If there’s one thing we can learn from modern fixations on memoir and reality TV, it’s that people are deeply concerned with questions of “truth.” Our relationship with the real has become so tenuous, and media manipulation so easily achieved, that many challenges to our notions of “reality” are met with confusion and indignation.
But is this fair?
Creative types would take issue with our holding them to standards of “truth,” even where work is presented as “true” or “based on historical fact.” I tend to agree, but others take the issue more seriously.
Few arenas have been as profoundly impacted by this debate as the literary world. Maybe it’s because we can't see what the author is describing, and so must take them completely at their word. Whatever the reason, backlash against literary plagiarists, hoaxes, and perjurers has been especially forceful over the years.
Here are nine of the most famous cases of literary “liars.”
1. Satan’s Underground by Lauren Stratford
Photo Credit: Blogspot
Marketed as “The Extraordinary Story of One Woman’s Escape,” this purported “memoir” claimed to recount the author’s time spent as a baby breeder for a satanic cult. In reality, the author’s name was Laurel Rose Wilson, and nothing in her book actually happened to her.
2. A Rock and a Hard Place by Anthony Godby Johnson
This is a good one: an alleged memoir by “Anthony Godby Johnson,” a boy who was dying of syphilis and AIDS until a social worker named Vicki Johnson adopted and saved him. As it turns out, Anthony didn’t exist, and had been completely made up by Vicki.
3. Clifford Irving’s Howard Hughes biography
In a fun bit of irony, Clifford Irving was found to have fabricated the interviews and documents on which his Howard Hughes bio was based, not long after having written Fake, a biography of infamous Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory. So many lies!
4. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
Photo Credit: Oprah
Frey became the poster boy for literary liars when Oprah Winfrey slammed him for fabricating parts of his memoir about his battles with drug addiction. As if a recovering drug addict needs anything else to be stressed about.
5. Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants by Jane Goodall
Goodall’s upcoming book has recently come under fire for allegedly borrowing passages from Wikipedia that weren't cited as well as other sources. She has since apologized.
6. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin
Mortensen’s inspirational tale of building schools in Afghanistan has been embroiled in controversy because some of the events described are reportedly untrue. These include descriptions of the author getting lost near K2 and being kidnapped by the Taliban (the second of which actually occurs in the book’s sequel, Stones into Schools). Jon Krakauer even wrote an entire book bashing the alleged lies in Three Cups. Shots fired!
7. Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
Photo Credit: Slate
Lehrer’s recent book about how to tap into your creative potential was pulled from shelves after the author admitted to having included unsourced (and widely disputed) Bob Dylan quotes.
8. Angel at the Fence by Herman Rosenblat
This heartwarming story of a Holocaust survivor meeting his true love in a World War II concentration camp was lauded by Oprah Winfrey (again), then subsequently found to be untrue. The couple met on a blind date in New York. Maybe Oprah should avoid praising memoirs from now on.
9. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter
Photo Credit: WBUR
I remember having to read this book as a kid in school, and being bored out of my skull. So I was slightly thrilled to learn that it wasn’t really written by an American Indian orphan, but Asa Earl Carter, a violent segregationist member of the Ku Klux Klan. Take that, elementary school education!