Literary Hoax

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“You can't handle the truth!” -Jack Nicholson as Colonel Gessup in A Few Good Men


A literary hoax is a situation where an author of any published medium that is published masks their own identity by assuming another. The term literary hoax implies certain assumptions about what is labeled authentic literary works which is said to represent the personal effort of an author or group alone claiming responsibility for what is produced. Conversely a literary hoaxer seeks to obscure his or her own contributions to the work that is produced, offering it as the effort of an entirely different person often concocting elaborate back stories and smokescreens to keep the illusion of the imaginary author alive. In a recent and thought-provoking analysis of literary hoaxes Ken Ruthven contends that 'since what a society values will show up obliquely in what it rejects, reactions to literary forgeries illuminate perceptions of literariness' (Ruthven, 2001). Many points create this account to be worthy of note to those working in the area of ethnic minority literary criticism and their relationship to 'literariness' (Gunew).

To produce a literary hoax is to “deceive by amusing or mischievously fabrication.” Literature is fertile ground for hoaxers and people wanting to try it on. The temptation for writers to merge fact and fiction is seemingly irresistible. And there are any number of possible motivations, the question is when does a hoax in the literary world cross the line and become an outright fraud?

Types of Hoaxes

There are generally three types or genres of literary hoaxes.

The Genuine Hoax The genuine hoax is a dishonest literary creation which is intended never to be exposed.

The Entrapment Hoax The entrapment hoax is intended t o lure a particular academic, publisher, or literary community with a prank text.

The Mock Hoax A genuinely experimental writer plays conscious tricks with the very notion of authorship to create a voice which is neither quite theirs nor someone else’s.

Famous Literary Hoaxes

Ern Malley’s The Darkening Ecliptic In 1944, an Australian poetry editor published a collection of poems by a raw young talent named Ern Malley, a Melbourne mechanic who had died the previous year. The editor lauded Malley as one of the most “important poetic figures of this century.” Alas, the verses had been written as a joke by a pair of poetry purists: James McAuley and Harold Stewart penned Malley’s entire body of work in one afternoon, pulling phrases randomly from books and making it purposely obscure. Their mission was to reveal what they felt was the “gradual decay” and absurdity of avant-garde poetry. The hoax became national news and was the inspiration for Peter Carey’s 2003 novel My Life As a Fake.

The Howard Hughes biography In 1970, U.S. novelist Clifford Irving cooked up a scheme with fellow writer Richard Suskind to write a fake biography of reclusive aviation and film mogul Howard Hughes. Irving landed a $750,000 advance from publisher McGraw-Hill, and with Suskind’s help, made up interviews and fabricated documents with Hughes’s forged signature. They were eventually discovered — Hughes even came out of his self-imposed exile to condemn them, claiming never to have met Irving. Both Irving and Suskind served time in jail.

Alan Sokal Disgusted with a perceived slackness and ineptitude in modern academia, Dr. Alan Sokal published Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. It was 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.

Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree Published in 1977, Forrest Carter’s celebrated memoir about a Cherokee orphan who fights racism and struggles to connect with his heritage was later revealed to have been written by a white Ku Klux Klan member named Asa Carter. (In more recent reprints, The Education of Little Tree was labeled “fiction.”) Carter had previously worked for Alabama Governor George Wallace, penning his infamous inauguration speech, in which Wallace vowed: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say: segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”

Go Ask Alice This 1971 “actual diary” of a teenaged girl who died of a drug overdose was meant to be a cautionary tale for adolescents in the post-hippie era. In the late 1970s, however, its “editor,” Beatrice Sparks, a psychologist and Mormon youth counsellor, admitted to writing it based on the stories of some of her students. Sparks has gone on to produce many other “actual diaries” about troubled adolescents, including Treacherous Love: The Diary of an Anonymous Teenager and Annie's Baby: The Diary of an Anonymous Pregnant Teenager.

The Hitler Diaries In 1983, the German magazine Stern announced that journalist Gerd Heidemann made the greatest Nazi memorabilia find of all time: Adolf Hitler’s diary, a whopping 62-volume set covering the crucial years of 1932 to 1945. Despite containing cornball entries like “must not forget to get tickets for the Olympic Games for Eva Braun” (or maybe because of that), the diaries were authenticated by several respected historians. Within days of the story breaking, however, a forensic study of the actual paper stock confirmed that the diaries could not have been penned in the ’30s and ’40s, and were thus fake. They had been written by a Stuttgart forger named Konrad Kujau; both he and Heidemann served time in prison.

Closest "Current" Incarnation

The Fake Memoir

James Frey

J.T Leroy

Herman Rosenblat

Postmodern Lit

All the memoir hoaxes from the aforementioned lists rely on strict concepts of fiction and nonfiction, invention versus truth. But we’re in an era when these lines are blurred without consequence. Not just by people trying to manipulate their readers, but by authors doing so very transparently.

Notice that Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius isn’t mentioned as a hoax-doer even though he fabricated just like some on those lists did. In Eggers’ quasi-autobiographical anti-memoir, there are blatant fantasy scenes and characters come in the narrative to comment on the book itself. In footnotes, Eggers reveals how he’s manipulating the reader.

Postmodern writing (certainly not the only prevailing style now, there is a post-post) is all about transparency and about being self-conscious, ironic, even self-mocking.

Current Cultural Landscape

Which is to say, there have actually been a lot of hoax-y things in the past couple weeks, and yet... they all suck. It's probably because, well, people are so quick now—because of rampant cynicism and a crushing worry about seeming not in-the-know, and because of information becoming available with increasing ease—to dismiss something as fake right off the bat, or soon prove it false, or just come forward to take credit for it so they can get famous.


Heyward, M. 1993, "Indecent, Immoral, Obscene" The Ern Malley Affair UPQ pp 182 - 212; 275 - 7

Mill, J.S. 1910, "On Liberty" Utilitarianism, Liberty and Representative Government, p. 65-77.

Morrison, J. & Waltkins, S. 2006, "'Scandalous Fictions: The Twentieth-Century Novel and Public Sphere", Palgrave Macmillan.

Ryan & Thomas (2003).Cultures of Forgery: Making Nations, Making Selves. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, NY. pp. 178-181

Wimsatt, W.K. & Beardsley, M.C. 1946, "The Intentional Fallacy", The Sewanee Review, Vol. 54, No. 3, p. 468-488.