Last week, we asked you, our readers, if you thought the private life of an author should have an impact on their work. This discussion, sparked by the recent news that bestselling author A.J. Finn has been less than truthful about his life, was recorded on a recent Better Reading podcast with Cheryl Akle and Caroline Overington. The conversation covered a range of topics, detailing examples of other famous literary hoaxes, and questioning the ethical boundaries that some authors cross in order to secure a publishing deal.
Literary hoaxes are hardly a 21st century issue – they have been around for as long as books have been around, and whilst they are often bizarre and unethical, they also give us an interesting insight into how the publishing world operates. During the Better Reading podcast, Cheryl Akle and Caroline Overington discussed three notable literary hoaxes – Belle Gibson, a wellness blogger who marketed and sold her recipe book by saying that her diet had cured her cancer (a cancer, it was later revealed, she never had); Ern Malley, a fictitious poet created by two Australian men, whose work was widely published after his death – the catch? Ern Malley never existed; Helen Demidenko, an author who lied about her heritage and connection to the Holocaust in her book ‘The Hand That Signed the Paper’; and finally, A.J Finn, a New York Times bestselling author who has recently been accused of allegedly lying about his personal life – the most heinous accusations being supposed lies about having brain cancer, and family members being deceased who are in fact still alive today.
We all tell white lies from time to time. But what motivates us to massage the truth? And, is it any different for authors? Do they have a greater obligation to their readers and publishers to be upstanding and honest? Cheryl Akle and Caroline Overington discuss this from both a psychological and an industry perspective. Of course, some people are more likely to lie due to their personality type and psychological state. However, when authors lie about their own personal lives, are they doing so to market themselves differently and increase book sales? And, if so, is it honourable, ethical to do so? Should we still buy and read their books?
The response from you, our readers, was mixed. Some of you said you were happy to separate the author from their work, especially if the work was fiction. Others, however, took an ethical stance, saying that it was unfair to lie in order to jump the publishing ranks, especially if it meant your work was prioritised above writers with more genuine credentials.
Literary hoaxes and the impulse that some authors have to lie about themselves reveals a great deal about our reading habits and the publishing industry as a whole. Once upon a time, the writer was seen as separate to their work, with many people writing under pseudonyms, and the work being judged purely on its own merit. Nowadays, however, with the rise of social media, readers are able to more readily connect with and learn about authors, resulting in an increase in the importance of authors and their own personal brand. This added pressure to create an interesting profile on social media may perhaps help explain why some authors feel the need to exaggerate the details of their lives.
Clearly while most authors act with integrity, there will always be some who won’t and in the end, it’s up to publishers, the law courts (in the worst cases) and readers to decide exactly where they want to draw the line.