonderful hoaxes: fake documents that nearly changed the course of empires; fantastical travelogues made up out of whole cloth; and religious forgeries galore. The mid 19th century had two separate Moon Hoaxes, plus a Balloon Hoax by none other than Edgar Allan Poe. The advent of television in the mid 20th century gave us Candid Camera which in turn spawned a thousand copycats. Panorama used the real-world respectability of its presenter to sell the best April Fools’ joke ever, the Spaghetti Tree Hoax. The Onion established itself as a print newspaper and went viral almost as soon as there was a web to go viral on. The Blair Witch Project used a clever campaign to blur the lines between fact and fiction and launch the found footage era, and in the brave new world of 2019 it’s a bit unclear if reality is even a thing anymore.

But there are still laughs to be had. In Lulzine #2, Chuck Serface writes about fannishness in the work of Christopher Guest; Warren Frey takes a look at the origins of the meta incarnation of William Shatner; and David Haddock talks about how Douglas Adams leveraged his fame as the most famous humour author of the day to publicise the very real topic of conservation.

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