LiteratEye #38: New ‘Literary Hoaxes’ Book Leaves the Curious Reader in the Dark

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Filed under: Literary Hoaxes

Here’s the thirty eighth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #38: New ‘Literary Hoaxes’ Book Leaves the Curious Reader in the Dark
By W.J. Elvin III
November 6, 2009

There are a great many mysteries in the field of literary deception.

amberwitch-200So it is always a pleasure to learn of a new book that may shed light.

Having seen advance reviews some time ago in the British Press, I eagerly awaited the arrival of Melissa Katsoulis’ Literary Hoaxes.

Well, it’s a grand overview, a nice line-up of the usual suspects, but I’m less than delighted. Hoaxes raises many more questions than it answers, most of the questions resulting from a failure to source the tales therein.

How is it Katsoulis knows so much about William Henry Ireland, the young Shakespeare forger of the late 1700s?

Who told Katsoulis that the American Indian imposter Grey Owl was once recognized through his feathers by his very British aunts, who decided to keep their observation a secret?

And what assurance do we have that the author has her facts straight regarding Pierre Plantard’s part in creating the hoax behind Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code?

And so on, and on.

The book has no citations, no bibliography. No index, though the table of contents serves the purpose in a basic way. There just aren’t many signposts to guide those who might want to know more about any given topic.

True, some sources are mentioned in passing, but for the most part we have to take Katsoulis’ on faith. Which would be fine if the book were a critique or some other sort of opinion piece. But it’s billed as a “History of Famous Frauds.”

Katsoulis tells us for instance that the name Nasdijj means “to become again” in Navajo. Where did she get that? If you dig into it, elsewhere you’ll learn it’s a claim made by Timothy Barrus, the white faker behind the Nasdijj books. Did Katsoulis check it out?

The LA Weekly, in the course of a 15-page investigative epic on Nasdijj, contacted Navajo scholar Irvin Morris who said there is no such word.

Maybe things like that don’t matter to the casual reader? Perhaps the theory is that, these days, basic research is as easy as tapping a name or a few words into the Google search box, so why bother with citations? Let the reader do the checking out.

Well, you’re going to come up with possibly thousands of potential answers, so you have to wade through the work of axe-grinders, charlatans, fools and (oh no!) pranksters to find anything credible. You are going to be hunting for the Snickers bar in a sea of hog slops.

A writer of this sort of book should be a guide.

I’ll grant, though, doing original research into literary deception is an arduous task. Katsoulis’ once-over-lightly review of published material is a tempting way around the frustrations. Otherwise, you have to know what questions to ask, and you have to know where to turn for the answers. As a journalist who has pursued these topics for several years now, I’m rarely satisfied with the results of sending out inquiry after inquiry.

What could make it less daunting? Experts, though burdened with teaching, writing journal articles and books, consulting, and on top of all that dealing with the need to extend their own knowledge bases, could be more accessible. That’s not a novel suggestion; it’s a frequent topic of discussion in arenas where people care about such things.

Another pertinent concern is access to scholarly journals. Independent researchers are often walled out of the latest research on a given topic by high-priced access to published studies. Those studies, by the way, are often enough financed by public-funded government grants. Which is to suggest that the public should have free access to the results.

Well, let’s wander back in the general direction of the book under review. Two areas where I try to restrain my curiosity as regards literary deception are politics and religion. Both are swamps, though it’s far easier to track the fraudulent in politics. When it comes to religion, what one person views as fraudulent is another’s sacred text “¦ it gets dicey.

But Katsoulis maintains that hoaxes inspired by theological debates “are some of the boldest and best pranks in literature.” She provides interesting illustrations in support of that contention.

I hadn’t read much about Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold. He concocted a journal article, The Amber Witch. He wrote it to ensnare adherents of the at-the-time radical but increasingly popular argument that the life of Jesus is a myth.

Meinhold got himself into a mess because, though he admitted his article was fabricated, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia took a fancy to it. When the King advised that, fabrication or not, he was going to see to publication of the article as a book, what could Meinhold say? I mean, the guy’s a King, he can chop off your head and then publish the book anyway.

The Wikipedia entry on The Amber Witch provides a list of sources for further study.

I may have mentioned in previous columns the very interesting book, Past Imperfect, by Peter Charles Hoffer, and the author’s contention that all historical books, fiction and non-fiction, should provide information on their derivation – citations as to works consulted.

Hoffer dismisses the postmodern “intellectual property belongs to everyone” notion with an observation appropriate to Literary Hoaxes. Even though the general reader may not care, failure to attribute sources of information reduces the authors consulted to unacknowledged research assistants.

Readers of historical fiction would no doubt object to footnoting. It would make for slow going and interfere with the dream-like quality most fiction aspires to achieve. Still, I for one wouldn’t mind a bibliography or resources section after “The End.”

Does the idea that all authors should source their information, whether writing fact or fiction, make any sense? Some authors think “authority” means their scholarship should go unquestioned. Others seem to believe devoting half the book to sourcing, down to the most minute and obscure little tidbit, establishes credibility.

I talked the matter over a bit with my brother, George, an academic expert in the field of nanotechnology. (Those of you getting your green on might enjoy his web site).

“I know in the nanotech arena everybody makes fun of Michael Crichton’s ‘research’ — as in his nanotech novel, Prey — where he annotates his work with tons of ‘evidence’ from scholarly reports,” George said, adding: “And then when you look into it you find he’s either citing discredited studies or misrepresenting the actual results.”


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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