It is important, right off the bat, to distinguish between a hoax and plagiarism. Plagiarists steal other people’s work and pass it off as their own, but the men and women in this book were hoaxers: they passed off their own writing as having been done by someone else, or they made up stuff and published it under their own name. Many of the hoaxers here are fairly well known: William Henry Ireland, who produced bogus Shakespeare documents and even a play; the infamous, spurious Hitler diaries and Howard Hughes autobiography; James Frey’s fake memoir; the viciously anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. People create literary hoaxes, the author says, for a variety of reasons. Financial gain is a lure, to be sure, but there is also the lure of fame, influence over others, and even simple impishness (witness H. L. Mencken’s invented history of the bathtub). The book is by no means comprehensive, nor does it intend to be, but it is an excellent and informative survey of a fascinating and often newsworthy subject.
This review originally appeared in Booklist, November 2009