Hoaxes Throughout History
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Literary Hoaxes

In 1967 the war in Vietnam was escalating and race riots were breaking out in many major U.S. cities. Popular distrust of the federal government was growing. It was in this context that on October 16 a book appeared titled Report From Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace. It was published by Dial Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Leonard C. Lewin, a New York freelance writer, wrote the introduction to the book. He explained that the report had been compiled by 15 experts known as the Special Study Group (SSG) who had been brought together by the U.S. government. More…
In 1968 Carlos Castaneda, a graduate student at UCLA, published The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, describing his encounters with Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui shaman from Mexico. Don Juan supposedly trained Castaneda in ancient forms of knowledge, such as how to use drugs to communicate with animals (or even to become an animal). Castaneda's book became a bestseller and was an important influence on the New Age movement. However, although Castaneda insisted Don Juan was a real person, this is widely doubted by scholars who point out a number of curious omissions in the book. For instance, Castaneda never describes Don Juan speaking in his native language, nor does Don Juan use local names to describe any plants or animals. Castaneda also never showed his field notes to anyone. And many of the experiences Castaneda describes, such as hiking for days through the Sonoran desert in the middle of the summer, border on the impossible.
Newsday columnist Mike McGrady was convinced that standards of literary taste were plummeting rapidly in the United States. Sex alone, it seemed, could make a book a bestseller. This gave him an idea for an experiment. He convinced 24 other Newsday reporters to join him in deliberately writing a terrible novel that would have a minimum of two sex scenes per chapter. They titled their work Naked Came the Stranger. In the first week after its publication, it sold a respectable 20,000 copies, which McGrady felt was enough to prove his point. So he revealed the hoax. The resulting publicity made the book a bestseller. More…
This remains one of the most brazen literary hoaxes of all time. Clifford Irving forged the "autobiography" of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, while Hughes was still alive. His hope was that the famously reclusive billionaire would be unwilling to emerge from his seclusion to expose the fraud. For a long time it seemed like Irving was going to get away with it, but ultimately his plan failed, because Hughes did emerge to blow the whistle on the scheme. More…
In 1975 Chuck Ross was selling cable TV door-to-door, and dreaming of becoming a writer. However, he felt the odds were stacked against him since the publishing industry seemed incapable of recognizing talent. To prove his theory, he typed up twenty-one pages of a highly acclaimed book and sent it unsolicited to four publishers (Random House, Houghton Mifflin, Doubleday, and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), claiming it was his own work. The work he chose for this experiment was Steps, by Jerzy Kosinski. It had won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1969 and by 1975 had sold over 400,000 copies. All four publishers rejected the work, including Random House, who was its original publisher. More…
If an unknown screenwriter submits a masterpiece to a movie agent, what are the chances that the agent will actually read the screenplay and recognize its value? Freelance writer Chuck Ross designed an experiment to find out. He slightly disguised the script of Casablanca (changing its title, the name of the author, and the names of some of the characters) and submitted it to 217 agencies. The majority of these returned it unread. 33 recognized the script. But 38 claimed to have read it and rejected it, saying the script simply wasn't good enough. One complained that the dialogue "could have been sharper" and that the plot "had a tendency to ramble." More…
The Diary of a Good Neighbor by Jane Somers received little attention, and only modest sales, when it was published in 1983. The novel told the story of a magazine editor who befriends a lonely old woman. But when a sequel appeared a year later, a surprise announcement accompanied its publication. The book's true author was the acclaimed writer Doris Lessing (who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Lessing explained that she had concealed her authorship in order to show how difficult it is for unknown authors to attract attention. Also, she wanted to play a prank on critics who insisted on pigeonholing her as one type of writer or another. More…
Norma Khouri's bestseller Honor Lost (published in Australia, Khouri's home, as Forbidden Love) told the story of a Jordanian 'honor killing.' In the book, a young woman named Dalia living in Jordan falls in love with a Christian man and is murdered for this transgression by her father in order to defend the 'honor' of the family. Khouri claimed the story was nonfiction, based on the life (and death) of a woman she met while growing up in Jordan. But the Sydney Morning Herald discovered that Khouri didn't grow up in Jordan. She actually grew up in a suburb of Chicago. And no person matching the Dalia character appears to have existed. The clear implication was that her book was fiction. The Australian publisher withdrew it from sale.

JT LeRoy (Oct 2005)

In 1994 a teenage boy called JT (or Jeremy "Terminator") LeRoy began to attract attention in the literary community. He published a few short stories, but he also aggressively reached out to other, older writers, communicating with them by phone, email, and fax. He was a sympathetic character — a transgendered, homosexual, drug-addicted, pathologically shy teenager who had been living on the streets, forced into a life of truck-stop prostitution by his mother. Writing seemed to offer a means for him to escape that life, and other writers strongly supported his efforts. In 1999 he published his first novel, Sarah, which was a critical... More…
The story of how Herman Rosenblat first met his wife, Roma, was remarkable. Rosenblat was imprisoned as a child in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He claimed that Roma, a Jewish girl disguised as a Christian who lived in the nearby town, used to throw apples over the fence for him. Twelve years later, the two met in Coney Island and realized where they had previously seen each other. They fell in love and got married. Rosenblat first shared this story in the mid-1990s, when he submitted it as an entry for a newspaper contest about "best love stories". He said he had been told to share the story, which he had kept secret for so many years,... More…
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