5 literary hoaxes

Misha Defonseca, a Belgian author who admitted to fabricating her bestselling Holocaust survival memoir, has been in the news this week after she was ordered to pay $22.5 million to her publisher.

This reminded us of some other literary hoaxes over the years, and how elaborate they can get.


Fragments by Binjamin Wilkomirski

Fragments-cover-110.jpgThis 1995 memoir was praised as one of the finest examples of Holocaust literature and was described as "achingly beautiful" and written "with a poet's vision." In Fragments, Wilkomirski chronicled his experience of surviving the notorious Nazi concentration camps Majdanek and Auschwitz, recalling the horrifying conditions in vivid detail. The book became an immediate hit, winning several Jewish book prizes. However, journalists later uncovered that he grew up far removed from the grip of Nazis in Switzerland. He wasn't even Jewish. Even after the truth emerged, Wilkomirski held firm in his assertion that he was a legitimate Holocaust survivor, prompting some to believe that he was psychologically troubled and had self-inflicted false memories.


Forbidden Love by Norma Khouri

forbidden-love-cover-110.jpgKhouri's bestselling 2003 book Forbidden Love purported to share the true story of how her best friend in Jordan fell in love with a Christian soldier, but was later killed by her Muslim father after the affair is discovered. However, questions about the book's accuracy popped up soon after it was published. An investigation by journalists exposed Khouri as the pen name of Norma Bagain Toliopoulos, who was born Jordan but grew up in the U.S., before moving to Australia with her husband and two children. The entire story was a work of a fiction, which later became the subject of the 2007 documentary Forbidden Lie$.

All Over Town by Danny Santiago

Famous-All-Over-Town-110-cover.jpgIn 1983, American writer Daniel Lewis James published the award-winning book Famous All Over Town under the name Danny Santiago. It was a story about a Mexican American boy navigating life on the streets of Los Angeles, and his often conflicted interactions with his family, his community and gangs. The book was lauded as a fine example of urban literature, winning an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His publisher wanted to nominate the novel for the Pulitzer Prize. But while James' pseudonym suggested he was an unknown Chicano writer, James himself was a 72-year-old white male who had been born into a wealthy Kansas City family and graduated from Yale. When this was exposed, some members of the publishing community argued that he had committed a kind of literary fraud, while others believed in the value of his book regardless of his ethnic origin.

Love and Consequences by Margaret Jones

love-and-consequences-cover-110.jpgThis 2008 gangland memoir by a half-white, half-aboriginal former foster child in south central Los Angeles garnered rave reviews. The writer purports to have been initiated into the Bloods gang, dealing and manufacturing drugs, before escaping the thug life in Oregon with her young daughter. Only it turned out that Jones was actually Margaret Seltzer, and she made the whole thing up. Seltzer was not part-aboriginal and grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in the San Fernando Valley. It was all an elaborate con, in which Seltzer spent years developing this street persona and alternative history, changing the way she dressed and spoke.


The Hitler Diaries

Sterncover-110.jpgIn 1983, German news magazine Stern thought they had a major exclusive when they acquired what appeared to be documents written by Hitler himself. Journalist Gerd Heidemann, who had been in a relationship with Hermann Göring's daughter, claimed to have discovered the diary pages and arranged a multimillion dollar deal with the magazine to publish them. Several Hitler experts examined the documents and determined them to be authentic. However, further analysis of the materials themselves helped to reveal they were just really good forgeries. Soon after, Heidemann and the forger were both convicted of forgery and embezzlement.