April Fools: Seven Literary Hoaxes

J.T. LeRoyJames FreyHerman Rosenblat, Margaret Seltzer . . . recent years have seen an explosion of memoirists lying, faking, or otherwise hoaxing the public—but this is hardly anything new. In honor of April Fool’s Day we present seven April Fools.

The Amber Witch — Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold (1844)

Meinhold pretended that The Amber Witch was the true story of a seventeenth-century minister’s daughter falsely accused of witchcraft. Meinhold claimed he found the minister’s manuscript in the refuse of an old church. When the book received critical attention, Meinhold admitted to the hoax, but audiences didn’t believe him at first.

“Geraint the Blue Bard” aka Iolo Morganwg aka Edward Williams (1747-1826)

Welshman Edward Williams was widely considered a leading antiquarian and expert on the antiquities of the British Isles. After his death, however, many of his manuscripts were revealed to have been forgeries, including those produced by “Geraint the Blue Bard,” supposedly a ninth-century composer. Oh well.

I, Libertine — Frederick R. Ewing  (1956)

Proto-shock jock Jean “Shep” Shepherd perpetrated I, Libertine as a purposeful hoax. He told his radio audience to demand the (non-existent) book by the (non-existent) author “Frederick R. Ewing” from their local booksellers, and even fabricated a basic plot for listeners to in turn relate (he even included the salacious detail that the book had been banned in Boston). Publisher Ballantine hired sci-fi scribe Theodore Sturgeon to write the book from Shepherd’s outline, and the book was published very soon after. All proceeds went to charity.

Naked Came the Stranger — Penelope Ashe (1969)

To prove that American culture was smutty and degraded, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady enlisted 24 of his fellow writers to write a smutty and degraded novel that they believed would top the bestseller list in spite of its lack of literary value. By the time “Penelope Ashe” had put out Naked Came the Stranger, the hoax had leaked, and it was unclear if this is what led to the book actually topping the New York Times bestseller list (for one slim week). The book later became the basis of a porno film.

A Separate Reality — Carlos Castaneda (1971)

The debate around Castaneda’s series of “memoirs” in some ways gets to the heart of the problems of truth and invention, facts and authenticity, experience and memory. Castaneda claimed that he trained under Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. Part of that training included taking massive amounts of psychotropic drugs like peyote as a means to “see” the energy of the universe. Don Juan Matus’s actual existence is questionable at best, but hey, when you’re doing large quantities of peyote, who knows what, like, truth is, man.

“Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”– Alan Sokal (1996)

Disgusted with a perceived slackness and ineptitude in modern academia, Dr. Alan Sokal published a paper full of nonsensical gibberish in Duke University’s cultural studies journal Social Text. The same day the essay was published, he announced the hoax in the journal Lingua Franca. Ouch. Biblioklept wrote a post about the incident a few years ago, if you’re interested.

The Songs of Bilitis — Pierre Louÿs (1894)

Louÿs claimed that the erotic poems he fabricated were the work of “Bilitis,” one of Sappho’s lovers; he even invented a biography of the woman, citing a fictional archaeologist named Herr G. Heim with discovering her tomb. (“Herr G. Heim” translates roughly to “Lord S. Ecret”). Despite the hoax, many critics consider it a work of literary merit, and it’s become something of a cult book among queer theory enthusiasts.

[Biblioklept originally published this post in 2010].

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April Fools: Seven Literary Hoaxes

J.T. LeRoyJames FreyHerman Rosenblat, Margaret Seltzer . . . recent years have seen an explosion of memoirists lying, faking, or otherwise hoaxing the public–but this is hardly anything new. In honor of April Fool’s Day we present seven April Fools.

The Amber Witch — Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold (1844)

Meinhold pretended that The Amber Witch was the true story of a seventeenth-century minister’s daughter falsely accused of witchcraft. Meinhold claimed he found the minister’s manuscript in the refuse of an old church. When the book received critical attention, Meinhold admitted to the hoax, but audiences didn’t believe him at first.

“Geraint the Blue Bard” aka Iolo Morganwg aka Edward Williams (1747-1826)

Welshman Edward Williams was widely considered a leading antiquarian and expert on the antiquities of the British Isles. After his death, however, many of his manuscripts were revealed to have been forgeries, including those produced by “Geraint the Blue Bard,” supposedly a ninth-century composer. Oh well.

I, Libertine — Frederick R. Ewing  (1956)

Proto-shock jock Jean “Shep” Shepherd perpetrated I, Libertine as a purposeful hoax. He told his radio audience to demand the (non-existent) book by the (non-existent) author “Frederick R. Ewing” from their local booksellers, and even fabricated a basic plot for listeners to in turn relate (he even included the salacious detail that the book had been banned in Boston). Publisher Ballantine hired sci-fi scribe Theodore Sturgeon to write the book from Shepherd’s outline, and the book was published very soon after. All proceeds went to charity.

Naked Came the Stranger — Penelope Ashe (1969)

To prove that American culture was smutty and degraded, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady enlisted 24 of his fellow writers to write a smutty and degraded novel that they believed would top the bestseller list in spite of its lack of literary value. By the time “Penelope Ashe” had put out Naked Came the Stranger, the hoax had leaked, and it was unclear if this is what led to the book actually topping the New York Times bestseller list (for one slim week). The book later became the basis of a porno film.

A Separate Reality — Carlos Castaneda (1971)

The debate around Castaneda’s series of “memoirs” in some ways gets to the heart of the problems of truth and invention, facts and authenticity, experience and memory. Castaneda claimed that he trained under Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. Part of that training included taking massive amounts of psychotropic drugs like peyote as a means to “see” the energy of the universe. Don Juan Matus’s actual existence is questionable at best, but hey, when you’re doing large quantities of peyote, who knows what, like, truth is, man.

“Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”– Alan Sokal (1996)

Disgusted with a perceived slackness and ineptitude in modern academia, Dr. Alan Sokal published a paper full of nonsensical gibberish in Duke University’s cultural studies journal Social Text. The same day the essay was published, he announced the hoax in the journal Lingua Franca. Ouch. Biblioklept wrote a post about the incident a few years ago, if you’re interested.

The Songs of Bilitis — Pierre Louÿs (1894)

Louÿs claimed that the erotic poems he fabricated were the work of “Bilitis,” one of Sappho’s lovers; he even invented a biography of the woman, citing a fictional archaeologist named Herr G. Heim with discovering her tomb. (“Herr G. Heim” translates roughly to “Lord S. Ecret”). Despite the hoax, many critics consider it a work of literary merit, and it’s become something of a cult book among queer theory enthusiasts.

[Biblioklept originally published this post in 2010].

The Thieves of Manhattan — Adam Langer

The literary hoax at the heart of Adam Langer’s new novel The Thieves of Manhattan explores the line between fiction and fact, asking readers to examine what kinds of truth they demand from their books. The novel’s outset finds protagonist/narrator Ian Minot working in a coffee shop, watching his too-good-for-him girlfriend Anya begin to succeed in a literary world that repeatedly rejects his own small, simple stories. Ian writes character-driven short stories that attempt to capture the banal truths that permeate ordinary, everyday existence. Publishers aren’t interested though, telling Ian that his characters don’t seem to live on after the last page. Aggravating matters, blatant phony Blade Markham sits atop the bestseller lists despite the fact that his memoir Blade by Blade seems too preposterously fantastical to hold up to even the flimsiest exercise in fact-checking. When Anya gets a book deal and leaves Ian for Blade, Ian hits bottom and agrees to work with a former editor named Roth on a literary con. After years of getting his crime-adventure novel A Thief of Manhattan rejected–it’s not realistic enough–Roth enlists Ian to rewrite the book as his own, real memoir. Working together, Ian and Roth revise Thief until it becomes Thieves, a book that weds Ian’s sense for character depth and dialogue with Roth’s crime noir adventure plot. As galleys arrive and it becomes clear that Thieves is poised to be a major hit, it also becomes clear that not all the details of Roth and Ian’s fake memoir are so fake after all. To reveal more of the plot would spoil the twists, turns, and snares of its brisk third act, so we’ll leave summary aside by simply noting that Thieves compels reading to its final page, a reading that you’ll likely complete in one sitting once that third act begins.

Thieves is a hybrid novel, a stylistic balancing act between Ian’s character-based, realist, psychological storytelling and Roth’s adventure-mystery tales. Langer draws his audience in to identify with Ian. It’s hard not to empathize with Ian, especially through his early embarrassments in Manhattan’s literary world, a world that Langer satirizes with equal parts vitriol and love. Ian mocks the successful literati who he feels have rejected him; to him, they’re poseurs, hacks, and shallow sycophants. One of the rewards of Thieves is watching Ian transform into one of the people he would once mock, and to do so through an act of fakery, one which he repeatedly defends (to himself) as a means to artistic expression. Langer’s groundwork in developing Ian’s character pays off tremendously in the novel’s aforementioned third act, which essentially finds Ian transforming into a character in a book that he (kinda sorta) wrote himself. Here, Thieves shifts gears into full-on noir adventure, yet retains its self-referential humor through its final spiky helix. It works because we still believe in the core veracity of Ian’s character. And while plenty of literary comparisons would be apt here, the last act of Thieves reminded me most of the final act of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s marvelous film Adaptation, a film that at once enacts and comments on its own genre status without the pitfalls of academic dithering.

The signature literary device of Thieves is a strange kind of metonymy where the names of authors, characters, and other proper-noun literary references substitute for objects or actions with which they are closely associated–at least in Ian’s lit-soaked mind. An example: “I saw us agreeing to split the apartment down the middle, putting a divider between her proust and mine. I could hear her having wild chinaski in the next room with all of her new boyfriends, madly scrawling in her notebook, furiously typing on her laptop, while I sat alone with my hand on my portnoy.” Langer takes a risk here. His narrator’s ergot could have turned out too-precious (and thus eventually irritating); instead, Ian’s litspeak becomes the fitting jargon for a crime novel. In appropriating and recontextualizing other authors’ characters and names, Ian’s jargon underscores Thieves‘s themes of the tension between fact and fiction, the writer’s role in delivering truth, and the concept of the artist as a thief.

Literary hoaxes are hardly new, but in recent years there’s been a small explosion of memoirs revealed to be part or wholly false. Langer clearly has a love for literary hoaxes old and new, and it shows in his book, particularly through his narrator’s transformation from a writer of realist fiction to a fake memoirist to a character in a book of his own making. The Thieves of Manhattan is a tightly-plotted, character-driven adventure-crime noir-mystery-hoax-con game novel pretending to be a memoir (pretending to be a novel . . .) that, despite all its fun metafictional games, never falls into the trap of navel-gazing. Langer gives us a character we can care about and puts him in the middle of a plot we want to see through to its end, but the real testament to Thieves is how much we can still care about that character after the last page. Highly recommended.

The Thieves of Manhattan is available from Spiegel & Grau. For more, read Biblioklept’s interview with Adam Langer.

Biblioklept Interviews Adam Langer about His New Book, The Thieves of Manhattan

Adam Langer’s newest novel, The Thieves of Manhattan hits bookstores across the country this week. It’s a smart, funny hybrid that blends and bends genres with startling results. Adam was kind enough to talk to Biblioklept over a series of emails about his new book, truth vs stuff that actually happened, literary hoaxes, and being mistaken for the author of The Magicians. You can read more about Adam Langer at his website, including info on his previous novels Crossing California, The Washington Story, and Ellington Boulevard, and his memoir My Father’s Bonus March. The Thieves of Manhattan is available from Spiegel & Grau.

Biblioklept: Your new novel (or novel-posing-as-memoir-posing-as-novel-posing-as-memoir . . .) The Thieves of Manhattan is about a con game, a literary hoax, and the problems of art and truth, love and theft. It’s also a send-up of the publishing industry and a clever adventure story with a noir flavor and a self-referential sense of humor. I want to talk about all of that, but let’s begin with your protagonist, Ian Minot, a barista with literary aspirations. Early in the novel, he attends a Manhattan party crammed with literary types, most of whom he thinks are poseurs and hacks. At the same time, under his bitterness, we sense that he’d love to be a part of that world. How much of Ian’s experiences correlate to your own with the publishing world? How much hyperbole is in your satire?

Adam Langer: Looking back on writing Thieves, it’s sometimes hard for me to remember exactly where the reality ends and the satirical hyperbole begins. At some point, fact and fiction fuses in my mind, which is, of course, one of the themes of the book. On the one hand, it’s totally true that, as an editor of Book Magazine, I attended many a literary wingding in which actual events described at the book took place. Yes, just as Francine Prose happily greets our hero until she realizes she has confused him with someone else, I too was happily greeted by Ms. Prose until she realized that she thought I was Lev Grossman (Argh). On the other hand, though, a majority of Ian’s experiences and Ian’s biography emerge completely from my imagination—my resumé has a lot of odd items on it, but New York barista isn’t one of them. I liken this experience of melding the actual with the fanciful to one of those live action/animation movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Mary Poppins, in which the two coexist to create another reality.

B: At the beginning of Thieves, Ian is writing “small,” realistic, character-based stories that no one wants to read. He enters into a literary con with a man named Roth to produce a big adventure story that they will sell as a memoir–as “true,” despite how improbable and fantastical it is. Thieves is in many ways an analysis on our modern obsession for true stories (and the way that “truth” can unravel). Why do people demand truth–even when it might not be what they really want from a narrative?

AL: I think we, or at least speaking for myself, I do want truth from a narrative. When I read a book or see a movie, I do want it to resonate; I want it to either connect with my viewpoints or to challenge them and make me rethink them; I don’t like when my BS-o-meter is constantly going off. But I think people often get bogged down when they confuse Truth with Stuff That Actually Happened. Tim O’Brien has an awesome essay on this topic that kind of blew my mind when I was in college. As for me, I’d much rather read a story of space aliens or baboons or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog that rang true than a self-aggrandizing purportedly-true memoir or celebrity autobiography. There’s a line in Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, which I quite liked–”If someone said to me, ‘I’ve got this great story to tell you, and every word of it is an absolute lie!’ I’d be on the edge of my seat.” That line has stuck with me. Also, more prosaically, in the publishing industry, there’s a perception that, with the decline of traditional book coverage, a good novel isn’t enough anymore, that the author needs a compelling biography as well. Ian certainly has this perception and part of his frustration is that he assumes his lack of success is directly related to his lack of an interesting autobiography. He later learns he was wrong regarding just about all of his
perceptions.

B: In his recent book Reality Hunger, David Shields makes a point similar to yours that audiences “get bogged down when they confuse Truth with Stuff That Actually Happened.” Shields also calls for the extinction of the “novelly novel” or the “novel qua novel” — he wants hybrid or “remix” novels. Thieves strikes me as such a novel, clearly in its treatment of memoir vs. novel, but also in its self-aware incorporation of genre fiction tropes from adventure stories and crime noir. Had you tried your hand at crime fiction or adventure tales before Thieves? Were there any difficulties you faced in crafting your hoax story?

AL: I haven’t read Reality Hunger, but my sense is that Shields is probably a lot more dogmatic in his views than I am. I’m not particularly interested in rendering any particular literary form “extinct,” except maybe the genre of Manifestoes That Declare Certain Literary Forms Extinct. I’m a fan of novelly novels just as I am a fan of remix novels or hybrid novels. I love writers who experiment with form and writers who hew to the “well-made-novel” and haven’t advanced past the 19th Century. Though Thieves probably does fit the definition of hybrid or remix, I don’t think that’s all I’ll be writing from now on. As for crime fiction, I’ve dabbled. In fact, the first novel I wrote after moving to New York in 2000 was a thriller of sorts set in the publishing world and concerned a research assistant to a crime novelist who becomes chief suspect once that novelist disappears. It had a lot of problems, and I haven’t taken it out of the drawer in about nine years. Although I have other crime/genre fiction ideas, I think my tastes and skills tend more towards character-based, comic social novels. But putting together the hoax plot was really a blast or a hoot or something like that. It was really incredible fun to try. Normally, when I’m writing, I read certain books to inspire me; while writing Thieves, I was religiously doing New York Times crossword puzzles.

B: Speaking of crossed-words, your narrator Ian uses a rhetorical device that will stand out to many readers: he substitutes the names of famous authors, alter-egos, and literary characters for words he associates them with–so, sex becomes “chinaski,” after Bukowski’s stand-in, a bed becomes a “proust,” a thick head of hair becomes a “chabon,” and so on. How did you come up with this idea?

AL: Well, it seemed to me that so many thrillers I’ve read are filled with jargon, whether hard-boiled patois or technical procedural details, that I thought my narrator needed his own lingo. At the same time, the lingo worked for me because it established Ian’s mindset, one completely immersed in the contemporary literary universe. Before I even started Thieves, I heard this voice that spoke in this literary slang, much of which I didn’t wind up using because I didn’t want to overdose on it. The idea of the slang is that it should be understandable in context without anyone needing to understand or even care about what is being referenced.

B: There is an “answer key,” though–a glossary at the end. Was that your idea? Or was that a publisher’s or editor’s inclusion?

AL: My idea, and I was just having fun with the glossary. I don’t like when readers can flip to the last page and see how it turns out. So, my previous books have featured glossaries, an index, and in the case of Ellington Boulevard, song lyrics.

B: Like you, I’m a big fan of literary hoaxes–so one of my favorite passages in Thieves was a detailed list of various literary forgeries and hoaxes, many of which I’d never heard of, like Li-Hung Chang or the works of Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish. How much of Thieves was born of your interest in literary hoaxes, and how much research did you do along the way?

AL:: I’ve always been fascinated by literary hoaxes and, while editing Thieves, I was reading as many as I could including the titles you mention, as well as watching great literary hoax movies such as Orson Welles’s F For Fake and Forbidden Lies, the documentary about Norma Khouri, and some awesome YouTube footage of “Margaret B. Jones.” I was slightly disheartened to note how many literary hoaxes have been forgotten. My personal favorites are the Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in 1764-5 by Madalen King Hall aka Cleone Knox, an incredibly fun read, and the poems of the fictional “Ern Malley,” who has some great turns of phrase no matter how nonsensical. I have no idea what “I am still the black swan of trespass on alien waters” means, but man, it sounds cool.

B: While we’re on literary hoaxes, one of my favorite things about Thieves is that both Clifford Irving and Laura Albert (aka JT LeRoy) blurb it, and then, in the plot, a hoaxer agrees to blurb Ian’s book. How did the Albert/LeRoy blurb come about?

AL: I actually take a very active part in soliciting blurbs for my books, which is partially related to control freakishness and partially related to the fact that, as an author, I much prefer hearing from other writers than from editors, publicists or agents. Clifford Irving’s was the first blurb I got for the book, and getting it was remarkably simple. I found his agent, wrote her a letter that she forwarded to him. We had a very gentlemanly correspondence. I sent him the book and he provided a very generous endorsement. As for Laura, we were introduced via a mutual friend and, after I sent her a galley of the book, we traded dozens of e-mails back and forth and had a number of hilarious, wild and profane telephone conversations. She’s a lot of fun to talk to and correspond with.

My initial idea was to have writers blurb as their alter egos or writer characters in their books—Steven King would write as Jack Torrance, Gary Shteyngart would write as Jerry Shteynfarb, Michael Chabon would write as Grady Tripp, and so on. But I was advised that this would be confusing and most readers who got the joke would think that the blurbs were fake.

B: Have you ever stolen a book?

AL: When I was about eleven, I shoplifted a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise from Rosen’s Drug Store on Devon Avenue a few blocks away from my house in Chicago. But I felt guilty about it, so the next day, I actually wound up sneaking it back.

Hoax, Italian Style

In this week’s issue of The New Yorker Judith Thurman reports on the literary hoaxes of Tommaso Debenedetti, an Italian “journalist” who has apparently fabricated dozens of interviews with famous authors in the paper Il Piccolo. Authors–so far–include Philip Roth, John Grisham, Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison, Herta Müller, Nadine Gordimer (Thurman is continuing to investigate Debedenetti’s archival interviews).

Thurman contacted Debenedetti, who denied that he faked the interviews. From the article:

Debenedetti said he was completely “shocked and saddened” that all these writers would have denied the veracity of his reporting. When I asked him about the interviews with Roth and Grisham, he flatly denied having invented them, and told me that Roth and Grisham were lying for “political” reasons—because their views on Obama would make them unpopular with left-leaning intellectuals. Roth, he added, might have decided that it was impolitic to express hostility toward Obama because it might spoil his chances for the Nobel.

I then read the list of other writers who had denied or questioned his conversations with them. In every case, Debenedetti asserted that he had invented nothing. When I asked if he could produce any recordings or notes from his interviews, he laughed and, admitting that it sounded like a “tired” excuse, told me that he had lost the tapes in some cases, and in others had “thrown them away.”

April Fools: Seven Literary Hoaxes

J.T. LeRoy, James Frey, Herman Rosenblat, Margaret Seltzer . . . recent years have seen an explosion of memoirists lying, faking, or otherwise hoaxing the public–but this is hardly anything new. In honor of April Fool’s Day we present seven April Fools.

The Amber Witch — Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold (1844)

Meinhold pretended that The Amber Witch was the true story of a seventeenth-century minister’s daughter falsely accused of witchcraft. Meinhold claimed he found the minister’s manuscript in the refuse of an old church. When the book received critical attention, Meinhold admitted to the hoax, but audiences didn’t believe him at first.

“Geraint the Blue Bard” aka Iolo Morganwg aka Edward Williams (1747-1826)

Welshman Edward Williams was widely considered a leading antiquarian and expert on the antiquities of the British Isles. After his death, however, many of his manuscripts were revealed to have been forgeries, including those produced by “Geraint the Blue Bard,” supposedly a ninth-century composer. Oh well.

I, Libertine — Frederick R. Ewing  (1956)

Proto-shock jock Jean “Shep” Shepherd perpetrated I, Libertine as a purposeful hoax. He told his radio audience to demand the (non-existent) book by the (non-existent) author “Frederick R. Ewing” from their local booksellers, and even fabricated a basic plot for listeners to in turn relate (he even included the salacious detail that the book had been banned in Boston). Publisher Ballantine hired sci-fi scribe Theodore Sturgeon to write the book from Shepherd’s outline, and the book was published very soon after. All proceeds went to charity.

Naked Came the Stranger — Penelope Ashe (1969)

To prove that American culture was smutty and degraded, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady enlisted 24 of his fellow writers to write a smutty and degraded novel that they believed would top the bestseller list in spite of its lack of literary value. By the time “Penelope Ashe” had put out Naked Came the Stranger, the hoax had linked, and it was unclear if this is what led to the book actually topping the New York Times bestseller list (for one slim week). The book later became the basis of a porno film.

A Separate Reality — Carlos Castaneda (1971)

The debate around Castaneda’s series of “memoirs” in some ways gets to the heart of the problems of truth and invention, facts and authenticity, experience and memory. Castaneda claimed that he trained under Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. Part of that training included taking massive amounts of psychotropic drugs like peyote as a means to “see” the energy of the universe. Don Juan Matus’s actual existence is questionable at best, but hey, when you’re doing large quantities of peyote, who knows what, like, truth is, man.

“Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”– Alan Sokal (1996)

Disgusted with a perceived slackness and ineptitude in modern academia, Dr. Alan Sokal published a paper full of nonsensical gibberish in Duke University’s cultural studies journal Social Text. The same day the essay was published, he announced the hoax in the journal Lingua Franca. Ouch. Biblioklept wrote a post about the incident a few years ago, if you’re interested.

The Songs of Bilitis Pierre Louÿs (1894)

Louÿs claimed that the erotic poems he fabricated were the work of “Bilitis,” one of Sappho’s lovers; he even invented a biography of the woman, citing a fictional archaeologist named Herr G. Heim with discovering her tomb. (“Herr G. Heim” translates roughly to “Lord S. Ecret”). Despite the hoax, many critics consider it a work of literary merit, and it’s become something of a cult book among queer theory enthusiasts.