No one knows the formula for a successful book. Is it the abundance of description, or perhaps the lack of it? Is it brutally honest language, short sentences, or a bizarre story line? The answer remains wonderfully elusive, although everyone will agree that hard work is key to a book’s success.
Well, almost everyone. Every so often, a rogue writer comes along with big dreams and a sneaky scheme, duping critics, and readers alike. And while some maintain honesty is the best policy, that certainly wasn’t the case for these 10 literary hoaxers.
10 Naked Came The Stranger
Naked Came the Stranger was a novel written in 1969 by a group of reporters atLong Island Newsday. These journalists were sick of poorly written, smutty novels becoming bestsellers. Wanting to prove a point about the public’s appetite for trash, editor Mike McGrady developed the idea for the hoax, coming up with the novel and its tawdry plot.
The novel centered on a suburban woman’s sexual liaisons, and each chapter focused on a different escapade (usually with a different man each time). Each of the reporters involved knew the main outline of the story and wrote one chapter each, making the plot deliberately inconsistent. In fact, submissions that were written too well were immediately rejected.
McGrady’s sister-in-law played the part of the book’s author, Penelope Ashe, “a demure Long Island housewife who thought she could write as well as J. Susann.” She even posed for photographs and met with the publishers.
The book ended up selling 20,000 copies before McGrady and his colleagues came clean. Nevertheless, by the end of 1969, the novel had spent a total of 13 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, and the stunt had made headlines around the world, making Naked Came the Stranger a runaway success.
9 I, Libertine
In the 1950s, Jean Shepherd was the host of a late night radio show, and he inspired extremely loyalty in his listeners. Shepherd even described his fans as “night people,” because they always tuned into his peculiar broadcast in the middle of the night. It also didn’t hurt that they were, in Shepherd’s view, a rather non-conformist bunch of people. Indeed, Shepherd was a favorite among the Beat movement, jazz artists, and young creative people. Even Jack Kerouac himself was an admirer.
One day, Shepherd went down to a bookstore in search of a particular title. Not being able to find what he was looking for, Shepherd asked the clerk for help. However, the clerk insisted the book couldn’t exist, as it didn’t appear in any of the publisher’s lists he’d ever seen. Still, Shepherd was convinced the book was real . . . and that’s when his imagination went wild. With the help of the night people, he decided to pull a bizarre media hoax on the so-called “day people,” as well as New York pretension.
Thus, Shepherd encouraged his listeners to stop by their local bookshop and ask for a book that didn’t exist. The fake title was I, Libertine, and the name of the supposed author was Frederick R. Ewing. Extra information about the author was also cooked up. Ewing was supposedly a retired Royal Navy commander who specialized in 18th-century erotica. (He’d also apparently done a BBC series on the subject.)
Listeners followed Shepherd’s lead, and soon bookstores were flooded with customers asking for I, Libertine. These requests happened abroad, too, since some of the night people traveled for work. Confused booksellers began contacting publishing houses to find out more about this novel, and libraries began placing orders for this mysterious book.
The hoax, however, did not stop there. A student wrote a paper on I, Libertine and received a “B+.” The night people created card files for the book and placed them in libraries all over the country. A New York gossip columnist said he’d had lunch with the author. The novel even hit The New York Times Book Review of newly published books, and all that time, it didn’t even exist.
8 My Own Sweet Time
My Own Sweet Time was an autobiography that was supposedly written by Wanda Koolmatrie, a part-aboriginal woman. The book tells about her experience growing up in South Australia with a white foster parent, and it won the Dobbie Award for a first novel by a woman writer. It was even used in the New South Wales HSC English exam in 1996.
However, as you might’ve guessed, it was later revealed that My Own Sweet Time was actually written by a white male named Leon Carmen. In 1997, Carmen admitted to writing this award-winning novel, causing quite an uproar in Australia’s literary establishment. The front page headline of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph dubbed Carmen as the “Great White Hoax,” the book was withdrawn from sales, and the award money was retrieved. Even Carmen’s agent was raided by police.
Trying to justify his motives, Carmen said that Australians discriminate against white men. According to the hoaxer, critics and readers instead preferred female, aboriginal, and immigrant-descended writers.