Hoax! 4 Truly (or Falsely) Great Literary Frauds

As forgeries go, literary fraud seems fairly harmless. Novelists are already liars; they make things up and pretend they’re true. And the extent to which we believe their lies determines the novel’s success. If nobody thinks the lies are even plausible, the novel usually fails. Crafting an intricate lie is the novelist’s goal, and we praise them when they get away with it.

But in certain cases, when the lie reveals itself to be, in fact, a lie, readers get bent out of shape. We don’t like to learn that we’ve been fooled, despite the fact that being fooled is the whole point of fiction. In these instances, we resent it. It’s one thing to be taken for a ride knowing that the ride is indeed a ride. It’s quite another to find out later that we’ve been made fools of – that somebody has claimed to have written the truth when it’s really just a pack of lies.

Crafting an intricate lie is the novelist’s goal, and we praise them when they get away with it.

Some years ago, I pitched a very broad satire of the fraudulent memoir subgenre to an editor I’d worked with at Henry Holt & Co. I was going to call it My Absolutely 100% True Harrowing Story: A Memoir by Mendacity Wright. Mendacity was the transgender adopted child of a poor white trash sharecropper in Mississippi; all she knows is that her father was a full-blooded Cherokee. She goes on to discover her birth mother in a Palestinian refugee camp. She enjoys both a gay male and a lesbian period. She marries a notoriously flashy gangster who gets shot to death while enjoying a bowl of Fettuccine with clam sauce with Mendacity at his side, after which she becomes a drug addicted whore who has sex with rock stars (she names names – big names) but ultimately finds redemption as a nun who takes a vow of silence and lives in a convent in Dubuque. My editor loved the idea and took it to the editorial board, the members of which told him he had obviously gone insane, and the book went nowhere.

Here are some of the most notorious literary frauds ever perpetrated.

'A Million Little Pieces' by James Frey

At first there was no problem. James Frey simply wrote a novel based on his own experiences. It only became a scandal because Frey and his publishers – Doubleday for the hardback, Anchor Books for the paperback – got carried away and claimed that it wasn’t a novel at all but rather a memoir, the true, deeply disturbing story of the author’s descent into drug addiction, violence, and imprisonment, and it ends with his ultimate redemption. A Million Little Pieces caught the public’s imagination. Americans love to read real-life horror stories as long as they have a happy ending. Oprah selected it for her book club, and sales soared.

But in early 2006, thesmokinggun.com revealed that Frey had done significantly more than altering “small details,” as he had claimed earlier. Whole sections of the book turned out to have been entirely fabricated. No, he did not in fact spend 87 days in the slammer after hitting a policeman with his car while high on crack. No, Doubleday had not really fact checked the book. No, the book was not “brutally honest,” as a press release stated.

Oprah was not happy to learn any of this. She somehow got Frey to appear on her TV show and raked him over the coals for misrepresenting himself and his work. But it turned out that Oprah’s producers had lured Frey and his publisher, Nan Talese, onto the show under false pretenses; they’d agreed to appear on the misapprehension that it would be another publicity bonanza for the book, and only at the last minute did Oprah’s staff tell them that the real topic of the joint interview was “the James Frey Controversy.”

By this point, Random House had become Frey’s publisher. In the late summer of 2006, Random House agreed to refund the purchase price of the book to anyone who felt they’d been ripped off; all these irritated readers needed to do was submit a proof-of-puchase receipt for the book, a page torn out of the book, and a sworn statement that they had bought the book thinking that it was a memoir, not a novel.

By this point, the scandal had become ludicrous. Random House budgeted $2.35 million to pay off hordes of disgruntled readers, but only 1,729 bothered to file a claim. Subsequent editions of the book appeared with a statement that it was not a memoir but a work of fiction. Frey went on to found Full Fathom Five, a company that produced young adult fiction. Its business model was unusual, to say the least: Frey could take an author off his or her project at any time; he was not required to give his authors any credit for their work, and he paid them a standard $250 advance. Nice guy.

'Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years' by Misha Defonseca

What could possibly be more poignant than a memoir written by a Jewish Holocaust survivor about her lonely search for her deported parents that began when she was only 7 years old? Walking 1900 miles across Europe by herself, little Misha found her way into the Warsaw ghetto. The part about her killing a German soldier seems blah. But the next detail is inspired: for a time she made her home with wolves! The book, which was published in 1997, was translated into 18 languages.

11 years later, a genealogist found little Misha’s baptismal certificate. Not only was the author a Catholic, not a Jew, but she’d spent the war as a schoolgirl in Brussels. Just about the only thing this “memoir” got right was that her parents really had been killed by the Nazis – though it wasn’t for being Jews, but rather for being members of the Belgian resistance.

Still, the author offered an explanation that was pure genius: “There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world.” When in doubt, just say you’re delusional!

'Love and Consequences' by Margaret B. Jones

Mendacity Wright owed a lot to the author of this phony memoir that purported to be the autobiography of a part American Indian child who is taken in by foster parents and learns to survive the mean, gang dominated streets of South Central Los Angeles. She joins the Bloods. Although she doesn’t allude to an African-American background, she nevertheless spoke with distinctly black speech patterns when she was interviewed on National Public Radio; she kept calling her purportedly fellow gang members her “homies.”

Michiko Kakutani, the lead book critic of the New York Times, fell for it. She praised the book enthusiastically, calling it “humane and deeply affecting.”

Her own sister ratted her out after seeing a profile of “Jones” in the Times; the sister revealed that her real name was Margaret Seltzer and that she’d grown up in Sherman Oaks, far, far away from the gangs of South Central. She’d even gone to a private school.

When confronted with the facts, Seltzer replied that she “thought it was an opportunity to put a voice to people who people don’t listen to.” 19,000 books had to be recalled by the publisher.

J.T. Leroy

L’affaire J.T. Leroy is one of the most troubling and absurd literary hoaxes of the last fifty years. Here’s the basic outline: Jeremiah “Terminator” Leroy began publishing stories in literary journals in 1996. Supposed to have been born in West Virginia in 1980, he claimed to have worked as a transgender prostitute while suffering the effects of drug addiction. His first novel, Sarah, takes place at West Virginia truck stops; it’s about, yes, a transgender prostitute who turns tricks with cross-dressing truckers. There’s more than enough obvious fiction in Sarah to keep its author from claiming that it’s strict autobiography. For instance, one of the truck stops has a chef who serves elaborate items such as crème-fraiche strudel and a saffron infused lobster-chocolate reduction. (Blech!)

Still, the calculation involved in the creation of J.T. Leroy was so methodical that despite the high-minded explanations that followed his exposure as a fraud, some people actually bought it. He made a point of getting well-known writers on his side; he’d have late night chats with Dennis Cooper, who introduced him to Bruce Benderson, who put him in touch with Joel Rose. And he never appeared in public.

Until 2001, when someone claiming to be Leroy began making public appearances, always cloaked in a wig and sunglasses. He appeared to be following the advice of Lou Reed, who suggested that he avoid public appearances and get an imposter to show up instead.

J.T. Leroy started to fall apart in 2005, when New York magazine claimed that Leroy was in fact the author and musician Laura Albert. But Leroy wouldn’t give it up. Telling the Guardian that he was “23 – er, 24” when according to his own supposed biography he would have been 25, the Leroy persona began to crumble. Many critics and journalists felt used and saw the whole thing as a gigantic fraud. Writing in the Washington Post, David Segal found the subterfuge to be “one of the great literary hoaxes of our day, and it fooled a whole lot of people as well as the media, including The New York Times, which last year ran a lengthy profile of LeRoy." But some people took his – um, her – side, arguing as Hans Eisenbeis did, "I don't know what all the fuss is about. In the business, it's called a pseudonym, and the fact that J.T. LeRoy has been writing and publishing under that name for more than a decade ought to be track record enough to establish his (or her) credentials.... It's an interesting mystery, but seems to me sort of irrelevant to whether the work written by that person is publishable or not."

Which gets to the central question: despite the fact that Laura Albert engaged in a massive deception, is her work any good? If a novel’s sentences and story are engaging and well-constructed, does it matter who the author behind the mask really is?

J.T. Leroy may not be the best illustration of why it doesn’t matter. I found Sarah to be unreadable. It’s a novel in which falseness takes the place of the genuine, and its desire to be cutting edge comes off as rank neediness. Albert’s protagonist describes a bathroom as smelling “like an elephant.” I don’t have any idea what an elephant smells like, and neither could the narrator. It’s an overly cute description masquerading as good writing. It’s shocking how many people fell for it.

“J.T. Leroy” wrote three other books: Harold’s End, Labour, and the exceptionally poorly titled The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, to which one is practically forced to respond, “with the exception of Laura Albert.”

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Olivia Regan's picture
Olivia Regan from Seattle is reading Poetry Handbook, Oliver; Mouthful of Forevers, von Radic; Valencia, Tea September 2, 2016 - 12:57am

And then there's Rachel Dolezal, who got a book deal (from what I heard). 

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing September 2, 2016 - 8:24am

It's a good thing that the title "Black Like Me" is already taken. 


Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine September 2, 2016 - 8:28am

It's been a long time, but I remember liking both J.T. Leroy books when I read them. I also find her whole story fascinating and don't think she did anything wrong.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing September 2, 2016 - 4:50pm

So you're saying, Josh, that it's okay to fabricate a person, lie about "his" background (making it up out of whole cloth), and denying that you've done that until you simply couldn't deny it any more?



Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine September 2, 2016 - 6:19pm

Well, when you put it like that... I suppose I am. I look at it as an Andy Kaufman style performance piece, even though that probably wasn't the intent.

smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. September 2, 2016 - 7:14pm

I became fascinated with the desription of  JT Leroy as a fraud and a hoax. You haven't demonstrated in your article to any degree that is a fact. You have cited some references and added in your own opinion, and judged this author to be a liar, when in fact you certainly haven't demonstrated that to me in the facts presented in this article.

The behaviors you cite are certainly eccentric.

What it you have judged unfairly? The research on this seems a little flimsy to me.

The  "Guardian" in 2006 made comments that sounded to me like they thought the use of the name JT Leroy, and the controversy around it  was irrelevant. They were more interested in the quality of the work.

This author seems to have been published in some pretty discerning places, and the vague insinuations that the stories were peddled as "autobiographical" seem a little watery to trash a person's career. I just hope you are damn sure about all this. It doesn't quite wash for me. gsr

Nathan's picture
Nathan from Louisiana (South of New Orleans) is reading Re-reading The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste, The Bone Weaver's Orchard by Sarah Read September 2, 2016 - 10:56pm

This is perfect timing. Laura Albert was just on Maron's WTF podcast and she talks about this—here's the link: http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episode-738-laura-albert-jeff-feuerzeig

No matter how anyone sees it, I have to give it to you, Ed—you definitely bring out the readers and comments. Always thought-provoking. 

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing September 3, 2016 - 8:52am

Thanks, Nathan (I think!).


edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing September 3, 2016 - 8:56am

smithreynolds - So you think it's not a hoax if you hire someone (or someone volunteers) to pose as an author and show up to events wearing a wig and sunglasses? Or write a book about a trangender sex worker and claim to have been a transgender sex worker when in fact  you never were a transgender sex worker? I think my article is even handed - the Lou Reed bit, the inclusion of the quote about it being a standard nom de plume - but at the end of it one must conclude that this was a hoax.




smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. September 4, 2016 - 11:47am

Gail here. What I think, in the tiny bit of research I've done since reading your article is,  We all adapt a method of connecting to the larger world, or adapt a method for avoiding it, and sometimes we do both at the same time, depending on how many bruises we are protecting. Laura Albert's adaptation was her telephone perona(e), and her nom de plume, JT Leroy, who was also the robot she created to cope in the big scary.  She referred to JT Leroy as the "asbestos gloves" that she needed to touch the world without being burned, as I paraphrase badly, her own words, in her interview with Marc Maron, which was so generously provided by Nathan. She was talking about dissociating, and functioning through operatives of a segmented self.

She might not have given blow jobs in truck stops, but she did give blow jobs over the phone to people who thought she was a skinny little kid transvestite....or trans whatever, if I got that wrong, y'all have to forgive me, I think my niece says I should be saying transgender. My point is she was and did function as JT Leroy, until she began to have some faith in Laura Albert, during the time that she worked with David Milch in "Deadwood".  She disclosed fully to David Milch, her whole story. He told her he had her back and not to worry about it. He fully understood instantly why she did everything that she did, even without knowing the details.

Part of my research involved reading the archives for the articles you have written for LitReactor up it October of 2012. So you should feel flattered that I liked your writing enough to read that many of your articles. I think I am on the  "The Big Sleep", or maybe the one after that. I'll continue reading them, at least for now, to see what you've got to say.There is mention of trolling in the comments on those  articles, the term I only recently discovered when I joined LitReactor. My Dad called it playing Devil's Advocate. Please feel free to correct my punctuation.

I looked up hoax, and I have to concur that there was intent to deceive when it comes to the avatar. Her adaptation of the avatar was a decision in the moment to create a proxy for herself, and meet the demands her writing had created.  She was  doing all her business on the telephone and by fax, because she was  imprisoned in self loathing and obesity. She literally could not "come out" without fear of fates worse than death.  Nothing the world hates more than a young fat female recluse.

Okay. Enough already. I knew nothing of this story, vague memories of some kind of literary scandal during a time I was sanding cupboard doors in a cabinet factory. We didn't even know the Twin Towers had been hit until lunchtime.

So, thanks for a whole new window on the world. I will commence reading her work and see what I think.

And as for you, provocateur, which yes I did look up, and no I cannot spell, even if you don't like her writing, I cannot believe you do not understand why she did what she did.  With regard. gsr.


edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing September 6, 2016 - 9:48am

Hey, Gail! I'm flattered that you like my writing enough to go back and read other stuff I've written here. Crass self-promotion: you could read DARK VICTORY: THE LIFE OF BETTE DAVIS or the two other biographies I've written if you REALLY like it!

I do understand - or at least I think I understand - why she did what she did. But I suspect that a lot of her explanation came about after the fact. It's a little too perfectly laid out - her avatar, her insecurity leading to the creation of another personality. And Laura Albert could be incredibly cruel. Here's a pargraph from a VANITY FAIR piece:

"[Dennis] Cooper, whose work is comfortably nestled in the “transgressive” wing of contemporary American letters—Try’s subject matter includes necrophilia and child pornography—saw another side of the young writer, who at times acted as if he had stepped out of one of Cooper’s own literary fantasies. Their conversations were charged. If Cooper suggested meeting, Terminator would balk and say that if Cooper wasn’t sexually attracted to him—“He was supposedly cut and abused so much he looked like a monster”—he would be so distraught he’d have to kill himself. He also claimed to have an erotic obsession with wanting to be murdered that, Cooper says, “I think Laura thought I would be into.” One night Terminator called and left a message saying he was in a limo with a john who wanted to kill him and that he was giving serious thought to acquiescing. Cooper, obviously concerned, wasn’t able to reach Terminator until the following morning; the voice on the line acted as if nothing had happened. Over time, the older writer, like many of J.T.’s early phone pals, threw up his hands: “At one point I said to a friend, ‘I can’t do this anymore. If this kid ends up dead, he ends up dead.’ ”

I'm sorry, but I find it difficult to have my sympathy for somone who would do that to another human being.


smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. September 6, 2016 - 6:14pm

Hey Ed. I will do it. I love biographies. . I may have read the Bette Davis bio, depends on how long it's been out, because that was years ago.

As to the story you recount above:

I would not be surprised if Laura Albert experiences(d) psychotic episodes in her life. I have had a good deal of personal experience with that, as a family member of a schizophrenic. Psychosis doesn't mean a person is schizophrenic, it is just a manifestation of illness, but it is a state the preempts all other behaviors of social normality.

When a person is psychotic, they are in a bubble that they cannot break from the inside out. Something has to intervene, medication, profound sleep, or some change in the body that shifts toward wellness. The person who is beloved and known, who is relating to things inside their head that have no relationship to the present reality, can say and do some extraordinarily  stange things, that are out of character, and out of this world.

I'm not defending her, and as I said before, I only looked into her world for a moment, but....when my loved one was in a psychotic state, I had to seperate the illness from the person I knew and step back and understand they had little ability to control behavior, sort of like being totally drunk or wasted on drugs. So the first order of business was to get the psychosis handled, and then rebuild the ravaged landscape.

The process of understanding the mental illness of another takes years. The journey to wellness is likewise. Sympathy is irrelevant. It is action, and intervention, and support and knowlege of the illness that provides a path to wellness. It is also being able to disallow that person from abusing   others, while they are in a psychotic state. So, I guess what I am saying is, to judge someone who is in a psychotic state is about as logical as judging a newborn because they cry...no cheese down that hole. You have to disconnect from all ideas of controlling behavior and deal with what is in your face. Deal with the illness....it's exhausting, and lonely and takes enormous energy. But, when that person begins to get a true grip on a normal life it is better than anything else that one can experience. ok. enough.Did not mean to go expound. I do not know this woman, but anyone who knows someone with mental illness will be familiar with the behavior you describe....talk to you soon, I have read a bunch more articles...you are pretty cool....gsr.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing September 7, 2016 - 8:42am

Hey Gail - Very wise words. As it happens, I too know someone who had a psychotic break. He was impossible, but it wasn't his "fault."  He could no more control his behavior than he could control which way the Earth spins. So I'm sympathetic to a certain extent to Laura Albert's history. But it not being the psychotic's fault is not the same as it not being the psychotic's responsibility to own the psychosis after recovering from it. I just don't see Albert owning up to her own responsibility.


smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. September 7, 2016 - 10:32am

Point taken. I want to read her work, and see what I think about it. I am curious, and you opened up a can of worms that has been sitting on the shelf for a long time. When it comes right down to it we are the sum total of all our experiences, and we are responsible at some point to move on and make amends as we are capable. It is very unattractive when we don't. It is very endearing when we do. She's young yet. Time will tell. Not my call. Nice to talk to you. gail


Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine September 8, 2016 - 10:08am


Having read a little more on how Albert took emotional advantage of people, I think I've changed my mind.

Still think it would have made a kick-ass piece of performance art, otherwise.