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3.7 out of 5 stars
Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes
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on 11 November 2009
A fascinating account of literary hoaxes through the ages. The writing is lively and maintains the reader's interest throughout. One can tell, however, that the writer is a journalist, her 'whack it down quick and move on' grammar leaving much to be desired. Don't they have editors any more? And if so, what was he/she doing letting 'credibility' stand for 'credulity,' and other howlers? As a book dealer I found the marvellously 'distressed' cover rather unsettling, half-consciously grading it an Amazon `acceptable' whenever I picked it up! (Not an original idea, though: I seem to remember a Magnus Mills title, that I can't quite lay my hands on) Full marks for that, and well recommended.
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on 29 March 2013
To call this a history is stretching the term somewhat: it's more of a catalogue than a history, with each entry getting a few pages of exposition that is entirely separable from the rest of the book.

That quibble aside, the book is fairly entertaining - and as long as entertainment is all that you want, it's perfectly fine (though the sheer number of times that Oprah Winfrey turns up as having endorsed a book that turns out to be utter cobblers is instructive, and maliciously amusing). It's the sort of book that you'd keep in the loo, rather than on an academic bookshelf.

One thing that would have improved it a great deal is the attention of a careful editor. There's a number of typos sprinkled throughout the text (on p 189 "Tom Robbins" is, presumably, Tim Robbins; on p 217 we get "a phone-call she felt duty bound to make as soon as she realised what he sister was doing", and so on), and the odd sentence that is obviously unfinished (thus at p 266: "The homosexual subtext might not be immediately obvious to all readers, but to scholars familiar with the secret initiation rites of the Carpocratians and the fact that in the standard Gospel of Mark there is a strange nonsequitur about a young man present at the time of Jesus' arrest in a flimsy covering of a linen cloth which is torn off him, leaving him to run off naked." - well, what about those scholars?).

At other times, the narrative is confused and confusing; on p 193 Katsoulis talks about JT LeRoy as having "spent the entire first half of the 1990s consistently visible above the cultural radar" (and what does it mean to be "above the radar" anyway?), but on only p 191 had talked about him first having come to public attention in 1997. Norma Khouri is said to have taken part in a documentary to clear her name in 2007 (p 157), but only a few sentences later is said to have "made something akin to an admission of guilt" in 2004. There's something odd about that; if the earlier statement was an admission of guilt, what would be the point of an attempt to clear her name?

And when the book ends... well, it just stops. There's no afterword; no attempt to tie everything together to balance the introduction that is - in comparison to the main chapters - rather long. Just an extended quotation and then... nothing.

Katsoulis' book isn't bad by any stretch; but just a tiny bit more could have made it a whole lot better. And, once again, don't go expecting a proper history; that's not what this is. Mind you, in a book about literary deception, it'd perhaps be cavilling to labour the point about that bit of misdirection.
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I have always been interested in things which are not quite what they seem so I was immediately intrigued by this book. It details some of the most well known literary hoaxes - such as Hitler's Diaries, Chatterton's poetry and William Henry Ireland's fake Shakespeare documents. There are also many others less well known. The author suggests that Australia has been the largest producer of literary hoaxes relative to the size of its population and she devotes a whole chapter to specifically Australian hoaxes. The most well known of these is perhaps the Ern Malley poems - supposedly written by a nearly illiterate garage mechanic but actually penned by two poets who were getting tired of the fads and fancies of the literary scene.

What I found most interesting about the book is the varied reactions when the public found out about the hoaxes. Some hoaxers were forgiven and others were driven into obscurity. The reactions seem to have depended to a certain extent on the personality of the hoaxer and the people who had been the so-called victims of the hoax. Where pomposity was exposed there seems to have been little backlash against the perpetrators.

My particular favourite was a wholly insubstantial book created by a radio D J and his late night listeners. He suggested - in discussion with listeners phoning in - that people should go into book shops and ask for a particular book. This very soon created a great deal of talk about the nonexistent book to the extent that when a listener who was in on the hoax mentioned it at a dinner party several people claimed to have read it! A university student even managed to write a paper on the book and its author without anyone realising it was a hoax.

I thought the book raised some interesting questions about the dividing line between fact and fiction. Memoirs are a particular case in point with several instances of people publishing their life stories as fact when they would not have been regarded as a hoax if they had been published as fiction. The case of Herman Rosenblat is a good example where a touching war time memoir was revealed as a fake though the author assures us the book is about to be published instead as fiction. Hoaxes are therefore alive and well and living the 21st century.

The book is well written with a wry humour well suited to its subject. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone interested in the byways of literary history. It is a fascinating insight into the minds of people who carry out these deceptions and into the minds of those who are deceived. My only criticism is the lack of an index though the contents list is quite detailed. I loved the physical appearance of the book as it looks like a faked Penguin publication which fits the subject matter perfectly. Well worth reading.
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on 26 April 2010
Anyone interested in literary hoaxes of all sorts, as I am, will enjoy this book. I suppose, too, we all want to know why the authors passed off these stories as the truth. It's probably a mixture of greed and a desire/need for fame and attention, perhaps more the latter than the former, but who really knows?
Written with appropriate humor, this book documents some of the most famous literary hoaxes, including Rosenblat's Holocaust hoax 'Apples Over The Fence', which was withdrawn before publication, but not before it had generated huge publicity and he and his wife had appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show (interestingly she also initially endorsed James Frey's hoax of harrowing addiction 'A Million Little Pieces'). Perhaps the most difficult and sensitive to expose, it is a brave person who dares to call a Holocaust 'victim' a liar after all.
It is true that many 'autobiographical' literary hoaxes would pass perfectly acceptably as 'fiction' but most would then lose much of their appeal. It is the 'true story' aspect that makes them fascinating in people's minds I think. Especially in the case of memoirs there is the 'what if that had been me?' factor, 'how would I have coped?' Fiction would not have the same grip.
In any event a fascinating insight into both the hoaxers and the fooled and a book I would recommend. I loved the 'fake' cover, as well.
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on 31 December 2009
Reading this book is like having lots of childhood illusions about the honest of man destroyed! I read it thinking "Do people really do this?"

The fact is that, yes, they often do. Sometimes for money, sometimes for honour and glory, sometimes for the fun of it.

This book is written in an easy, readable style. She knows how to tell a story well.

The cover is cleverly designed as a fake old book, and this adds to the magic.

Great book, well worth reading.
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on 18 October 2009
This is a fantastic little book for anyone with an interest in hoaxes or the history of literature. Well written and full of fascinating gems of literary deception. Read it straight through or dip in here and there to the short "stories" the author recreates for us.

The jacket design is also noteworthy with the publisher and designer taking their cue from the descriptions of artificially aged documents within. There are suggestions that the book may contain a hoax of its own but I haven't spotted it yet.

I hope Ms Katsoulis returns to this subject and tells us about more great hoaxes in another volume.
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on 20 May 2012
Telling Tales is a collection of some of the most interesting literary hoaxes committed in the last two centuries, neatly arranged each under its own subheading and then arranged by subject, motive or century. Katsoulis explores the different types of hoax along with possible reasons or motive behind the scam.

There's a wide range of topic covered, some more interesting than others. My favourite was definitely the chapter that covered Celebrity Hoaxes, like the Hitler Diaries or the autobiography of Howard Hughes. I knew a tiny bit about both of these already, but it was great to expand my knowledge. That's the wonderful thing, I think - this book covers everything from famous hoaxes like the above to smaller, every-day scams like those fake 'misery-memoirs' you see so often on supermarket shelves.

I'm not entirely sure every single story deserved to be in here though. There's quite a lot about books written by authors under a different name or using a different photo, and I don't really see anything wrong with that. A story is a story, no matter who it's told by. As long as it's not masquerading as non-fiction, I don't see the harm. That said, I didn't realise Go Ask Alice, the coming-of-age novel about sex and drugs, was written by a middle-aged, middle-class, white woman. Considering the infamy that book has gathered, it was quite a revelation to me.

It would have been nice if the chapter groupings were a little more consistent. Some are arranged by date, some by topic and some by motive and it gets a little annoying. Either write chronologically or by topic, don't chop and change! It's not difficult!

I found it strange that there was no conclusion, bibliography or author information, but this is clearly meant to be a fun read, not an academic tome. That said, the author presupposes you already have a lot of literature-related knowledge, like the complete works of any given author. It's a strange mix, like using sock puppets to explain one concept and then explaining the next in Ancient Arabic at 400 wpm.

The information and tone of this book are great, but I do think the formatting and grouping could be improved a little. The author's leaps of faith also bothered me a tiny bit, as she kept saying the words 'no doubt that...' and 'we can assume that...' and she never cites her references. That said, it's a great read that you can either dip into or sit down and read it in a day (like I did).
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on 10 March 2014
This is fascinating.
Melissa Katsoulis has produced an engaging anecdotal book about some of history's greatest literary hoaxes. Most people will have heard of James Frey and his fooling of Oprah Winfrey. What you won't know is that America's first chatshow lady was suckered twice. This book reveals all. What makes it fascinating is that we're not only treated to a "fooled y'all" set of delights, but we learn how such hoaxes can form the basis for terrible historical events. For example, whilst the "Holocaust hoax memoirs" are despicable, the entire "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is a disturbing continuing link to changing world history. There is the amusing proof that Dan Brown was right all along to write a fictional version of "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" given its authors were duped by one fantasist - Pierre Plantard.
Katsoulis groups her hoaxes into three types: "the genuine hoax, the entrapment hoax and the mock hoax.". It is clear from these that for them to be successful the reader must not only be gullible, but want to accept the ideas/fiction therein. 'Misery Memoirs' are a classic example of success tapped into the psyche of those who need to either empathise or delight in the misfortune of others or simply jump on the "Oprah Book Club' roadshow. Jean Shepherd's 'I, Libertine' is a perfect proof of human herd mentality what with it being a hoax about a book that people claimed to have read yet never existed. Ignominy, and ostracizing are often the results as many of the hoaxes. Examples abound such as those coming out of Australia or the sad tale of Canadian Maria Monk. Some earn plaudits showing they can enhance an author's reputation, such as Mark Twain, or they can give us much amusement, for example Bevis Hillier's dig at A.N. Wilson (who, incidentally, comes across as thoroughly unpleasant in this book - something that has made me non-desirous of reading any of his work).
From fake Shakespeare to the Hitler Diaries...this book is utterly fascinating. It's not a one-sitting read; rather a coffee book guilty pleasure. As readers we can smile wryly at those hoaxes we realize we've been part of simply by buying the books mentioned or making statements which we can trace back to these hoaxes as 'evidence'; as readers we can enjoy this and walk away a little wiser, and perhaps a little more prepared to engage in critical thinking when we read the next book or article on social media rather than blind acceptance of what we are being told.
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on 2 February 2010
If you have a weakness for old school literary gossip and love hearing the stories behind the novels and their authors, this is the book for you.

'Telling tales' is a collection of the stories of the most (in)famous literary hoaxes we know of. The hoaxes are classified after a system, and each story is short and can be read on it's own. The book is perfect for travelling to work or - as in my case - for reading in the small spaces of peace you have when taking care of a baby.

The stories themselves are everything from entertaining to sad, and the book is really a collection of human folly. It will equip you with good conversational topics for dinner parties with other literary geeks, and for that alone it is worth the read. However, don't expect writing and plot that will take your breath away - this is not fiction as such.
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on 29 December 2011
This book was requested for Christmas and my son is absolutely delighted with it. My other son started to read a passage whilst we were wrapping up presents and we now both want to borrow the book when son no. 1 has finished with it.
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