Feature The recent debunking of several 'factually based' bestsellers is just one chapter in a long narrative of literary chicanery.
Brought to book
Not another one! Not again! That's what most literary journalists and publishers will have thought this week, when Herman Rosenblat's description of finding love in a concentration camp - a "heartwarming Holocaust memoir", as one newspaper described it - was exposed as being more fiction than fact.
One scarcely dares guess what America's chat-show queen Oprah Winfrey - having been embarrassed by one fabricated memoir already - will have said about it in private. She invited Rosenblat on her show twice, and has described his tale as "the single greatest love story we've ever told on air". She had a point, mind. It was a great love story. Now 79 years old, Rosenblat described how, as a teenage prisoner in Buchenwald, he was kept alive by a nine-year-old girl who passed apples to him through the camp's fence.
He was to re-encounter the girl, by a freak of chance, when in 1957 and by then living in the US, he went on a blind date in New York with a Polish girl named Roma Radzicki. He recognised her as the girl who gave him apples, they fell in love, and half a century later, Roma and Herman Rosenblat are still married and as much in love as ever. Great love story it may have been - but true, it almost certainly was not.
The story has already formed the basis for a successful children's book, and a $25million (Dh92m) Hollywood movie about it is due to start shooting in spring. But just a month before Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived was due to be published in book form, an investigation by the American magazine The New Republic exposed its central story as fiction. Historical scholars have attested that the layout of the camp made it impossible that anyone would have been able to get close to the fence. And a fellow survivor, Ben Helfgott, who "went through the Holocaust with Herman every step of the way", has even said that "there is not a word of truth in what he is saying".
Literary fakery, hoaxes and misdirection are all as old as the published word. Novels have been published as memoirs, and memoirs as novels, since either form came into existence. Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year - a book written by one of the fathers of prose fiction in English ? was a novel published (and often read) as if it were reportage. The great Samuel Johnson was a pioneering debunker of literary hoaxes. When a Scottish schoolteacher, James MacPherson, claimed that his three volumes of poetry were translations from the work of a third-century Gaelic bard named Ossian, Johnson denounced him - correctly - as a "cheat".
Johnson also saw through Thomas Chatterton's pseudo-medieval poems, presented not as the work of a gifted 18th-century prodigy, but as the incunabula of a 15th-century monk named Thomas Rowley. In the middle of the 20th century, the world went gaga for The Third Eye, the memoirs of one Tuesday Lobsang Rampa - a man who claimed to have entered a Tibetan monastery at the age of seven, undergone a mystical trepanning and conversed with an abominable snowman. It turned out he was actually a plumber from Devon, in the West of England.
Then there was Richard Llewellyn, who claimed his 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley had been based on his tough-but-romantic Victorian childhood in a mining community in South Wales. However, despite once visiting his grandfather, who lived there, he was born and brought up in England. Often - as when Thomas More cast Utopia as being the true recollections of a traveller named Raphael Hythlodaeus - fakery is a literary device. In some cases, it is a prank - as when the editor of the Australian literary magazine Angry Penguins was hoaxed by two young writers who had invented the great modernist poet "Ern Malley". In others - as when the radio version of HG Wells's fantasy of a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds was broadcast as if it were a news report, causing mass hysteria - it is a publicity stunt.
Our age has seen instances of the straightforward hoax, such as that of JT Leroy. The reclusive Leroy was a delicate boy who had suffered a horrific childhood travelling around the truck stops of America with his peripatetic, drug-addicted mother. His autobiographical short stories were published as The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (1999) and were - on their literary merits, quite deservingly - a huge success.
Leroy became a cult figure. His book about his mother, Sarah, was filmed by Gus Van Sant, and at a reading from Leroy's work in New York in 2002, I found myself standing next to Michael Stipe, the singer of the band REM. Leroy was "too shy" to read from his own work - he skulked at the back wearing his fabled disguise of an enormous hat, huge dark glasses, and a big blond wig. A few years later, it emerged that Leroy never existed, and was the pen name of a writer named Laura Albert. The "J T" I'd seen at the reading was her then sister-in-law Savannah Knoop.
The explosion in demand for "misery memoirs" - and the multi-million-dollar publishing industry that they sustain - has brought a new and more insidious dimension to the blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction. The coin of this prurient industry is real pain. So in the two most profitable sectors of the market - Holocaust memoirs, and memoirs of child abuse - the hoaxers and fakers are guilty of something more serious than just pretending to have been Welsh, or fantasising about having met a yeti. They and their publishers are doing dirt, for profit, on the credibility of true survivors.
Among the earliest and perhaps still the most shocking instance of this was the story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose 1995 book, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, purported to describe his experiences as a Jewish child in two Nazi concentration camps. It emerged that Wilkomirski - real name Bruno Grosjean - had never been closer to a concentration camp than as a post-war tourist. He had spent his entire childhood in Switzerland. Misha DeFonseca's Misha - supposedly the story of a Holocaust survivor who had trekked across Europe in search of her parents at the age of six and been adopted by a pack of wolves - followed hard on its heels, and bore just the same relation to reality.
Yet the authors of stories such as these are often people who have suffered genuine pain - albeit not exactly in the way in which, to please their publishers and the public, they have presented it. Rosenblat, we should not forget, did actually spend his teenage years in Buchenwald. Their memories are often unreliable, their personalities vulnerable and fugitive, their need for the attention and validation of fame sometimes overwhelming. The question of who is exploiting whom - and, indeed, of how you can ever establish an absolute truth from conflicting and traumatised memories - is less clear-cut.
Even Dave Pelzer - the American writer whose A Child Called 'It' (1995) is widely regarded as having kicked off the misery memoir industry - had aspects of his story challenged by members of his family. Judith Kelly's memoir Rock Me Gently, describing abuse at the hands of brutal nuns in a Roman Catholic orphanage, turned out to contain passages lifted from Charlotte Brontë, Antonia White, and Hilary Mantel's comic novel Fludd. But was that fraud or, as was suggested in her defence, an accident of memory?
Norma Khouri's 2003 book Forbidden Love described how, in the early 1990s, the author had been living in Jordan and had acted as go-between between her Muslim best friend and the Roman Catholic soldier with whom she was having a love affair. When the affair was uncovered, Khouri wrote, the girl was murdered by her own father in a so-called "honour killing". It turned out that during the years her book described, Khouri had actually been living in Chicago with her husband and two children.
By the time the British lawyer Constance Briscoe's mother sued her for libel - her book Ugly (2006) described her abused and neglected childhood - a jaded public seemed to raise one eyebrow, rather than both. In that case, though, the public was wrong: the truth of Briscoe's account was this year vindicated in court. Far more intimidating than court, though, is trial by Oprah Winfrey. When James Frey, whose 2003 addiction story A Million Little Pieces, was exposed as a fraud, she summoned both him and his publisher on to her show and humiliated them in front of millions of viewers worldwide. Quite what lies in store for Rosenblat is yet to be seen. But we can be confident that it will make a great story.