The literary world often ends up painted as some stuffy realm of academics and intellectuals who whittle away their days polishing their monocles and dusting their sepia-toned globes. Meanwhile, in the real world, it’s positively rife with drama to rival that of the latest self-deluded pinheads paraded around on MTV for society’s perverse enjoyment. Scandals abound, including fake identities, fake memories, fake science, thievery, and other schadenfreude delights. And it’s all the more frustrating (and maybe a little entertaining) when one of the contested books lands squarely on a bestseller list.
Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca
This memoir took enthusiastic readers into the Warsaw ghetto and followed a broken young Jewish girl as she desperately searches for her forcibly estranged (killed?) parents. Along the way, she murders Nazis and comes of age amongst a pack of friendly wolves. Also? She never existed. Instead, Misha Defonseca burst forth from the imagination of Belgian author Monique de Wael, who grew up neither ethnically nor religiously Jewish. Both she and her lawyers confessed to Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years being a massive hoax, although the author flakily defended herself by claiming, "The book is a story, it’s my story. It’s not the true reality, but it is my reality. There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world." Um. Yeah. Totally a legitimate justification for exploiting the suffering of very real people for nothing more than self-aggrandizement. Except not really.
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
A million little fracases splinted from this Oprah’s Book Club phenomenon when it came to light that the author was – surprise, surprise – just making all his l’il memoirs up. Like his spiritual successor Monique de Wael, James Frey proffered a flimsy excuse regarding how the overarching message completely transcends the fact that he lied about overcoming substance abuse and a criminal lifestyle. Code for…couldn’t hack it as a novelist and decided to manipulate Random House’s heartstrings into a sweet deal by pandering to public lust for redemption stories. The Smoking Gun figured out his less-than-zany scheme when attempting to dredge up his mug shot and ultimately finding nothing.
How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan
It takes a special brew of stupidity and arrogance to completely rip off another bestselling author’s works and finagle it into an allegedly half-million dollar book deal. An aspirant young adult novelist at Harvard lifted at least a dozen passages from two Megan McCafferty books when submitting the manuscript to How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. Megan McCafferty, by the way, happens to be an exceptionally popular young adult author. Obviously the best woman to completely rip off, because who could EVER make a connection? Before her Ivy League contemporaries uncovered the deception, Kaavya Viswanathan harbored even more plans to just go and plagiarize her way back onto the bestseller list. She has yet to issue any statement regarding whether or not the meaning should completely override her egregious decision, though she did claim any similarities to an author she just loved so much was an homage. A subconscious homage that she um, didn’t really mean? And now she’s so sorry.
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
Three Cups of Tea was a trendy new memoir (guess where this one’s going!) published in 2006 which, to its (only) credit, served as an antidote to the rampant Islamophobia in America. Greg Mortenson’s failed K2 ascent landed him alone and helpless in the tiny Pakistani city of Korphe. So touched was he by their kindness, he vowed to return someday and build a school educating both male and female children. He did, in fact, establish the Central Asia Institute to assist Korphe and other villages, but the origin story never happened. Stones into Schools followed the disputed bestseller, alleging Mighty Whitey Mortenson’s imprisonment by the Taliban. Which, surprise surprise, also proved a fabrication. In addition, his CAI draws considerable derision because so many of its expenditures go towards funding book promotions, tours, and lectures rather than…you know…the schools themselves. Many of which, by the way, either ended up as makeshift grain silos, received no funding after being built, ended up built and promptly left behind, or – most egregiously – were never built at all.
The Wild Blue by Stephen E. Ambrose
Beloved popular historian Stephen Ambrose disappointed his impressive audience when Forbes and other periodicals noted a pattern of plagiarism. The Wild Blue and other well-received, accessible works stole complete chunks from the author’s less mainstreamly prominent, but still highly respected, contemporaries. Thomas Childers unknowingly contributed at least three passages to the bestselling nonfiction about B-52 Bombers in World War II. Meanwhile, Ambrose excused the findings as forgetting to properly cite his resources amidst an ever so grueling schedule. This claim fails to take into account why other bestsellers penned long before he hit it huge, such as D-Day, sported the exact same phenomenon.
Sarah by JT LeRoy
Not even a year before Oprah found herself grappling against the Frey fiasco, another one of her Book Club authors emerged as a shameless huckster. Or perhaps a super savvy performance artist using literature as a commentary on society’s penchant for sordid tales of teenage prostitution and drug addiction? Probably the former. Author Laura Albert created the character – not just pen name – of JT LeRoy, a West Virginian who hightails it to California as an adolescent and winds up vagrant within its seedy back alleys, paying for highs with whoredom. The fact that this celebrated writer rarely appeared in public and only granted interviews over the phone added to his allure, resulting in his semi-"autobiographical" novel (not memoir) Sarah. Starting with New York magazine’s Stephen Beachy, journalists and literary critics began digging into the reality of JT LeRoy, eventually unearthing the real culprit and her many accomplices; Savannah Koop was revealed as the reserved figure stepping out when a warm body was needed to fill in the author’s chair. Albert went on to lose $350,000 to Antidote International Films, who owned the rights to Sarah and sued her for fraud. On a more saddening note, she conceived of the character as a means of working through her own personal issues with gender identity, sexual assault, homelessness, and prostitution, factors she couldn’t bring herself to work through using her real name and history.
The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
Unlike some of the other books listed here, The Secret‘s lauding of the bilious chyme of pseudoscience known as the "law of attraction" couldn’t lose any of its credibility, seeing as how it (debatably) lacked any in the first place. Put simply, this mindset touts that anything anyone wants is within reach if only they want it hard enough, because working for anything is hard. Also? If anything bad happens to someone, it means they obviously deserved it. That includes, of course, victims of rape and sexual assault, child/domestic/intimate partner violence, mental/physical/emotional abuse, famine, genocide, and more! According to Rhonda Byrne and other New Age automatons promoting the "law of attraction" these things happen because those on the receiving end think negative thoughts and draw horrible actions to them as a result (curiously enough, Oprah, herself a survivor of childhood rape, is almost singlehandedly responsible for the travesty’s success).
The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter
Forrest Carter fearlessly channeled his own life into a wildly popular semi-autobiographical novel about survival as a Cherokee at a time when interest in Native American rights and perspectives began emerging. He claimed to be a cowboy of Cherokee blood with a passion for social justice issues and enough drive to teach himself how to read and write. Which would be undoubtedly worthy of applause where he not actually a thorough ruse by proud, avowed Klansman Asa Gardner – who just happened to write Alabama governor George Wallace’s wrenching, disgusting "Segregation now…Segregation tomorrow…Segregation forever" speech. Dan T. Carter with The New York Times discovered the hoax in 1991, after three decades of The Education of Little Tree enjoying its status as a mainstay of indigenous literature. Since the real author retreated from the public eye long before the book’s publication and his eventual passing, nobody’s exactly sure what to make of his deception. Theories range from an earnest, if misguided, attempt to renounce the racism characterizing his earlier life to, more frighteningly, the first step in a desire to subvert the movement from the inside. Some even posited he might have been channeling memories of a Native American relative, but his brother shot that down by saying they never grew up with any.
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Memoirs, as one can easily ascertain, inspire far more scrutiny than their fictional and partly-fictional counterparts. For good reason, of course. In 2007, previously scandal-free Augusten Burroughs wound up sued by the Turcotte family, who adopted him as a teen after his mother abandoned him into their care. Their libel suit railed against depictions in Running with Scissors, particularly involving the allegedly nasty conditions in which they kept their home, the matriarch’s fondness for consuming canine treats, and – most controversially – their allowing children and adolescents to engage in sexual congress with adult paramours. Some pretty nasty accusations eventually laid to rest once Burroughs agreed to a $2 million settlement, though he continues insisting he never embellished or fabricated anything in the book.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
The Da Vinci Code never hit shelves as anything but a fluffy escapist thriller novel, but author Dan Brown still elicited significant controversy by claiming the history, art, architecture, and theology behind it were painstakingly researched and very, very true. Experts in all fields, however, picked apart everything from the number of glass panes at the Louvre (he claimed 666, reality says 673) to Opus Dei’s clergy structure (it doesn’t have one, but ordains monks in the book). And pretty much everything else Brown bragged about studying in depth and obviously didn’t. Theologians and historians especially noted that many of the sources he cited as showing thorough and irrevocable proof that the Catholics were hiding something were debunked years (if not decades or centuries) before, though they do concede to some degree that all major organizations throughout history have their secrets. Probably not as massive and egregious as the ones featured in the novel, though. Instead of exploding as some edgy, world-changing tell-all like the author intended, The Da Vinci Code eventually faded away as little more than the conspiracy theories of a real-life Dale Gribble whose abysmal research skills would only barely cut it at Fox News.