The concept of plagiarism is something that students learn at a young age. Journalism especially is a profession that is ripe with opportunity for plagiarism, and aspiring writers learn early on how to avoid it. Taking someone else’s words and passing them off as your own is wrong ethically, and it won’t leave you with much of a sense of accomplishment even if you are successful. Nowadays, it is hard to copy someone else’s work without being found out. Most things are readily available on the internet, so keeping your deception under wraps isn’t as easy as it might have been before the social media age.
At the same time, making up aspects of a story, and passing it off as fact, is also a large ethical no-no for a writer. No one thinks just a little bit of embellishment will cause any harm, so they go ahead, and make their story more of “a page turner” by either exaggerating the facts, or simply making it all up.
Everyone loves a true story, so the temptation to say yours is true when it isn’t is an attractive one. But the truth always comes out one way or another. Here are 10 huge literary hoaxes that fooled the world, until the lies were revealed.
A Million Little Pieces – James Frey
A Million Little Pieces was originally marketed as a memoir about the author, James Frey‘s, battle with drug and alcohol addiction, and experience in rehab. In September 2005, the book was selected as part of Oprah‘s Book Club, which catapulted it to number 1 on the Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists. Oprah interviewed him on her show, which prompted The Smoking Gun to launch an investigation into the legitimacy of Frey’s claims. They discovered that many of Frey’s descriptions were completely fabricated, and his publisher, Doubleday, made no attempts to verify his story before marketing the book as a memoir. Oprah confronted Frey in a follow-up interview, and told him that “he betrayed millions of readers”. Frey has maintained that the book is “in essence” the events of his life, and he only altered small, unimportant details.
The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things – JT LeRoy
Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was a novelist who used real life events as inspiration for his writing. Although his books were considered fictional novels, it was implied that his experience as a transgender, homeless, child prostitute were the source material for his book, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, in particular. LeRoy made the rare public appearance, but always wore a disguise and didn’t say much due to “extreme shyness”. In 2005, an article in New York magazine outed JT LeRoy as a pseudonym of musician, Laure Albert. While pen names are not unusual, the trouble came because Albert had signed contracts (including one related to the film adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things) using the fake name. Also, her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop was revealed as the person behind LeRoy’s public persona, taking the deception beyond just a pen name.
The Diary of a Good Neighbour – Doris Lessing as Jane Somers
Doris Lessing was one of the most popular British writers of her time when she tried to get The Diary of a Good Neighbour published under the pseudonym, Jane Somers. She wanted to demonstrate the difficulty unknown writers have getting their novels published. She felt that her own work was always praised because of her reputation, and each novel wasn’t evaluated as a standalone work. She also wanted to play a prank on critics who had pigeon holed her as a certain kind of writer. As Jane Somers, Lessing’s work was rejected by her usual publishers, but eventually accepted in the US, and published in 1983. It attracted little attention, and sold poorly. When she published a follow-up, If the Old Could, she revealed herself as the writer, and some critics dismissed her “experiment” as nothing more than a publicity stunt.
The Autobiography of Howard Hughes – Clifford Irving
Eccentric millionaire, Howard Hughes was almost a total recluse when Clifford Irving inked a deal with McGraw-Hill to publish The Autobiography of Howard Hughes. Irving thought that because of Hughes’ recluse status, he wouldn’t want to come out of hiding, or draw attention to himself by renouncing a fake autobiography, or suing for libel. But he was wrong. Hughes called a group of journalists, and revealed he had never met Irving, and never agreed to a single interview with him. He then sued Irving and his accomplices, and Irving was convicted of fraud. He spent 17 months in prison, and had to return the $765,000 book advance to his publisher.
Naked Came the Stranger – Penelope Ashe
The 1969 novel, Naked Came the Stranger, was a hoax orchestrated by Newsday columnist Mike McGrady meant to prove that American literary culture had become mindlessly vulgar. He enlisted the help of 24 journalists to each write a chapter of the novel. Their goal was to make it deliberately terrible, but include at least two explicit sex scenes per chapter. The book immediately became a bestseller, and McGrady’s sister-in-law even posed as the fake author, Penelope Ashe, at book signings. The hoax was revealed later that year, making the book even more popular. Clearly, with the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey, sex still sells, regardless of writing quality.
William Ireland’s Shakespeare forgeries
In 1794, William Ireland claimed to have found authentic paperwork that once belonged to William Shakespeare, including letters, and documents with Shakespeare’s signature. Although “experts” at the time authenticated everything, Ireland had actually forged it all himself. He then went on to write an entire play, entitled Vortigern and Rowena, claiming it was by Shakespeare. The rights to the play were acquired, and it was performed on stage only once, before critics accused Ireland of forging the play as well. He confessed, but his reputation never recovered, and he remained a struggling writer for the rest of his life.
Timothy Barrus aka Nasdijj
Timothy Barrus published three “memoirs” in the early 2000’s under the pseudonym, Nasdijj. Barrus’ alter-ego was a Navajo man who adopted two children, one with fetal alcohol syndrome, and the other with HIV. His essay, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams, published in Esquire in 2000, attacks white society for the plight of him and his children, and was nominated for the National Magazine Award that year. It was revealed in 2006 that the man known as Nasdijj was not actually Navajo, and had fabricated the vast majority of events in his essays. Barrus’ lies were called a “harmful, cultural fraud” that appropriated the Native culture for profit.
Angel at the Fence – Herman Rosenblatt
Angel at the Fence was a Holocaust memoir telling the story of the writer’s reunion with and marriage to a girl who used to pass him food through the fence while he was imprisoned at Schlieben, a concentration camp during WWII. At least that’s what Herman Rosenblatt claimed. Oprah called the book “the greatest love story” she had ever heard. Holocaust historians who heard the story were skeptical of its authenticity initially because the chance of a civilian being able to approach the fence surrounding a concentration camp were slim. It was eventually revealed that although Rosenblatt was imprisoned at Schlieben, he did not meet his wife there. Publishing was cancelled, and he was ordered to give back his advance.
Love and Consequences – Margaret B. Jones
Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival was the true story of Margaret B. Jones’ upbringing as a half-white, half-Native foster child, and Bloods gang member in South Central, L.A. During radio interviews in promotion of the book,, Jones spoke in an African American vernacular, which she thought would add authenticity to her story. The publisher, Riverhead Books, was contacted by Jones’ own sister, and let in on the truth: Jones was fully Caucasian, and had grown up with her biological parents in the affluent community of Sherman Oaks. The book was subsequently pulled from all retailers, and the publisher has offered refunds to those who bought it.
The Hitler Diaries
In 1983, German magazine Stern published excerpts from what it claimed were the diaries of Hitler. Journalist Gerd Heidermann said the diaries were part of a set of documents recovered from a airplane crash near Dresden in 1945. The magazine paid nearly $9 million German marks ($3.8 million US) for the 60 notebooks, and had them analyzed extensively, confirming authenticity. But when the full diaries were released, swirling doubts led to a confirmation that they were indeed forgeries. Experts called the diaries “bad forgeries, but a great hoax”. They were actually written by Konrad Kujau, a notorious forger. He and Heidermann were both sentenced to 42 months in prison for forgery, and embezzlement.