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Sunday, 25 October 2009

Telling Tales

Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes by Melissa Katsoulis is really good. It looks like a fake Penguin paperback of the old orange and cream design.
There are famous and not so well known hoaxes starting with Chatterton's poetry and William Henry Ireland's Shakespeare papers. Many of those quoted are American and the author points out there also seem to be a disproportionate number of literary hoaxes from Australia.
A hoax which intrigued me was a recent one and I remember reading about it at the time. It involved Bevis Hillier and A N Wilson. Both authors wrote biographies of John Betjeman with Bevis Hillier weighing in with a prestigious 3 volume job and A N Wilson penning something rather more lightweight. Hillier was peeved to hear his long time enemy Wilson was writing a biography of Betjeman and he sent him a faked letter supposedly from Betjeman to a lover. Wilson did not check its authenticity and published it in his own book. The first letter of each sentence of this epistle spelled out 'A N Wilson is a shit'. Wilson seems to have put a brave face on it - at least in public - and simply had the passage removed from later editions of the books.
Amongst other hoaxes which caught my attention was one perpetrated by a late night DJ on an American radio station. He and his listeners invented a book called I Libertine - supposedly by a chap called F R Ewing. They all went into book shops asking for the book until eventually they created such a buzz that people not in on the hoax were claiming to have the read the book and met the author. The DJ decided he'd have to come clean about it when it turned up on a church's list of banned books. The book was eventually written at the behest of a publisher and sold well with the royalties going to charity.
This is a fascinating book with many hoaxes I hadn't heard of before. It raises some interesting questions about the dividing line between fact and fiction and about how people react when they're taken in by a hoax. I love it and would recommend it to anyone interested in literature or indeed in human nature. It is written with a wry humour which fits the subject well.

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