Home>Services>For Book Lovers>Off Our Shelf>Off Our Shelf 2011>July 2011: Great Literary Hoaxes
|No small time forger of luncheon vouchers|
Hoaxes on the shelf
| No small time forger of luncheon vouchers|
|It isn’t new for authors to pretend to pass either themselves or their work off as something it isn’t – it has been going on for centuries, and probably will continue to so. But what are their motives? Is it to get themselves published or recognized as an author of some standing? Is it for financial gain? Is it as a prank to set up others and expose their shortcomings? Or perhaps they genuinely believe they are doing good…as one author recently said “I just wanted to make people happy.” Whatever their motive, I am guessing from many authors at least – they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. The fallout from Norma Khouris’ literary hoax saw her personal and family life torn to shreds by the media in an attempt to get to the ‘truth’.
And it isn’t always a piece of cake either for the publishers. They have been caught out more than once by advancing money or publishing books to wide critical acclaim only to have to defend the author or even hurriedly withdraw the offending books from sale. (And if Oprah Winfrey herself is taken for a ride by some of these literary hoaxes and she has been caught out more than once….what hope do us lesser mortals have of determining fact from fiction!)
A particularly sad story of an early literary hoax is that of Thomas Chatterton. Thomas fabricated medieval poems purportedly by Thomas Rowley - a 15th century monk. He claimed he had discovered the poetry in a stack of papers in a church in Bristol. Written in faux Middle-English his poems were very popular. However in 1770, facing starvation, unable to sell his poems and facing exposure, Chatterton is believed to have killed himself (the ultimate sacrifice for his art!). Death was due to arsenic poisoning. He was only 17 years old. The ‘poetic’ irony of this is that for a long time his poetry was ignored. Everyone thought the works were not his own, he was merely the transcriber.
Moving to more recent times there is The Education of Little Tree which was published in 1976 under the pen name of Forrest Carter. Carter claimed it was a memoir of his life growing up as an orphan Cherokee. The book sold millions of copies and won the 1991 American Booksellers Association Book of the Year award before the hoax was exposed. Forrest Carter was really Asa Carter who among other things had connections to white supremist groups, was once a member of the Klu Klux Klan, and purportedly had no relations that were remotely Cherokee.
When the hoax was exposed in the 1990s, the publishers hastily reclassified the title as fiction. Oprah Winfrey, having first described the book as ‘very spiritual’, hurriedly removed the title from her list of ‘recommended’ titles. However, this didn’t affect sales of the book and Carter was working on a sequel to his story when he died in 1979.
The Hitler Diaries by author Konrad Kujau were another literary scam probably memorable for the sheer audacity and size of the work. The diaries were claimed to have been smuggled out of Germany after being recovered from an aircraft crash near Dresden in April 1945. The 62 volumes of diaries, purporting to chronicle Hitler's years of power between 1933 and 1945, were bought by the German magazine Stern for £2.5 million in 1983. Konrad Kujau it seems was the manager of an unsuccessful cleaning company in Stuttgard and was known to police as a small time forger of luncheon vouchers. No surprise then that his Hitler Diaries were quickly found to be fakes. And not particularly good fakes at that having been written on modern paper using modern ink and full of historical inaccuracies. There is a lesson here for all would be literary hoaxers – at the very least you need to get your facts right! And really 62 volumes! What was he thinking…one or two maybe but 62!
Perhaps the most famous Australian literary hoax is Ern Malley. Those behind the Ern Malley hoax were two poets and soldiers - James McAuley and Harold Stewart. Ern Malley was portrayed as the great Aussie battler, he was working class and dead at the time his manuscripts were forwarded to the editors of the Angry Penguins by his ‘non existent’ sister Ethel. The purpose of this hoax was not financial gain, but was a deliberate joke intended to humiliate Max Harris one of the editors of the Angry Penguins. Max was sucked in ‘hook, line and sinker’…and published the poems. Max even critiqued the poems hailing them as the “work of a poet of great power”. The hoax was exposed by the Sunday Sun on 25 June 1944…when MacAuley and Stewart ‘fessed up’ that Ern Malley was a fictional creation of theirs. Their justification - it wasn’t a hoax but a serious literary experiment!
Like poor Thomas Chatterton, the irony of all this is that the final joke was on them. The Ern Malley poems are considered better than any of the other works of McAuley and Stewart. (Peter Carey based his book My Life as a Fake on the Ern Malley affair).
Of more recent times, there are three literary hoaxes that really fascinate me. Not necessarily for the writing or the success or otherwise of the books but for the question of Why? What motivated these authors to do this…to write something claiming to be someone they are not.
The first is author Helen Darville. Her book The Hand that Signed the Paper won the Australian/Vogel Literary Award in 1993 for an unpublished manuscript. Detailing the life of a Ukrainian family during the Holocaust, it was first published in 1994 under the pseudonym Helen Demidenko. Helen never claimed her work was anything other than fiction and the controversy that ensued was not to do with her misrepresenting the facts in her story, but her false claims of Ukrainian ethnicity. The deception was revealed by the media when she won the Miles Franklin Award in 1995. It seems she was not Ukrainian but English born of English parents.
What followed was trial by media who accused her of anti-semitism, conducting a literary hoax and plagiarism. The fallout affected not just Helen but her publishers Allen and Unwin and judges of the Miles Franklin award. Helen has later stated that the press wanted to know about her ‘Ukrainian heritage’ and she just got caught up in it all and played along. Maybe it was the inexperience of youth?
But what was her real crime? Would the book have won these awards if she hadn’t pretended to be Ukrainian? And how does her not being Ukrainian effect the quality of her work or writing? Did this expose that those who determined the awards this book received were also influenced by the author’s ethnicity, maybe more so than simply judging the quality of the work before them? Was it resentment that the Miles Franklin award went to such an outsider rather than the fact she had misled everyone about her heritage? Or perhaps it was more to do with the sense of betrayal and breach of trust… Helen pretended to be someone she wasn’t. It all made fascinating reading – her book and the ensuing fallout and trial by media. We all love a scandal!
This next book never saw print despite being hailed by Oprah Winfrey as the “single greatest love story” she had ever heard. Angel at the Fence: The true story of a love that survived by holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat, tells of Rosenblat’s time as a prisoner in Schlieben concentration camp in 1945. One day a girl sitting in a tree tossed an apple to him over the camp fence. The girl continued to throw apples and bread to him until he was moved to another camp and didn’t see her again until 1957, when he met up with her on a blind date in New York. (Talk about coincidences!) Anyway, they married and have been together ever since. Or so the story goes, and as a story it went!
It all started to come undone when a Holocaust scholar raised doubts about events in the book - not least that the maps of the camp at Schlieben showed it would have been impossible for anyone to reach the fence let alone throw food over it.
Rosenblat’s response once the hoax was discovered was to admit to inventing the story. His justification: “I wanted to bring happiness to people. I brought hope to a lot of people. My motivation was to make good in this world.” And while we cannot argue with his sentiments, would it have been any less a love story if he had not deceived us but presented the book as fiction rather than fact?
The book was scheduled for publication in February 2009 but publication was cancelled in December 2008 when the hoax was discovered. However, not before the film rights were purchased for $25 million. Berkley Books demanded the return of all money that the author and agent received. Yet another book that Oprah has had to remove from her recommended list.
And lastly and probably subject of greater mystery and contradictions is Norma Khouri’s book Honour Lost (US title) –released in Australia in 2003 as Forbidden Love. This book was published as a non-fictional account of the so called honour killing of Norma’s best friend Dahlia in Jordan. Dahlia was murdered by her father because she fell in love with a Christian soldier. 200,000 books were sold in Australia alone.
The work was exposed as a fake in July 2004 by Malcolm Knox literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. It seems there were many inconsistencies both in the book and in Norma’s own life and story that didn’t add up. Such inconsistencies included, Norma was not in living in Jordan during the time-frame of the story, but was living in Chicago with her husband and two children. And that the unisex salon which is the focus for the book, could not have existed by law during the time of the book.
Unlike Helen Darville and Norman Rosenblatt, Norma Khouri has resolutely stood firm that her work is non-fiction and her stance intensified the media’s attempts to discredit her and her work. Such were the contradictions in Norma’s book and her own life that film maker, Anna Broinowski, made a documentary called Forbidden Lies which explores the events leading up to Malcolm Knox’s revelations. Anna even accompanies Norma back to Jordan in an attempt to verify the truth of her story.
I was fascinated watching the documentary. Having read all the press articles about the hoax, I wanted the documentary to tell me once and for all whether the book was non-fiction or not. But more exciting was being caught up in Anna’s attempts to get to the truth. The insight into Norma’s personal life and the contradictions and lies was truly fascinating if not frustrating. At the end of 106 minutes, I was still not sure. It certainly seemed as though Norma’s book was fiction, as indeed so much of her public persona and private life was full of contradictions and fiction as well. (Our Library has the documentary….it makes interesting viewing).
Publisher Random House pulled the book off the shelves in Australia and England indefinitely. And Malcolm Knox won a Walkely Award (2004) for his investigative journalism. And where is Norma Khouri now? And what was her motive? We might never know the answer to this; I wonder whether Norma even knows herself.
Sad isn’t it, that I suspect that all these authors wanted was recognition for their literary efforts, instead they themselves became the bigger and more memorable story.
There are many other literary hoaxes of note…some you might like to research yourself…
- James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces
- Margaret Seltzer’s Love and Consequences (both of which were heavily endorsed by Oprah before being revealed as fakes.)
- Misha Defonsecca A Memoir of the Holocaust Years – detailing escaping from the Nazis and being raised by wolves. Was translated into 18 languages before the author revealed it was a hoax.
Jenny is Our Library’s intrepid and curious Library Collection Officer (she catalogues books)
|Hoaxes on the shelf|