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Online Literary Hoaxes: a warning for the publishing industry

Hoaxes and frauds pervade the literary landscape and plague the publishing industry around the world – but social media and Web 2.0 has changed the way an active reader falls for them. Dr LJ Maher speaks to the different types of literary hoaxes before balancing the legal and ethical implications of propagating a literary hoax in the publishing industry.

Dr Laura Jane Maher is an authoritative voice in the world of arts and media law in Victoria. A leading literary scholar and legal academic at The University of Melbourne and Deakin University, LJ has an electric way of discussing legal issues. Avoiding heavy legal jargon and concentrating on popular culture references and real-world applications, LJ is a relevant and powerful voice in the literary and arts spheres, and was a joy to speak with.

The Podcast

In a podcast special, Maddy interviews Dr LJ Maher for information about literary hoaxes, frauds and scandals, in 2022. Video: Madeleine Corbel, on YouTube.

The Transcription

[The podcast begins with an atmospheric, laid-back audio track from 2017. Music: [Creative Commons Music] ATMOSPHERIC CALM LAID BACK CHILL OUT BACKGROUND MUSIC 012, from SoundCloud. Used with a CC BY 2.0 licence.]

Maddy: Hoaxes and frauds pervade the literary landscape around the world. Authors, like JK Rowling, use pseudonyms to cover their identities.

Audio excerpt (Billingham): Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for a writer you may have heard of called JK Rowling. Surprise!

[The Rowling Library’s video includes an interview with Mark Billingham and JK Rowling, where they discuss her latest book, Troubled Blood. Audio: Robert Galbraith in conversation with Mark Billingham + Reading from Troubled Blood (Oct 8th, 2020), from YouTube.]

Maddy: Budding authors pose as biographers and lie to Oprah.

Audio excerpt (Oprah): I don’t know what is true, and I don’t know what isn’t.

[Oprah reflects on her confrontation with James Frey about his apparent memoir. Audio: #18: Oprah Confronts James Frey, TV Guide’s Top 25, Oprah Winfrey Network, from YouTube.]

Maddy: And writers band together to publish fake works, creating cultural meaning and changing the way we think about authorship forever.

My name’s Maddy and you’re listening to Our Bookish Shelves, a place for readers, book lovers and publishers keen for change. In this episode, I’ll be chatting to Dr LJ Maher about the history of literary hoaxes from a literary perspective.

LJ: My name’s Dr LJ Maher. Laura Jane is my first name but only my mum calls me that, and only when I’m in trouble.

Maddy: In your words, what is a literary hoax?

LJ: So first off, I want to differentiate between a hoax and a fraud and the reason for this is that a fraud is going to have a legal status, which means that it’s going to involve some sort of deceit that usually results in some sort of financial loss for a party or a harm that arises.

Whereas a hoax is not necessarily going to have a harm arise; it can be a way of illuminating a hypocrisy within a particular cultural framework. So here we’re thinking of things like the Ern Malley affair, from the 1940s. Which, if you haven’t read about it, is wild.

Maddy: Ern Malley was posthumously hailed as one of the greatest modernist poets – until it was revealed that he didn’t actually exist.

LJ: And this was meant to highlight, you know, the fact that modernist poetry was basically a wank.

The final form of the hoax often arises when we are talking about representations of truth. So it happens more regularly when we’re looking at things like a biography, because there is a belief that in some form of life writing, that there is a contract that arises between the author and the reader that they’re going to be representing the truth.

And so for that sort of thing, you’re looking at James Frey’s representations. And I never want to have Oprah look at me the way that she looked at him. I think my soul would leave my body!

Maddy: James Frey became infamous when his so-called autobiography was published and picked up by Oprah’s book club. When investigative journalism revealed that the touching, tragic story was a complete fiction, Oprah was not impressed by the hoax.

LJ: So these are the sort of hoaxes where people are making an untrue representation and that representation’s been made in order to garner sales.

Maddy: How are hoaxes different now to what they were then and does digital/social media make hoaxes easier to get away with or more difficult, do you think?

LJ: I think it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. So it can mean that actually finding this information about somebody – determining whether they’re a real person or not, or whether they’re telling the truth about their experiences – is easier than it once was. Right? We can track down those inconsistencies if we put our mind to it.

While it is easier to perpetuate a hoax, it can be more difficult to perpetuate a personality hoax.

Maddy: Do you think the ‘Ern Malley’ could happen again today?

LJ: Yes and no. No if it’s going to a reputable journal. However, I think that there is the likelihood – particularly with some of these predatory journals ­– to just publish anything.

So yes, in some ways I think it would be easier. In other ways, I think it’s harder.

The artistic component of misrepresentation cannot be underlooked. Because that misrepresentation can be extremely important in order to highlight political or social incongruities, or as a way of experimenting with how we make beauty, and how we make knowledge.

[The atmospheric, laid-back theme song from the beginning of the podcast begins playing underneath the outro.]

Maddy: Literary hoaxes can give us a thrill, raise brilliant cultural commentary and initiate discussion in the publishing industry. But fraudulent hoaxes can also be dangerous. As readers, we can switch on our radars, fact-checking where something doesn’t seem quite right. Readers, publishers and writers have power: it is up to all of us to make sure that it’s kept in check.

My name’s Maddy, and you’re listening to Our Bookish Shelves. Please feel free to comment or follow us for more.

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