Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk or The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life in a Convent Exposed
by Maria Monk
This 1836 book details seven nightmare years in a convent. Investigations revealed it was fiction and Monk had suffered brain damage as a child.
Literary hoaxes, pranks and frauds have been around since the early days of the printing press. One well documented example was in the late 18th century when Thomas Chatterton wrote a number of poems and then claimed that they had been written by a 15th century monk named Thomas Rowley, and that he had merely transcribed them. Chatterton maintained the ruse until his death when scholars took a closer look and realized they were Chatterton’s work.
Pulling off a hoax of that magnitude requires gall and skill – and it doesn’t always succeed. In the early 1970s, Clifford Michael Irving tried to use a series of handwritten letters, that he had forged, to convince a publisher that he had an “autobiography” written by movie producer and infamous recluse Howard Hughes. The publisher jumped at the opportunity but unfortunately for Irving it turned out that while Hughes was reclusive, his lawyers were not and he found himself on the wrong end of a law suit rather quickly. Books offered as non-fiction but in reality are pure fiction are a common literary fraud.
Another famous failed hoax came a few years later when the German news magazine Stern published excerpts of what they thought were the diaries of Adolf Hitler. Stern paid nearly nine million German marks (about $3.5 million dollars) for the books that were supposedly smuggled out of East Germany where they had been stashed after being recovered from an air crash near Dresden in 1945. Despite attempting to authenticate the documents through handwriting analysis, the books were never subjected to tests that would have proven they were written on modern paper with modern ink; until after the publication.
Sometimes the fraud is designed to prove a point, sometimes it’s a practical joke, and sometimes it’s all about the money but no matter the reason here are some of the best forgeries, hoaxes, and practical jokes attempted in literature.
The Amber Witch
by Wilhelm Meinhold
In the 1840s, Meinhold published what he claimed was an instructional document for the avoidance of witchcraft written by a minister. It was fiction.
Go Ask Alice
This diary of a teenage girl who died of a drug overdose was meant to be a cautionary tale until Beatrice Sparks’ fake was uncovered.
The Education of Little Tree
by Forrest Carter
This acclaimed autobiography of a Native American orphan struggling against racism was actually penned by a white supremacist, Asa Earl Carter.
Mutant Message Down Under
by Marlo Morgan
Morgan wrote this memoir about her time with Australia’s Aboriginals, who protested and proved her to be a fraud.
A Rock and a Hard Place
by Anthony Godby
The book was written by Vicki Fraginals, who made up the story of a 14-year-old HIV-positive boy suffering sexual abuse. She even impersonated the child in phone interviews.
by Binjamin Wilkomirski
The book recalls life in two Nazi death camps and won a National Jewish Book Award. But it was written by Bruno Grosjean, who had never been in a death camp.
by William Boyd
Gore Vidal, David Bowie and others fooled the world’s art community by creating a fictional autobiography for an abstract expressionist painter named Nat Tate.
by JT LeRoy
JT LeRoy’s publishers were not in on this gag. The real author, Laura Albert, even sent her half sister Savannah Knoop on author tours and press events.
A Million Little Pieces
by James Frey
Frey’s exaggerated struggle to beat booze and drugs infuriated Oprah, who had promoted the memoir in her book club.
Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years
by Misha Defonseca
A bestseller in Europe and translated into 18 languages, this story of a young girl trekking across Europe during the Holocaust was fake.
Love and Consequences
by Margaret B Jones
A half-black, half-native foster child from the LA ghetto? No. Margaret Seltzer was an educated middle-class white woman.
by Frederick R. Ewing
DJ Jean Shepherd hated that bestseller lists were based on sales and also requests for books. He urged listeners to request a book that did not exist. It shot to number #1 and was eventually published.
The Dance of Death
by William Herman
A satirical view of the waltz as a nasty and lustful dance. The book sold very well among conservatives.
Naked Came the Stranger
by Penelope Ashe
This terrible book was actually written by 24 Newsday journalists aiming to prove that America readers had become mindlessly vulgar and would buy anything.
Another awful book, this scam was designed to embarrass publishers who cared little about what was printed.
by Travis Tea
The Songs of Bilitis
by Pierre Lou˙s
Published in 1894, Lou˙s claimed that this collection of erotic poetry was actually the work of the ancient poet Bilitis.
The Honored Society
by Michael Gambino
Pelligrino fooled Simon & Schuster into thinking he was the grandson of Mafioso Carlo Gambino and the book was based on his gangster experiences.
The Ern Malley Affair
by Michael Heyward
Ern Malley was a fictitious poet dreamed up by James McAuley and Harold Stewart to make the editors of the Australian modernist magazine Angry Penguins look foolish.
Cradle of the Deep
by Joan Lowell
An actress in the silent film era, Lowell’s autobiography became a bestseller. She claimed she escaped a burning ship-wreck with a family of kittens but it was fabricated.
The Long Walk
by Slawomir Rawicz
Rawicz claimed to have escaped from a Siberian Gulag in 1941 and then walked to India to achieve freedom. Another fake.
China Under the Empress Dowager
by Edmund Backhouse
The book is supposedly based on a diary of a high court official that was found in a house occupied during the Boxer Uprising. The diary was proved to be a fraud in 1991.