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Literary Scandals

by | Mar 29, 2023 | Articles and Reports

We don’t live in utopia and the literary world is far from perfection, with its fair share of flaws and scandals, we have chosen few that will give you a whole new perspective on the world of literature.

The Lost Author: Elena Ferrante Outed

When My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, appeared in 2014, everyone knew “Elena Ferrante” was a pseudonym, and, as the linked piece from Entertainment Weekly indicates, that the author wished their real identity to remain unknown. In 2016, however, a fellow Italian writer, Claudio Gatti, “exposed” Elena Ferrante as a woman, a reclusive translator. The real scandal here was not anything Ferrante did or didn’t do, but rather Gatti’s digging through years of financial and real estate records to “prove” her identity. He got attacked on The Twitter although that probably didn’t bother him one bit. Worse, he tried to infer that the “real” Ferrante couldn’t have written her books without editorial support from her husband. At the time, Ferrante said being “outed” by name might deter her from writing.

Cultural Blinders: American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a novel about a Mexican woman and her son attempting to migrate illegally to the United States, triggered backlash early when the  book launch-luncheon floral centerpieces featured decorative circles of barbed wire. The wire, of course, was part of the book jacket design, but it’s also a clear symbol of the border fence meant to prevent immigrants from entering the country. Classy, right? The insensitive decorative choice launched a thousand diatribes. However, the backlash ultimately went much deeper than table decoration. Rightfully, Latinx authors and readers object to the inappropriate cultural appropriations, including reductive caricatures of Mexicans, made by a non-Mexican author.

The Biographies of Monstrous Men: Blake Bailey & Philip Roth and Blake Bailey

Biographer Blake Bailey was riding high when his account of novelist Philip Roth’s life hit bookstores, and felt comfortable enough during interviews to mention Roth’s bad behaviour toward women, stating that it was all part of a great artist’s time on earth. But when Bailey that same year was accused of sexually assaulting two women (one rape is alleged to have taken place upstairs at literary critic Dwight Garner’s home during a book party), his publisher, W.W. Norton, halted shipping, distribution, and further printing of the Roth biography. In June 2022, Skyhorse Books announced it will be publishing Blake Bailey’s latest book . . . on cancel culture.

Manuscript Mischief: Filippo Bernardini (2021)

Plenty of other authors, agents, editors, and publishing execs were caught out by a Simon & Schuster UK employee named Filippo Bernardini, who conducted a high-level manuscript-phishing scam so that he could sell the manuscripts—that would have required using a proper email address. When he was arrested in January 2022 at JFK airport, Bernardini alone was indicted; S&S UK was not involved in the case in any way. Will we ever know what the manuscripts stolen, which included works by Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke, meant to him?

The Hitler Diaries

Fooled by what must be the most audacious literary fraud in history, The Sunday Times announced in 1983 that it was in possession of Adolf Hitler’s personal diaries covering the entire war.

The Sunday Times resolutely defended the authenticity of the documents for a fortnight before backing down

German reporter Gerd Heinemann claimed to have unearthed the diaries which were reportedly lost when a Junkers transport plane, evacuating a hoard of the Fuhrer’s personal possessions during his last stand in Berlin in 1945, crashed near the German-Czechoslovak border.

Although several authorities on the history of the war, including leading historian Hugh Trevor Roper, had privately begun to express doubts about the authenticity of the diaries, Sunday Times proprietor Rupert Murdoch is said to have insisted that the newspaper publish the sensational scoop anyway.

Although it took several sophisticated analyses to finally prove the hoax, some obvious errors were later referred to by those who had handled the diaries, such as incorrect use of Hitler’s initials and the fact that they were all presented in an identical cheap exercise book format that would be difficult to source across a number of years.

The Shakespeare Papers

In 1796 opinion of the work of William Shakespeare was briefly reshaped by the ‘discovery’ of a hoard of documents, including several plays, apparently written by the bard.

Law clerk William Henry Ireland claimed to have found the documents in a trunk. They included plays Vortigern and Rowena and Henry II and, even more sensationally, a ‘Profession of Faith’ in which Shakespeare declared himself a Protestant.

The son of an author and engraver who was himself obsessed by Shakespeare’s work, it was said Ireland junior fabricated the fraud to impress his father.

As is often the case with such sensational ‘discoveries’, things quickly got out of hand and soon the Drury Lane Theatre was planning a production of Vortigern. The production was practically laughed off the stage.

Like Rupert Murdoch with The Hitler Diaries, it is believed the theatre doubted the authenticity of the play but went ahead anyway, presumably to sell tickets. Nonetheless Ireland’s father claimed until his death that the documents were authentic.

When Thomas Pynchon came out of hiding to defend Ian McEwan

In the back of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, he acknowledges the book’s debt to No Time for Romance, Lucilla Andrews’s 1977 memoir of serving as a nurse during WWII. But when Andrews died in 2006, a journalist raised some questions about McEwan’s use of that memoir. In an article in the Daily Mail, Julia Langdon alleged that before her death, Andrews had felt “there was a score to be settled. That Ian McEwan should, so to speak, be brought to book.” Predictably, this all brought up lots of questions about McEwan’s use of Andrews’s material, and whether he had used it responsibly. McEwan maintained that he had done nothing wrong—he had, after all, publicly acknowledged her and her work on multiple occasions. “I did use real events that Lucilla Andrews described,” he told the Times. “As far as I know, my wording has been distinct from hers. My own mother used to read her books, so it was not as if I was plucking some obscure figure from the library shelves.” Several prominent writers, including John Updike, Martin Amis, Thomas Keneally, Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood, also came to McEwan’s defense. The famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon even felt it necessary to chime in, sending this statement via his British publisher:

When Dan Brown got sued, and then got sued again, and then. . 

Three separate parties have accused Dan Brown of plagiarising their work to create his mega-bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. First, there was Lewis Perdue, who argued Brown had stolen from his novels The Da Vinci Legacy and Daughter of God. The judge wasn’t having it—”Any slightly similar elements are on the level of generalised or otherwise unprotectable ideas,” he wrote in his ruling. Next were Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two historians who claimed that Brown had “appropriated the architecture” of their 1982 book The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. The judge dismissed the case. “Even if the central themes were copied, they are too general or of too low a level of abstraction to be capable of protection by copyright law,” he said. Baigent and Leigh appealed; but their appeal also failed. Now there’s Jack Dunn, who has actually been trying to sue Dan Brown for allegedly stealing “hundreds” of elements from his book The Vatican Boys, for a decade or more. After losing his plagiarism case in 2007, he has recently begun preparations to open a new one.




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