Opinion - Already 2023 may have peaked for those fascinated by online literary controversies and fakes.
It is like something that happens in fiction. Two-and-a-half years ago, a Facebook post announced the death by suicide of the indie romance author Susan Meachen. But on 6 January this year, Meachen herself appeared on Facebook and Twitter, quipping "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated".
It is unclear exactly what happened - in part because the story revolves around accusations of fake news and fake identities, so it is hard to pin down who said what.
What we know is that someone referring to Meachen as "my mom" used Meachen's account to post to a private Facebook group with the news of her suicide in 2020. Then, at the start of the New Year, Susan Meachen posted in her own voice, saying that she was "in a good place now" and clearly … well, not dead.
Those in her immediate online circle were "horrified, stunned, [and] livid", as the author Samantha Cole put it. "To me it's something that happens in fiction," she said.
The rest of us are horrified, stunned - and riveted.
Several online commentators raised the idea of a financial motive, but it is unclear whether Meachen profited from her fake death.
While a "friend" urged Meachen's followers to buy her then-latest book in the aftermath of her reported death (in October 2020) and in February 2021, someone who referred to Meachen as "mom" urged followers to buy her books, her sales suffered after her "death".
I think the feelings this sparks in many of us are personal - a sense that a social contract has been profoundly violated; a relationship of trust betrayed.
Roland Barthes and 'the death of the author'
Reading, after all, can be a deeply moving and even intimate experience. As we immerse ourselves in a book, we become intellectually, emotionally and physically involved. So it is no wonder we feel we're forging a personal connection with not just the book, but its author: the person who wrote the words we are reading, which seem to address us right where we are, as if the book were a personal communication.
Yet the person on the other side of this connection - the author - does not know who we are: If we ever do meet them, we will almost certainly find our experience of the person is very different from our experience of the book.
Narratology - the field of literary theory that looks at the structure of stories and the way they are told - solved this problem back in 1961, when Wayne Booth invented the "implied author". The implied author is a construct, not to be confused with the real-life author - the person who stares out of the window when they should be writing, or shouts at her children when they interrupt her flow.
Narratologists embraced this distinction between the real-life author and the implied author because it enabled them to analyse stories as self-contained formal structures, separating out the text from the world. Anything on the textual side of the divide was the business of literary criticism: anything on the worldly side was something else - book history, or the sociology of literature.
The implied author is only knowable through the text, and any information we have about the real-life person who wrote the book is not relevant here.
So the connection we make as we read is not to a real person, but to a textual construct.
The French narratologist and cultural critic Roland Barthes called this the "pattern in the carpet" in a companion piece to his influential 1967 essay The Death of the Author. The author/reader relationship might feel personal, but the author we are connecting to is just an optical illusion, conjured from textual features.
Indie romance and virtual relationships
The Susan Meachen affair brings the author back to life in more ways than one.
The indie romance community Meachen was part of depends on strong relationships between authors, readers, publishers, editors, and reviewers: a network built outside the structures of mainstream publishing. ("Indie publishing" refers to books published without a mainstream publisher - in the romance world, this often refers to self-publishing.)
Here, the boundary between the text and the world is utterly porous. Readers become authors; authors remain readers. Real-world events inspire fictional stories, and those stories circulate within the community in a way that creates or reinforces interpersonal bonds.
Alongside the capitalist economy of sales and royalties, a gift economy - similar to the one associated with fan culture - flourishes in the indie romance world.
Back in 2020, when someone announced on Facebook that Meachen had died by suicide as a result of online bullying, the indie romance community responded by dedicating an anthology of stories to her: The Bully King Anthology, a collection of romance stories with a bullying theme (originally produced in response to a different bullying scandal). The proceeds of the anthology go to an anti-bullying charity; its dedication to Meachen transformed the fictional stories into a real-life gift to her.
Although not everyone who reads indie romances - or hears about Meachen's story - is woven into the community's interpersonal networks, digital media has transformed the author-reader relationship Booth and Barthes examined in the last days of print. (More recent work, like that of Simone Murray, explores the new post-print dynamics at play in Meachen's story.)
We consume authors' written words both in the form of fictional stories and in the form of blogs, tweets and Facebook posts that seem to offer a more personal connection to the real-life author, passing easily back and forth across the boundary between text and world, book and life.
Meachen's story shows how easy this boundary is to cross, but it also shows - in how easy it was to stage her death and in the very real hurt and anger caused by her fake death - that the boundary still exists.
"We were only Facebook friends," Samantha Cole told NBC News. "We had never met in person. It's very common in the book world."
A spokesman for the medical examiner's office in Polk County, Tennessee, where Meachen lives, told NBC it had "no record of anybody by that name being reported dead going back to 2020".
For everyone wondering about author Susan Meachen faking her own suicide, fellow author Samantha A. Cole explains it: pic.twitter.com/dmPvK5JVZY— Wanda (@Lady_Skywalker_) January 5, 2023
More plot twists
An author Q&A with Upstream Reviews this week only further complicated matters. Meachen apparently said "a fiction author's job is to create new realities which is what I did", and that "the end of my life was a work of fiction" which "transcend[ed] the pages of a book".
But after the interview was published, "people close to her on social media" cast doubt on the identity of the person who answered Upstream's questions. Meachen herself then denied it was her, too.
It is a story that keeps on churning out plot twists and layers of real, implied, and performed identity.
For all the complexities and fuzziness, there's a difference between the relationship we have with an author and the one we have with a friend. Reading fiction involves, as poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, a willing - that is, consensual - suspension of disbelief: plot twists, fake-outs, and reversals are part of a game that we've consented to play with the author.
When the twists, turns, and returns from the dead "transcend the pages of the book", they're not part of the game of fiction any more. They're real - and so are their consequences.
* Ika Willis is an associate professor in English literature at the University of Wollongong
This story was originally published on The Conversation.