From down and out scoundrels whose names and reputations have been blackened forever to less serious hoaxes, such as *Edgar Allan Poe’s account of a transatlantic balloon-crossing that never happened, to misappropriated material and fake autobiographies such as one of the most brazen of all time when Clifford Irving forged the autobiography of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, the publishing world has always attracted its fair share of skulduggery.
Here are some of the most famous literary scandals of our times:
Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love, released in 2003, was a book that had been signed up in Australia first and enjoyed international sales. A non-fiction account of the honour killing of her best friend in Jordan, it became a huge bestseller until the then Sydney Morning Herald literary editor, Malcolm Knox, published a story exposing inconsistencies in the book and in her own life story. Khouri eventually admitted she’d taken ‘literary licence.’ She’d done more than that – Khouri had been living in the US at the time she’d supposedly been living in Jordan and had duped everyone, from the publisher to readers. But you could well ask, would this graphic and deeply moving story about this horrendous crime have reached so many people if it had been written as a novel?
Helen Demidenko’s, novel The Hand That Signed The Paper won the Vogel award in 1993 and the prestigious Miles Franklin award in 1994. Helen Demidenko was a pseudonym for Helen Darville. The name change seems like much ado about nothing – heaps of authors choose a pen name for various reasons. But she presented her novel as being based on the experiences of her Ukrainian family. There was even a famous photograph of her dressed in what was supposed to be Ukrainian national costume at a publishing function. The author, who was actually the daughter of English immigrants, contended that the events that she wrote about in the book ‘actually happened.’ Except, not to her or her family.
Belle Gibson, Australian blogger and alternative health advocate, claimed to have foregone conventional cancer treatments and self-managed multiple cancers through diet and alternative therapies. After media reporting identified Gibson’s fraudulent claims of charity fundraising and donation-making, further investigation revealed that Gibson had also fabricated her stories of cancer, and lied about her age as well as other details of her personal life and history. Her The Whole Pantry smartphone and its later companion cookbook were subsequently withdrawn from sale. In a 2015 interview Gibson admitted ‘none of it’s true.’ In 2017, she was ordered to pay a fine of $410,000 after being found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct. Nick Toscano and Beau Donnelly, the journalists who uncovered the scandal, have written an excellent book about it called The Woman Who Fooled the World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con.
The Hitler Diaries. In 1983, The Sunday Times Newspaper in the UK made an astounding announcement: it had been given Adolf Hitler’s personal diaries. German reporter Gerd Heinemann claimed to have unearthed the diaries which were reportedly lost when a transport plane crashed while evacuating a hoard of the Fuhrer’s personal possessions in 1945. Military historians cast doubt on the claim but the newspaper published the sensational scoop anyway. Obvious errors including the incorrect use of Hitler’s initials and the type of stationery used, eventually proved the set of exercise books to be a hoax.
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey was a searing memoir about the author’s downward spiral of drug addiction. It was a massive bestseller originally sold as a memoir. It caused such a storm in the States, eventually being selected on Oprah’s Book Club. It didn’t take long for people to become suspicious, and there’s a sensationalist interview circulating the internet where Frey is accused of literary forgery by Oprah. In a heated debate on live television, Oprah made Frey admit that many of the events he had written about never happened, including two root canals without anaesthesia, spending time in jail, and crashing his vehicle into a police car.
Oprah Winfrey declared Herman Rosenblat’s memoir, Angel at the Fence, ‘the single greatest love affair.’ But it turned out the Holocaust survivor had gilded the lily just a little. Like meeting his wife after she began secretly tossing apples and bread to him over the fence at Buchenwald. Unfortunately, as Holocaust scholars pointed out, the lay-out of the concentration camp made this impossible. After The New Republic published a lengthy article debunking many aspects of the story, Rosenblat confessed: ‘I wanted to bring happiness to people,’ he said through his agent.
*It is believed by some that Poe’s hoax may have inspired the Jules Verne classic, Around the World in 80 Days.