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That lesbian-blogger hoax: Smut, or the messy start of a new art? Add to ...

Before his resignation, followers of Internet-generated scandals were granted a merciful reprieve this week from imagining what lies beneath the cottony confines of Anthony Weiner's underpants. The distraction took the shape of a hot lesbian blogger in Syria who allegedly had been arrested. The blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus, turned out to be a hoax. Its author, Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, was fabricated by 40-year-old Tom MacMaster, a straight, white man from Georgia, living in Scotland.

Cue the outrage: No one likes to be tricked, especially the 100th time. Blogging hoaxes are as old as the Web, but the media are like the rest of us: easily titillated, with a lazy taste for low-hanging fruit. Sometimes they won't bother to verify if a courageous lesbian activist in a war zone is in fact a middle-aged man who may or may not be typing into the ether while wearing a pair of flesh-coloured pantyhose and gleefully eating flayed oranges.

Outrage has a pesky tendency to masquerade as constructive discussion while actually strangling it. Did Mr. MacMaster lie, cause pain and damage the cause of gays and lesbians in Syria? Yes, yes and probably. Is he a sociopath, or an amateur fiction writer who accidentally hit the blogging jackpot? Maybe both.

But to flip it for a moment: Let's not forget that Mr. MacMaster had a sizable readership who identified and empathized with his character, her stories and her struggle. "We read to know that we are not alone," said C.S. Lewis (at least as played by Anthony Hopkins in Shadowlands). In the first creative life of A Gay Girl in Damascus, there was an author who was working hard to forge a three-dimensional character who was not based on stereotypes about either the Middle East or the gay community.

Whatever his motivations, Amina was believable enough to take on a kind of life, sustained by stories that made her relatable and enlightening. And in her audience, was there not a contingent that tracked the stories of Amina for comfort and to see parts of themselves, parts they were perhaps too fearful to show to their family and friends? And how much thought had you given before now to the real plight of homosexuals in Syria? On my end, not a hell of a lot.

There are innumerable examples of fiction's ability to outstrip fact in vividly illuminating reality. Filmmaker Werner Herzog freely admits to injecting fictional scenes into his documentaries to create "ecstatic truth." These scripted scenes do not compromise the non-fiction narrative; they open up a kind of vortex that pulls the viewer into the heart of the truth. Francis Bacon sums it up neatly: "Truth is hard to tell; it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible."

Mr. Herzog aside, any time a non-fiction writer announces that every bit of their story is factual, don't we all have the urge to yell j'accuse? Creating a cohesive narrative itself is a lie. It's a fundamental human urge that allows us to cope with the stupid messy nonsense of existence.

The problem here is that we don't yet have a sophisticated set of metrics with which to analyze the utility or benefits of this kind of fiction. Our comfort levels vary based on the case, the nature of the lie and our own specific psychic makeups. Judith Miller's false reports on Iraq's weapons programs - that's an easy one to categorize. It gets trickier with the J.T. Leroys and the James Freys. And then there are the bursts of insight that come to us via Sacha Baron Cohen's clowning in Borat. Or the Coen brothers' fib that Fargo was based on a true story, testing the limits of the suspension of disbelief.

This is not to say Mr. MacMaster should be forgiven for the people he hurt, frightened or put in harm's way. But it is conceivable that in the future we'll look back at these hoaxes as some kind of new art form, even if this particular one was coming from a pervert prankster writer in Scotland who may or may not have been wearing flesh-coloured pantyhose while typing into the ether, giggling like Tom Hulce in Amadeus, while the juice from those oranges dribbles down his chin.

Kathryn Borel is a Canadian writer based in Los Angeles.

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