April 18th, 2011
06:42 PM ET

A look back at some literary hoaxes

Author and activist Greg Mortenson is in the headlines for his writing, but not for the right reasons.

Mortenson is defending his 2006 book "Three Cups of Tea" amid allegations that key stories in it are false, including his supposed 1996 kidnapping near the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The debate over whether Mortenson's tale is truth or fiction brings to mind some literary hoaxes that took the publishing and media industries by storm:

  • Remember James Frey? His work "A Million Little Pieces" was originally promoted as a memoir about dealing with substance abuse and recovery. Oprah Winfrey gave the book her personal endorsement, and it became one of the best-selling books of 2005.But Frey admitted in 2006 that he made up some of the events about himself and others in the book, prompting Winfrey to accuse Frey of "conning" her during a nationally-televised tongue-lashing of the author and his publisher. The book was later re-published with an author's note admitting that parts of the book had been changed.
  • Kaavya Viswanathan was a Harvard undergrad who nabbed a reported six-figure book deal thanks to her 2006 young adult debut novel, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life."  But the book was quickly pulled from shelves after it was revealed that portions of the novel appeared to have been plagiarized from works by Megan McCafferty and other authors.
  • Margaret Seltzer raised the issue of untruthful memoirs once again when she wrote the book "Love and Consequences" under the pseudonym Margaret B. Jones in 2008. Seltzer claimed she was raised in a black foster home in South Central L.A. and eventually became involved in gangs.But after the New York Times ran a piece about her book, one of Seltzer's sisters called her publisher to contest the memoir's validity, and Seltzer herself later admitted that she'd made it all up.
  • Howard Hughes was a billionaire businessman who became a recluse in his later years, completely withdrawing from public life.  But that didn't stop Clifford Irving from claiming he helped Hughes write his autobiography in the early 1970s.The book was set to be published in 1972 when Irving confessed that the book was a hoax. Just weeks before Irving's admission, Hughes made his first public statement in 14 years, claiming he never spoke to the author, let alone heard of him.
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Filed under: Books

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. portalpunk

    Here is a great hoax


    April 20, 2011 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
  2. Alice

    The idea of a "true" memoir is ridiculous. Think about your memories–do you believe that your perception of them is exactly how things happened? Memories are simply reconstructions, just as memoirs are. To believe that what you're reading really happened is naive and uninformed. Writers construct narratives just as we all construct narratives of our own lives through social media. We are selective with what we choose to say because we are conscious of painting a certain picture of ourselves; memoirs are no different. They are stories we tell about ourselves, nothing more.

    April 19, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lydia

      My best friend is writing a Memoir. She is calling is "based on the life of..." for this reason. She is doing her best to remember things, but she is not fabricating being kidnapped by the Taliban. Come on, you can't tell the difference?

      April 20, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alice

      I'm not saying that events don't happen. What I'm saying is that you can't expect what somebody remembers and explains to other people to be the ever-elusive "truth". There is no such thing. There are only different perceptions.

      To be enraged that somebody fabricated something in a memoir is to believe that memoirs are essential "truths" about a person. They're not.

      If someone were to write about their experiences being kidnapped by the Taliban (which I'm sure is a horrifying experience), you wouldn't blame them for not getting every detail "right" if someone were to say that she incorrectly represented something. It's ridiculous to even search for a "correct" representation. Things happen, and we experience them, and then we reconstruct those events through our memories. In the end, all we have are our constructions of events, not the events themselves, so we can't aim to tell the "truth"; we can only aim to explain how we experienced something.

      April 20, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Elmer

    What about satire? It's full of people making stuff up and claiming it's real. From Swift's Modest Proposal to the modern day sites like http://theonion.com and http://newcomicsday.com the biggest difference is the knowing wink at the end.

    April 19, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Average Joe

    Everyday I trudge to work, listlessly sipping my coffee from the solitary confinement of my gray-walled cubicle.

    ...but when you read my memoir, you're going to hear about how the Fortune 500 tech company I started won the X Prize, how I brought peace to the Middle East, how I won Angelina Jolie's heart with my Grammy-winning R&B album, and how I cured cancer ...all while battling substance abuse and my Taliban captors. It will be awesome.

    April 19, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  5. woodrow

    Imagine for a moment, every writer lies to embellish the story, then you'll get a glimpse of reality.

    April 19, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Big John

    With regard to the Kaavya Viswanathan part, plagiarism is not a hoax. I'd hardly call a Harvard student plagiarizing others works as a "hoax."

    April 19, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Tarmac

    Wasn't there a book set to be published about a holocaust survivor and local girl who fed him apples through a fence? The story goes on to state that they bumped into each other later in life and got married.

    April 19, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Aricvisser

    People have been bringing up James Frey a lot this week as what seems like an easy parallel to the fabrications that appear in Three Cups of Tea, although I think that the situations are completely different. James Frey is an author, and his book exists for people to read it and enjoy it (or hate it). Mortenson is a philanthropist, who made up a story in order to raise funds, much from young school children, and is apparently using those funds to bankroll himself and his book tour.

    I write about it more here: http://bit.ly/gpq19C I am posting a link, because the post contains some language that some may find offensive. Let me know what you think.

    April 19, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Usher73

    The Hitler diaries of 1983:


    April 19, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Kristin

    I have to agree with a previous poster that if it was well written and enjoyed it, does it truly matter on the content? Hands down I would read James Frey's memoir, albeit with his disclaimer on it, hands down over a book written by Snooki! I mean come on. If the book moved you in some capacity, then the book was good for you. Oprah was embarrassed she endorsed a book to later find out it was not 100% true hence the backlash both Frey and the publisher received. There is still some decent fiction out there, but tales based on true events do tend to lure people in more. When you watch a movie based on a true story, about 10% is true and the rest is a tale told to capture our attention and keep us interested- why would a book be judged any differently? I truly have to believe that if people would start using their own minds and stop conforming to society, we would have less of this happening- why do allow others to dictate what we should think, believe, feel etc.?? The decision is our own to make- so read away and enjoy what you read.

    April 19, 2011 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Seraphim0

      It's an issue of ethics for writers. For example, if I wrote a historical novel about a general during the revolutionary war that 'proved' that certain facts we took as truth about the war and the origins of our independance are utterly wrong... and labeled it as non-fiction, I could create a severe problem. There would be people who took it as truth. However, if I correctly labeled it as non-fiction- no big issue. No confusion, etc.

      This is a bigger issue than you apparently think. Writers have to be held to a standard of ethics. Just as any other profession. If you want to write fiction, then write fiction. Don't try to pass it off as truth, however.

      April 19, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • seraphim0

      Additionally, the "based on a true story" caveat is quite different then saying "This is true." "Based" on a true story is the same thing as "inspired by." Which implies: yes, certain situations or events may be true, but this story is primarily a work of fiction.

      April 19, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jefe

    You forgot one – John Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.

    April 19, 2011 at 10:10 am | Report abuse |
  12. EricLr

    There are hundreds (if not thousands) of political memoirs that are full of BS, most of them ghost-written by authors who are never even given credit for their work. So what's new?

    April 19, 2011 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  13. linzzz016

    Who cares? Good writing is good writing. If the story drew you in and you took something from it, regardless of truth or fiction, isn't that the point?

    April 19, 2011 at 8:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Vicki

      No, not if it is being sold as a true story. Then it becomes a lie.

      April 19, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • linzzz016

      So your intepretation of a book and the message YOU take from it becomes a lie when you find out it's fiction? As an aspiring writer, I think the point of a book is to touch people and invoke thoughts they wouldn't have had before. Yes, it's wrong that he may or may not have made up some of the stories, but it shed light on something you didn't know about before, didn't it?

      April 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • seraphim0

      Linz... as an aspiring author, you should be aware of the ethical problem here. Writers have a responsibility to correctly write within their genre. Example- if I write fiction, I shouldn't label it as non-fiction. This is a big ethical issue because you are literally telling people: "This story is true." As a writer, myself, I find this problematic. This man has given authors a black eye. If you want to entertain and touch people, write fiction. There's nothing wrong with that. However, you do not try to sell that fiction story as truth. I'm actually kind of disappointed that, as a writer (or aspiring author- it still stands), you don't see an issue with lying about the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. If you haven't taken any classes on such a subject, or any serious writing classes, I would suggest doing so. Then, once you are in them, ask your teacher 'what the big deal is.'

      April 19, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • linzzz016

      Yes, you're right. Ethically, morally, whatever, it was wrong. But what is the bigger deal? A harmless lie, or what the book is about and what it tells us? Maybe if it had been labeled fiction it wouldn't have been taken seriously. I'm not trying to start a big debate, I haven't even read this book, but I've read what it's about and it's an important, life-changing topic, one that most of us never would have thought twice about. He wanted his word out, he wanted money too, and it looks like he got both. Good for him. Whatever.

      April 19, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lydia

      I'll tell you who cares linzzz016. I DO. And may you never become anything more than "aspiring" with your morals. I read both "A Million Little Pieces," and "Three Cups of Tea." Both were two of my favorite books until now. It would not have been the same if I were knew they were fictional. WHY? Because the stories were so amazing because I thought they were true...these were simply two "larger than life inspirational stories." Fiction takes me away, but it doesn't inspire me or make me want to change my life because it isn't REAL. I felt jipped and angry that I wasted my money after I found out the truth. When I buy a book, I usually read the back cover and decide whether to spend my money. As a consumer, I have the right to decide whether to spend my money based on truthful information (i.e., this is a fictional tale about (the blurb on the back) or a non-fictional tale. These authors knew what they were doing. They knew that a fictional tale would not sell as well, and Mortenson knew it wouldn't generate as much money for his charity (which also is scamming people). If you can't see the ethical issues here (I also note you haven't read the book so you don't understand the emotional pull people had to them), I also recommend you take some ethics courses.

      April 20, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bunny

    Half a truth is the same as a whole lie........is there anyone honest out there ??!!?

    April 19, 2011 at 6:58 am | Report abuse |
  15. Mike H

    Whether a book is fiction or not won't matter much longer in Texas. Our governor and state legislature are doing their best to cut funds geared toward education. When our students are unable to read they won't be able to tell the difference between a memoir and a novel.

    April 19, 2011 at 2:25 am | Report abuse |
    • flyonthewall

      Mike, as long as they can Text and talk on the phone they will be just fine in the future.......just never ask what a "verb" is!

      April 19, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Not so happy teach


      April 19, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • seraphim0

      An ignorant population is an easily led population. Education funding is all around a bad idea. We already lag behind in education compared to other countries.

      April 19, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seraphim0

      Eh. Nice. I meant "Cutting education funding is a bad idea." yeesh.

      April 19, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Sanjuana Gabriela Galvez Galvan

    One of the problems is that memoirs sell more than novels, and the publishing industry wants more memoirs than novels.

    We need to make people WANT fiction

    April 18, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Righton

      Then write good fiction. A lot of what's out there is awful. Plus, it goes along with what's popular on TV, "reality." People want to see that someone else's life is more messed up than theirs.

      April 19, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  17. Bill & Ted

    Dudes, we heard it was "3 Cups of Mushroom Tea", that's why he had to make part of it up. He couldn't remember what really happened, only flashbacks!

    April 18, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Report abuse |

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