Gotcha!: The Top Five Literary Hoaxes

Yesterday was the 1st of April, better known as April Fools’ Day. In honor of the greatest prank day, we have prepared for you a list of five books that were actually a part of different literary hoaxes. There are plenty of examples where writers played tricks on readers and on their respected colleagues - by writing false autobiographies or "true stories" that were completely made up or twisting historical facts in their favor – all for a great story. You will be amazed how the world of literature can actually be an extremely amusing place!

The Sex Life of Emmanuel Kant by Jean-Baptiste Botul

Jean-Baptiste Botul is actually a fictitious person, an alleged philosopher with his own school of thought – Botulism. The actual person behind all this is Frederic Pages, a French journalist working for a French satirical weekly journal. You could say that Jean-Baptiste Botul was just Pages’ writing alias, but this would completely undervalue the beauty of his literary hoax. Having a great sense of humor, Pages wanted to perfect this delusion: he founded the Association of Friends of Jean-Baptiste Botul to promote his philosophy. So, Jean Baptiste-Botul was not simply a pen name: it was a completely made-up person whom Pages invented and managed to make credible, at least to the less informed. The hoax was all over the media in 2010, when the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy actually cited Botul in his own book War in Philosophy, where he spoke against Kant’s postulates and reflections and used Botul’s conclusions to support his claims. Levy was publicly humiliated, and the affair led to discussions about the plausibility of modern philosophers and academic circles in general. The Sex Life of Emmanuel Kant is an example of spoof philosophy and is quite entertaining. It discusses the position of women in Kant’s life and tries to explain his genius from this point of view. Kant stayed away from encounters with women and was very much focused on his intellectual work. The absence of social contact and Kant’s chastity were criticized by Botul in the book since it was impossible for Kant to contribute to humanity by adding to the population. Written in a witty matter, the book also offers many fun facts about Kant’s peculiar habits – a place where fiction meets history. As the author explains:

For me, the sexual life of Kant is one of the greatest questions of Western metaphysical philosophy. Knowledge of Kant’s sexuality is the direct path that leads to understanding Kantianism and such approach allows us to read the “Critique of Pure Reason“ as a drama and autobiography […] After understanding his sexual life, we are forced to imagine the Kantian star not much like the sun, but as an anguishing black hole.

Unfortunately (and oddly), this book hasn’t yet been translated into English; it can only be found in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. Have a great laugh!

The Amber Witch by Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold

You know how eager you are to watch a horror movie if you see five words attached to it: based on a true story? Well, Wilhelm Meinhold might have had the same thought when it came to writing his book The Amber Witch (read free online). The novel was published in German in 1838, but the author managed to convince everyone that it was not his own fiction, but an edited manuscript he found on the coast of the Baltic Sea, near the Polish border. Meinhold let everyone believe that the manuscript was written by Abraham Schweidler, the pastor of Coserow and the father of an accused witch. The book was promoted as an authentic historical document that noted a real witchcraft trial, along with eery things that were often just rumors, but always connected to witchcraft. The plot is set in the 17th century, during the Thirty Years War. At the center of the story lies the character of Maria, the pastor’s and “author’s“ daughter. After she rejects a suitor named Appelman, he starts plotting revenge and spreading rumors about Maria, accusing her of being a witch.

The book is a bit hard to read, since Meinhold made an effort to write in an archaic style, characteristic of the 17th century. Pretty much the whole excitement of reading the book comes from thinking it is a genuine testimony. To make it even more believable, Meinhold left some pages blank, as the manuscript was not found whole, some pages were lost. He really created a praise-worthy delusion, with incredible details about the completely-made-up pastor biographer:

The origin of our biographer cannot be traced with any degree of certainty, owing to the loss of the first part of his manuscript. It is, however, pretty clear that he was not a Pomeranian, as he says he was in Silesia in his youth, and mentions relations scattered far and wide, not only at Hamburg and Cologne, but even at Antwerp; above all, his south German language betrays a foreign origin, and he makes use of words which are, I believe, peculiar to Swabia.

The book was very popular at the time, but it lost its popularity once Meinhold revealed the hoax. To make matters even worse, he was ignored as a writer afterwards, and his second novel was completely unnoticed. There is a lesson here: don’t push your luck with your readers, if you fool them, they might not forgive you.

The Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs

Similar to Meinhold, Pierre Louÿs convinced everyone that these poems were not his own work, but a translation of poetry written centuries earlier in Ancient Greece. The alleged author of the poems was Bilitis, who was (in Louÿs’ version of the story) a courtesan and Sappho’s lover. Sappho was a well-known poetess in Ancient Greece, known for her love poetry and close relationships with women. To ensure the persuasiveness of his writings, Louÿs even wrote a few pages about Bilitis’s life, enlisting the titles of poems that had never been translated and even quoting an archaeologist (who was also totally imaginary) who allegedly found her tomb. Louÿs’ great knowledge of Ancient Greece and its cultural codes, everyday life, and laws – helped him to make this hoax believable. When the hoax was discovered, Louÿs still got praised for his poetry, especially because he discussed same sex love in a tender way. You can read the poems for free here. It is pretty extraordinary how the author managed to impersonate the style of female poets, typical of the love and erotic poems of the time:

            […] She says to me “Thou shalt not play alone with

virgins, and dance with little children; look not out

of the window, flee from the soft swords of men, and

beware of the counsel of widows.“ […]

Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones.

A more recent literary hoax raised a scandal in 2008. Love and Consequences was published as “A Memoir of Hope and Survival“, which meant it was based on a true story and came from the author’s personal experience. The book was promoted as a memoir in which the author, Margaret Setzler (Margaret B. Jones is her pen name), spoke about her difficult life as a foster child, half white, half native American, who spent her childhood in rough surroundings in South-Central Los Angeles. Setzler turned out to be a complete fraud and was quickly exposed, outraging the wider public and especially her readers. The truth is, Setzler grew up with her biological parents in the North Hollywood area and was fully white. People were furious and felt Setzler was degrading those who actually had problematic childhoods by writing a false memoir about it:

My words and views were learned in the dirt and desolation of South Central Los Angeles. The streets where I grew up were run by the laws of local gangs. Their laws shaped what we wore, how we talked, and how we navigated the city. […] My particular street, however, was ruled by Blood Nation. You will see that reflected in the language and vision of the book.

Despite all of this, the book got some positive reviews, mainly responding to the author’s willingness to speak up about problems that were never fully discussed and challenge stereotypes and prejudices.

The Diary of a Good Neighbour by Jane Somers

This book was published in 1983. As it was stated, Jane Somers was a pseudonym for a well-known English woman journalist. The book got little attention and sold modestly. In the following year, a sequel was published and was accompanied by a shocking revelation: Doris Lessing announced that she was the author! This was her little experiment, where she wanted to show how hard it is for new authors to break into the field of literature. Lessing proved how having a name and reputation is important for success, but really unfair for many talented artists out there.

The novel focuses on two women, Janna and Maudie, who are neighbours who lead completely different lives, but with similar emotional states. Gradually, they begin to notice one another. Janna is a middle-aged woman, a product of the modern era, who runs a women’s magazine. Maudie is an old lady, full of self-pride and dignity, with her own complex psychological profile. They are both deeply sad, but in different ways. Their first encounter happens in the neighbourhood pharmacy, where Janna is a bit confused by Maudie’s appearance:

I was staring at an old creature, recalls Janna, and thought, a witch…. She saw me looking at her and thrust at me a prescription and said, What is this? You get it for me. … I took the paper and knew I was taking much more than that.

This book shows how humans need one another and how loneliness can sometimes be unbearable.

There you go: five different literary hoaxes! It is really fascinating how different our reading experience can be if we know the context of how literary works originated. What are your favorites?

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