News room: 8 Literary Hoaxes, Fakes, Jokes and Japes

8 Literary Hoaxes, Fakes, Jokes and Japes by Jessica Barrah

By definition, writers are creative people – and sometimes they use that creativity in less than straightforward ways. In honour of April Fool’s Day, we’ve gathered together a collection of literary hoaxes, fakes, jokes and japes.

1. ‘The Hoax’

At the start of the 1970s, journalist Clifford Irving convinced his publisher, McGraw Hill, that he had permission to write the famously reclusive Howard Hughes’ autobiography. Irving believed that because Hughes had completely withdrawn from public life, he wouldn’t denounce the book or file a lawsuit for libel. Faking letters and transcripts of conversation he managed to persuade ‘Time’ and ‘Life’ magazines to give him access to their files on Hughes, and moved towards publication with a forged handwritten note supposedly from Hughes himself. When Hughes took legal action, Irving and his conspirator, Richard Suskind confessed. Irving spent 17 months in jail, and his story was told in the film ‘The Hoax’, starring Richard Gere.

2. JT LeRoy

Starting with the successful book Sarah in 2000, JT LeRoy wrote a series of ‘autobiographical’ books about life as a transvestite prostitute with HIV. In 2005, the author of the books was exposed as Laura Albert, a 40 year old woman, who’d got her half-sister to pose as ‘LeRoy’ in public, and in 2007 Albert was charged with fraud.

3. A Million Little Lies

James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces was published in 2003 as a ‘memoir’, detailing his history of addiction, crime and incarceration. It was later discovered that a large part of the book was fabricated, and he issued a humiliating public apology on Oprah Winfrey’s television show. In 2006, Frey and publisher Random House, Inc. reached a tentative legal settlement. Readers who felt that they had been ‘defrauded’ by Frey’s A Million Little Pieces would be offered a refund.

4. The Hitler Diaries

In 1983, the German magazine Stern bought and published a story on what they claimed were Hitler’s diaries. To avoid the story leaking, Stern failed to have experts examine the documents, though two historians did check them, without noticing anything amiss. Shortly after they were made public, the diaries were exposed as faked, with both the magazine editor and the forger spending 42 months in prison.

5. The War of the Worlds

According to popular myth, a 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, a HG Wells story about a Martian invasion, was so convincing that thousands of New Yorkers fled their homes in panic, with terrified citizens around America running out into the streets to view a ‘space battle’. The reality seems to have been a lot tamer, with the panic largely confined to the town of Grover Mills, featured in the broadcast as a site where aliens had landed. Locals in the town decided that water tower with thin iron legs was one of the ‘tripod machines’ of the Martian invaders, and shot at it.

6. The Royal Dickens Society

In 1980, using forged letters supposedly from the director Trevor Nunn, theatrical prankster Ken Campbell convinced many in the industry that the Royal Shakespeare Company had decided to change its name to the Royal Dickens Society. In the letters, which he signed ‘Love Trev’, Campbell proposed various new projects adapting classics by Charles Dickens, instead of works by the Bard.

7. The Dreadnought Affair

In 1910, members of the Bloomsbury set including the young Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) disguised themselves with skin darkeners and turbans to look like members of the Abyssinian royal family. Obviously this is not in line with what would be acceptable nowadays – but it was over 100 years ago. Virginia’s brother, Adrian Stephen took the role of “interpreter”. In Weymouth, the navy welcomed the ‘princes’ as VIPs. Not having an Abyssianian flag, they used the flag of Zanzibar and played Zanzibar’s national anthem in their guests’ honour. Speaking in a mix of words drawn from Latin and Greek they tried to award military honours to some of the officers.

8. Infallible Fool

In 1708, Jonathan Swift, invented the astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff, who predicted the death of a genuine astrologer called John Partridge. Unhappy with Partridge’s sarcastic attack about the “infallible Church” written in his 1708 issue of Merlinus Almanac, Swift carefully planned for 3 letters and one Eulogy to be released “predicting” Partridge’s “infallible death” to be revealed on April 1. Partridge had to spend that day trying to convince people he was still alive, including a sexton who knocked on his door to ask about funeral arrangements.

Let us know of any inventive April Fools you’ve played on others, or that you’ve fallen for!

Further reading:

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Written by
Jessica Barrah
Published on
April fool's day, Literary, Writers, Hoaxes, Fakes, and Jokes