The Most Successful Literary Hoaxes in History

Whether or not you enjoy a good hoax depends on your perspective; put simply, if you’re the victim, you probably won’t be amused. But, as they say, time heals all wounds, and a truly worthy hoax can be appreciated for its genius once enough time has passed. Here are eight literary hoaxes that were so successful, you simply have to admire them.

A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey
The Hoax: Wrote a harrowing memoir about his struggle with addiction.
The Truth: It was more novel than memoir; he got caught; made an enemy of Oprah.

You probably remember James Frey’s rise and fall in the early 21st century. When A Million Little Pieces was first published, it was categorized as a memoir of Frey’s own struggles with drug addiction and his experiences in rehab, and those experiences were often pretty incredible. He might have gotten away with it, too, if not for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, which made it a pick, and the subject of national attention. It was pretty easy to unravel Frey’s web of lies—while he was certainly a recovering addict who’d been in rehab, most of the novel’s memorable events never happened. Frey hasn’t suffered too much; he continues to write and publish, despite the hoax and the icy chill of Oprah’s withering glare.

The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda
The Hoax: Claimed his book was an academic record of his experiences learning the secret of the universe from a Yaqui Indian mystic.
The Truth: Was actually just an excuse to do a lot of drugs.

If you’re under the age of 60, chances are you’re not terribly familiar with Castaneda, but for a time in the late 1960s and early ’70s, people took his Don Juan books pretty seriously. Castaneda was studying for his Master’s in anthropology and submitted the report as his thesis, complete with detailed notes on his meetings with a “mystic” named Don Juan. The late 1960s were an ideal time to put some academic polish on the idea that peyote would free your mind and show you truth, and legions of hippies and hippie wannabes bought the book and believed it. While Castaneda never admitted to the fraud, careful study of his records and notes makes it clear he made everything up. Let’s call it the Jim Morrison Rule: if you go into the desert and do a lot of drugs, chances are good you’ll get famous.

 

Everything written by J.T. LeRroy
The Hoax: Young author bursts on the literary scene with sordid tales of his troubled youth.
The Truth: LeRoy was a fake person created by a frustrated writer, a charade maintained through increasingly elaborate subterfuge.

In 1996, 31-year-old writer Laura Albert invented an “avatar” called J.T. LeRoy, and maintained the identity in essays and written correspondence, launching a manufactured literary career and an increasingly elaborate cover story to hide the truth. “LeRoy” was 16, but had already lived a whole sordid lifetime: drug use, prostitution, sleeping on the streets. LeRoy’s name first popped up as the byline of a few nakedly confessional magazine articles; he soon graduated to writing novels (one of which, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, even became a film, albeit after the truth was revealed). When people started agitating about meeting the author, who never appeared in public, Albert hired an actress to do interviews as LeRoy, which elevated the game to the status of performance art if you’re being charitable, or full-blown fraud if you’re not. Considering much of the power of LeRoy’s writing came from his rough and tragic background (shared to some extent by Albert herself), the revelation of his fictional status upset a lot of people.

Naked Came the Stranger, by Penelope Ashe
The Hoax: America goes nuts for a salacious novel of sex and drugs.
The Truth: Unamused bluenoses purposefully wrote a terrible book to prove American culture is vulgar, which everyone kind of assumed anyway.

It’s a constant refrain in American society: we’ve lost our way. The old days used to be better. Kids today. It’s a mantra repeated over and over, but in the late 1960s, it actually seemed to hold water for a while. As old cultural taboos about subject matter, language, and frank discussions of sexuality and violence faded, bestsellers teeming with sex and drugs dominated the sales charts. Journalist Mike McGrady got the idea that any book would sell if it had enough sex in it—no matter how awful the writing. He recruited a dozen helpers, and together they wrote a novel designed to be awful, and awfully titillating. And sure enough, Naked Came the Stranger was both awful and a bestseller, though in the end, the publicity surrounding the revelation of its true parentage probably pushed its sales higher than they would have otherwise gone. Some folks just have to ruin it for everyone.

Coffee, Tea or Me?, by Donald Bain
The Hoax: Memoir reveals the wild and crazy lives of airline stewardesses (kids, that’s what we used to call female flight attendants).
The Truth: A ghostwriter is hired to pen memoir of wild and crazy stewardesses, discovers they’re actually kind of boring, makes up a bunch of stuff, and makes millions.

In 1966, Donald Bain was hired to meet with a pair of stewardesses about helping them write a memoir of their experiences flying the friendly skies (back when that will still sexy and novel and didn’t involve baggage fees), but he was disappointed to find they simply didn’t have enough interesting material for a book. Possessing a lascivious imagination and the can-do spirit that built America on a shoddy network of lies and fabrications, he didn’t let that stop him: Bain fabricated the stories of two sexually liberated stewardesses who described the then-glamorous experience of commercial flight in exultant detail—not to mention their love affairs and other provocative adventures. The two original stewardesses were happy to pose as the authors, and cheerfully did press for the book even though it was all made up. Bain wrote three sequels and made a lot of money off of the hoax, and apparently has zero regrets.

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
The Hoax: The diary of a troubled, drug-addicted teen is published in order to scare kids straight.
The Truth: Well, yes, except the diary was a forgery, penned by a therapist.

Beatrice Sparks was a youth counselor who wrote a number of fake diaries, but Go Ask Alice is the most famous of them. The tale of a 15-year-old girl who gets dosed with LSD at a party and decides she likes drugs—like, really likes them—is presented as the personal diary of anonymous girl that Sparks acquired and edited lightly for publication. It’s a tragedy, of course, as the girl spirals into addiction, spends time in an asylum, and dies a few years later. An after school special in novel form (later dizzyingly made into an after school special), its legitimacy was aided by the way the diarist’s early experiences with drugs are actually kind of fun and positive, though once her life turns belly up, there’s no question what got her there.

The Painted Bird, by Jerzy N. Kosinski
The Hoax: Polish American author writes a harrowing memoir of his experiences during World War II…
The Truth: …but it’s a cobbled-together skein of plagiarism and lies.

The 1965 novel The Painted Bird wasn’t presented to the world as a memoir, but author Kosinski allowed everyone to assume it was inspired by his own tragic experiences in Eastern Europe during World War II. Considering the story is told from the perspective of an orphaned Jewish boy who undergoes a series of terrible, violent events as he struggles to stay out of the clutches of Nazis, the revelation that Kosinski actually plagiarized the work of several Polish authors whose books weren’t well-known in the English-speaking world turned a heartbreaking work of emotional power into a book that made people very angry.

Honorable Mention: Atlanta Nights, by Travis Tea
The Hoax: “Travis Tea” submits a salacious novel to a seedy publisher.
The Truth: “Travis Tea” is actually a group of sci-fi and fantasy authors seeking to expose an unscrupulous publisher.

There was a time when legions of writers claimed they’d been “traditionally published” by dint of having a book accepted by an outfit called Publish America, which justified its claim of being a legitimate operation because it paid authors a whopping $1 and got their books into stores. Of course, it was a scam; bookstores wouldn’t stock their titles and they made money by forcing their authors to buy their own copies at exorbitant prices. To prove PA would accept anything, a group of authors got together to write the worst possible novel they could come up with. What happens when talented writers try to write an awful book? They more than succeed. This book is glorious in its terribleness. And yes, Publish America did indeed publish it, telling nonexistent author Travis Tea that his was a literary voice the world needed to hear, and exposing their shady practices to the world.

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