Dr. Hannah Courtney


For some time now, I’ve lived and breathed narrative trickeries. Twists that pull the storyworld rug out from under you, endings that frustrate your genre-formed expectations, messy crossovers between fiction and nonfiction, and the most dastardly form of all – the hoax. As you can imagine, my conference presentations all come with spoiler warnings!

Although many would choose to focus on the scheming minds of trickster authors, I am fascinated by readers. And for good reason – people have extreme reactions to trickeries. They rant, they rail, they huff, they puff – and sometimes, they exalt with joy. But why?

A family member once told me how angry she’d been when she found out Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a white man. Arthur Golden’s name was in large font across the cover – no one could accuse him of hiding his identity. And yet the ‘memoir’ of the title channelled her reading process, giving what she knew to be a fictional story an air of authenticity. She said she knew it was not logical to be upset when the story was made up anyway, but upset she was. The pretence of authenticity had fallen away when she learned the identity of the author, and she felt betrayed.

Why do we have such passionate reactions to books, especially those fictional works we already know are invented? This question has driven my research. By understanding how and why we react to the anomalies of literature, where expectations are used against us, we can see more clearly what goes on in the conventional reading process. This has shown me just what an extraordinary series of processes the reader carries out – functions absolutely vital to the act of communication.

My article in the most recent issue of JNT explores the fascinating Australian hoax, The Hand that Signed the Paper. In 1994, Helen Darville published her award-winning novel about a controversial period of Ukrainian history under the pseudonym Helen Demidenko, performing a colourful (and unwavering) Ukrainian authorial persona in her public interviews. When her true (British) ancestry was revealed in a front-page Australian newspaper article, the revelations sent shockwaves through the country, with many calling for her awards to be revoked.

Hoaxes are often car-crash levels of mesmerising-awful, and this one is no exception. But what I love about a good hoax is how it shows us just how important the paratext is to the literature it orbits. In our internet-enabled era, we can’t escape the influence of this constant surrounding world of reviews, blogs, advertisements, and author interviews – the text is never just the text, and sometimes it is far less important than the narrative that amasses around it.

I couldn’t put it better than Richard, a regular bloke who posted a review of The Hand on an online book ratings website: “an interesting book but the whole demidenko / darvelle debate is much more interesting.”

Dr Hannah Courtney is an independent scholar and narratologist from Sydney, Australia. Her work on narrative time has been published in the journal, Narrative, and the edited collection, Mindful Aesthetics, and won the 2011 International Society for the Study of Narrative Graduate Student Prize. Her recent research completed at the University of New South Wales focused on narrative trickery and author/reader communication processes.


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