5 Accomplished Authors Who Turned Out To Be Hoaxes
Despite having written somewhat professionally for the last four years or so, I've never really considered myself an artist or writer of any kind. Whenever someone points out that I technically count as one these days, I tend to be thrown off balance. "What if they find out I'm just cockroaches in a skin suit?" I worry, as I hit flight-or-fight mode and swarm all over the unsuspecting party guests.
Luckily, one day, when I meet my nemesis, the Cracked columnist who's secretly a murder of crows (you know who you are), and am exposed to the world, I know I won't be alone in my shame. Over the years, many prolific writers have disguised their true identities in a multitude of bugfuck ways, sometimes resulting in notable bestsellers, but mostly just making an ass out of everyone involved. These are their stories.
A Middle-Aged White Guy Pretends To Be An Aboriginal Woman For Profit
As much as the whole world has mocked noted racial cosplayer Rachel Dolezal by now, I personally find her story less amusing and more tragic. When you look behind the antics of anyone involved and carefully avoid the can of worms that is the "should a person be allowed to become something they're not" discussion, at the end of the day, this is the story of the end of a person's dream. That's never pretty.
She truly believed she could be whatever she wanted to be.
But while I'm generally very pro-chasing-your-dreams, that shit always carries the potential of turning ugly when your dream is to become filthy rich, and your means to chase it is to outright lie to everyone. It's possible that Leon Carmen, a 40-something taxi driver from Sydney, Australia, was aware of this, but he had a profitable story in his head, damn it, and he wasn't about to pull the brakes. His story was about an Aboriginal girl who's brutally taken from her parents at a young age and put in a white foster family. This tragic tale of Australia's Stolen Generations was a surefire hit, but there was one minor problem: As a middle-aged white dude, Carmen's roots were firmly on the novel's antagonists' side. Realizing this would give him the credibility of a fox pitching Watership Down in publishers' eyes, Carmen devised a cunning plan: He would become the Aboriginal woman in his book.
Writing under the pseudonym "Wanda Koolmatrie" and shaping his story as an autobiography, Carmen's book, My Own Sweet Time, became a smash hit, and earned rave reviews and literary awards upon its publication in 1994. The strangely elusive Ms. Koolmatrie became the toast of the Aboriginal rights movement, and everything seemed pretty sweet.
Must have been a good book, because no one was buying it based on the MS Paint cover.
That is, until 1997, when "Koolmatrie" offered "her" publisher a manuscript for a sequel. The publisher, presumably suspicious because they hadn't seen their star writer in person for years, decided to look a bit deeper, and soon had to do a double take as Leon emerged. I like to imagine they were aided by a van full of meddling kids and a creepily anthropomorphic Great Dane.
Although Leon Carmen insisted that he wanted to help the Aboriginal people, he did openly admit that the main motivation for his identity antics was to catch a break in the publishing business, and he believed he'd never have made it as plain old Leon. This may well be true, considering that the publishing house he frauded into putting out his novel was Magabala Books, an indigenous publishing house specializing in Aboriginal authors.
An Angry Bag Lady May Have Been A World-Famous Author, Who May Be A Hoax Himself
What makes the tale of Wanda Tinasky extraordinary is that pretty much everyone agrees she was a hoax, but very few people have managed to pinpoint the exact culprit. Tinasky first entered the radar in April, 1983, when the first of her reader letters arrived at various newspapers in Mendocino County, California. Tinasky claimed to be a descendant of Russian royalty, fallen on dark times and living as a bag lady under a bridge in the area. However, her writing drastically differed from her supposed social situation; it was playful, funny, and surprisingly knowledgeable on a variety of subjects. Which many think is because she was really a certain little-known author named Thomas Pynchon.
You probably know Pynchon as the reclusive author behind Inherent Vice, Vineland, and a number of other brain-bogglingly complex yet strangely funny novels. The editor who had been dealing with Tinasky's letters certainly did -- he immediately thought Pynchon's style was very similar to the purported royal hobo lady, and drew his own conclusions. Some tend to agree with him, while others argue that Tinasky was actually a pet project of an obscure beat poet. Although my personal instincts shift toward the latter, there is certainly enough circumstantial evidence pointing at Pynchon to at least raise an eyebrow or two.
Or a tooth or 16.
I don't pretend to know who actually wrote Tinasky's sizable correspondence (80 letters in the span of 4.5 years). All I know is that their style certainly seems to match Pynchon's. What's more, that option would provide an extra layer of hilarity, as Pynchon himself has been accused of being a pseudonym of other writers, such as Don DeLillo and William Gaddis. So in a world where all conspiracies were true, we'd be treated to a hilarious smorgasbord of a reclusive writer dude pretending to be another reclusive writer dude pretending to be a reclusive bag lady. Tell me you don't secretly want a theory that hilarious to be true.
A Deliberately Ridiculous Fake Greek Poet Bamboozles The Poetry World
Andreas Karavis was a Greek poet, lauded as a "modern Homer" for his revolutionary yet classic style. This reclusive artist was discovered in 1999 by Canadian poet and essayist David Solway, who ... ah, who am I kidding? You know how these go by now. Solway totally made up both Karavis and all the works that he "translated." That's not the fun part. The fun part's how mindbogglingly sloppy his hoax was, and how many people played along.
Almost immediately after the "modern Homer" essay on Karavis was published, the press attache (and therefore presumably a secret agent) of the Greek Embassy, Yiorgos Chouliaris, contacted Solway and jovially congratulated the poet for his imaginative effort. However, the mere fact of being instantly called out by the very fucking country you based your hoax on wasn't enough to deter Solway. Instead, he smooth-talked Chouliaris into joining him. Together, they started crafting an intricate backstory for the elusive Karavis; he became a disillusioned, reclusive fisherman living on a remote island, content on living a quiet life and working on his poems.
Soon, Karavis' reputation spread. Conferences on his (entirely fabricated) poetry were held in distant countries like Portugal and, yes, Greece. People started confessing to Solway -- their only link to the hermit-like Karavis -- that they'd admired the Greek poet for years, and some even proposed a Nobel prize for the guy. Solway even received a couple of postcards signed by Karavis. Even Solway's enemies did little to debunk his lies; instead they attacked "Karavis" himself, agreeing that he was a genius, but painting him as a total dick who had falsified his ancestry and dabbled in smuggling. This obviously did little to diminish his popularity. (Later, of course, it turned out said "enemies" were in on the joke all along.)
In 2000, at the height of Karavis' powers, Solway and Chouliaris threw a release party for a "translated" book of the imaginary Greek's poems. Realizing that their story was running low on cheese, they decided that Karavis needed to make a much-anticipated live appearance. So they hired Solway's dentist to prance around in a fisherman's hat and babble mock Greek.
"You've got great teethÃ?Ã??Ã?Ã?Ã?ÃÂ¢?Ã?Ã??Ã?Ã?Ã?ÃÂ¦like a shark! Yeah, because I'm a fisherman ..."
Of course, such a con could never last. Solway's scheme was soon exposed, and he was laughed out of the literary circles of Canada. Ha, just kidding! He voluntarily revealed the hoax in a 2001 interview, laughing the whole thing off as an experiment and relishing the practical joke he'd played on his fellow Canadians, whom he described as "not very exciting people". Then, he proved his point by staying completely un-manhandled and going on to write award-winning works.
Maria Monk Bullshitted The "Naughty Nun" Trope Into Existence
It's no secret that books that prominently feature boning can be somewhat popular. Even the slowest of us were probably filled in to that fact when the literary atrocity that is 50 Shades Of Grey got its own whips 'n' handcuffs isles in supermarkets and its library copies started carrying traces of herpes.
But don't think for a second that our current affinity for inaccurate torture porn horsecrap is anything compared to our forefathers' antics. Consider the classic "naughty nun," a favorite stock character of every Halloween and roughly 20 percent of all the porn ever made. History most certainly does know a few nuns that were, uh, less than chaste. I've even written about them in a previous column. However, the traditional "back in the day, tons of nuns were just two steps away from jumping you, and both of those steps were your pants buttons" hot nun trope is very much a fabrication, and it's all because of one aspiring author named, appropriately enough, Maria Monk.
Monk's autobiography, Awful Disclosures Of Maria Monk, Or, The Hidden Secrets Of A Nun's Life In A Convent Exposed, created plenty of buzz when it was published in early 1836, largely thanks to its allusions to poor Maria's many unwilling sexual escapades in a Montreal convent. According to the book, Monk's convent of Black Nuns doubled as sex slaves for the priests in a nearby seminary, who accessed the convent through creepy secret tunnels. They even had a mass grave for babies born from these forbidden trysts (and likely uncooperative nuns as well), because of course they fucking did.
Here's the scandalous twist: It was all income tax disclosures.
As a shock to absolutely no one, Monk's story held water for approximately 0.2 seconds, as all the decidedly un-sexed nuns and priests in the described area started wondering where all this cloth-boning was taking place, and (presumably) why nobody had told them. Monk (or rather, her ghost writer) had also thoroughly confused even the most basic facts about the convents in the area, which led most scholars to quickly dismiss the book as a fabricated fairy tale.
However, its legacy was not so easily squashed. Even back then, a certain segment of the population was Fox-News-minded enough to swallow (and, more harmfully, spread) even the most easily-spotted bullshit as fact. Maria's tale gained a life of its own, and went on to become one of those "everybody knows it's true" facts that are almost never actually true. Monk's stories had gained enough traction that they acquired a life of their own as blunt instruments in political and religious debate between protestants and Catholics.
As for Monk herself, all this did jack shit of good. She spent the remainder of her unfortunately short life periodically throwing more and more diluted accusations at the Church, but she was so thoroughly discredited that the people riding on her stories didn't actually need her anymore. And that, friends, is why it's unwise to publish bullshit.
Richard Penn Smith Cemented Davy Crockett's Legacy With A Quickly Written Fabrication
Ah, Davy Crockett. One of the foremost frontier heroes from back when America was positively teeming with them. His wilderness shenanigans, heroic demise at the Alamo, and general manly manliness have inspired entire generations, and are the third most likely reason your grandfather sometimes wears that creepy-ass coonskin cap. Though he wasn't aware of it at the time, Crockett spent his entire life cementing his legendary status in the American lore. Which makes it pretty funny that a hack writer named Richard Penn Smith achieved the exact same thing in just 24 hours.
In 1836, small-time writer Smith, whose newspaper column was called The Plagiarist (note to humanity: learn to take a fucking hint), churned out a supposedly autobiographic book titled Col. Crockett's Exploits And Adventures In Texas: Wherein Is Contained A Full Account Of His Journey From Tennessee To The Red River And Natchitoches, And Thence Across Texas To San Antonio; Including Many Hair-Breadth Escapes; Together With A Topographical, Historical, And Political View Of Texas ... Written By Himself, presumably because This Is Totally A Truthful Account And A Real Book Written By Davy Crockett, NOT By Richard Penn Smith was already taken. The book, which you can read right here, was supposedly found after the Alamo, and it contained Crockett's own thoughts about, well, pretty much everything up until then. It also heavily played up Crockett's badassitude, really turning him into the legend we would see him as.
"Stamps are fine and all, but could you for once call me 'David' instead of that dumbfuck nickname?"
The Totally Not Fake Davy Crockett Journal By The Man Himself And Not Me, Richard Penn Smith became a roaring success, and came to influence both the public image of the heroic Crockett and the scholars' view of the historical events it described for decades, even after Smith was outed as the true author 50 years after the initial publication. One 24-hour period rife with plagiarism and outright lies turned Davy Crockett from an American hero to an American legend.
For more from Pauli, check out 4 Superhero Movies That Can Save The Genre and 5 Classic Games That Desperately Need A Movie Adaptation.