12 Literary Scandals That Are So Much Stranger Than Fiction
From the secret smuggling of the Aleppo Codex and plagues of plagiarism, to the pseudonyms that keep readers everywhere guessing and epic literary heists worthy of a Nancy Drew novel, the history of literary scandals is a well-documented one (we are all story lovers here, after all.) Between authors behaving badly and book-lovers with some rather sticky fingers, the book world is just as full of scandal as some of our favorite novels, thrillers, and mysteries themselves. And these stories of literary fame, fortune, fraud, and downfall prove that very often, the truth is oh-so-much stranger than fiction.
I mean, who can forget the James Frey and Oprah Winfrey face-off heard ‘round the world? Or what about that time a certain someone pulled his Nobel Prize acceptance speech directly from SparkNotes? (Honestly, of all places.) Even greats like Truman Capote have had their feet held to the fire once or twice, in the pursuit of writing great literature. And if there’s one thing that grabs book lovers’ attention more than a really compelling story, it’s a really compelling story about a really compelling story.
Here are 13 of the biggest scandals in literary history — or, at least, in the last 150 years of literary history.
1. That Time Helen Keller Was Accused Of Plagiarism
At the ripe old age of 11, Miss Keller wrote a short story entitled “The Frost King” which was first published in the Perkin’s School for the Blind alumni magazine, and later in local Virginia newspaper the Goodson Gazette, whereupon it was then found to be similar to another short story, Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” The incident is documented in Keller’s memoir, The Story of My Life, where she writes of her horror and humiliation upon realizing that the story must have been read to her, and she unknowingly absorbed it as her own.
2. Truman Capote's Relationship With Perry Smith
Considered a classic masterpiece of true crime writing, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood — a work of investigative reportage that documents the brutal murders of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959 — isn’t without its own share of literary scandal. In the wake of the book’s success, rumors started to circulate as to whether or not Capote had fallen in love with convicted murderer Perry Edwards, throughout the process of researching the book.
3. That Howard Hughes Autobiography That Landed Clifford Irving In Jail
Considered one of the biggest literary hoaxes of the 20th century, in the early 1970s novelist and investigative reporter Clifford Irving claimed to have written the first authorized autobiography of the notoriously reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, based on meetings and interviews — none of which actually took place. Instead, Irving forged letters to himself from Hughes to back up his story, assuming his secretive and publicity-shy subject would never come forward to deny the claims. Oh how wrong Mr. Irving was. After Hughes denied ever knowing Irving, the writer and his research assistant pled guilty to conspiracy, and served 17 months and five months in federal prison, respectively.
4. Stephen Blumberg's Sticky Fingers
He’s the book-lover who became known as the Book Bandit — arrested in 1990 for being the most successful book thief in U.S. history. $5.3 million successful, in fact. During his bookish kleptomania, Minnesota-native Stephen Blumberg reportedly stole over 23,600 rare and valuable books from universities and museums across 45 states and Canada. That is some serious thieving.
5. The Rise And Fall Of Stephen Glass
While working as a journalist for The New Republic, Stephen Glass made a name for himself as one of the most successful young journalists writing at that time. Then, in 1998, it was discovered that Glass had entirely made up events, quotes, and sources for many of his most-famed articles. The young journalist’s epic rise and fall was documented in a Vanity Fair article titled "Shattered Glass", by Buzz Bussinger.
6. That Whole James Frey/Oprah Winfrey Thing
You had to know this little gem was coming. There’s just something about pissing off Oprah Winfrey that immortalizes you. Even my then-teenage self knew that fooling Oprah was a VERY BAD idea. After helping land author James Frey’s highly-fictionalized memoir A Million Little Pieces on the New York Times bestseller list and interviewing him for her television book club, the talk show host called Frey out in a big way, after discovering that the events in his memoir — and those he discussed during their interview — were embellished and/or fictionalized entirely.
7. The Time Oprah Got Tricked, Again
Hardly as epic as the Oprah/Frey standoff, a few years after the A Million Little Pieces scandal died down, television's most famous book club host was embroiled in another controversy. After calling Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, Angel at the Fence the single greatest love story of all time — which is about a girl who fed Rosenblat from outside the bars of his concentration camp, and whom he would later go on to marry — it was discovered that, once again, an Oprah-endorsed memoir was actually fiction. There has to be a better screening process for these things, no?
8. The 'Three Cups of Tea' Scandal
This one falls more into the realm of literary tragedy than literary scandal — and again, readers got totally duped. In his acclaimed memoirs, Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools author Greg Mortenson touts his experience crossing cultures and founding more than 170 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As it turns out, not only were most of those schools unsupported or non-existent, Mortenson fabricated much of his memoir as well. Then, in the aftermath of the scandal, Mortenson’s co-author, David Oliver Relin (who was reportedly innocent of the lies circulated by Mortenson) committed suicide.
9. That Time ‘Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian’ Was Stolen…
…and then nothing happened. In June of 2015, news outlets everywhere reported that the finished copy of E.L. James’ new book, Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian had been stolen from publisher Penguin Random House UK, just 10 days before the novel’s scheduled release on June 18 (Christian’s fictional birthday), inciting fears that the book would be leaked and sending local Kent Police scrambling to solve the caper. A few days later, Penguin Random House UK released a second statement, sharing the discovery that “the book's theft does not appear to have been for any malicious intent or financial gain.” Kent Police followed up with the assertion that there was no evidence linked to theft at all. So… failed publicity stunt? We may never know.
10. The Sadness That Was ‘Go Set A Watchman’
Wrongfully published first draft or major manipulation? Either way, I think most book lovers can agree that Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman should have never seen the light of day. The scandal around the publication of the author’s alleged “long lost manuscript” started before the novel even landed on bookstore shelves in the summer of 2015. While some reports painted Lee as a willing participant in the publication of the manuscript, most describe her then-lawyer, Tonja Carter, as a money-grabbing master manipulator who took advantage of a post-stroke, hearing- and sight-impaired Lee, in the wake of her sister’s death.
11. That Time Bob Dylan Used SparkNotes For His Nobel Prize Speech
When I first heard that music icon Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was seriously stoked. Were there other artists and writers far more deserving (ehem, Joan Didion)? Absolutely. But the classic folk/rock music-lover in me was pumped. Then, suddenly, that old-school-cool Dylan went right out the window. First, he wasn’t so gracious about receiving the award in the first place… even a tad put out, dare I say? Then, he reportedly plagiarized his Nobel Prize speech from the SparkNotes summary for Moby-Dick. Womp, womp.
12. That Time Simon & Schuster Dropped Milo Yiannopoulos’s Memoir
Milo Yiannopoulos sure managed to stir up a shitstorm during his 15 minutes of fame last year. Deemed the poster child of the worst of the alt-right, Yiannopoulos quickly morphed into the poster child/caricature of the worst of EVERYBODY (the right wing, misogynists, Millennials, Twitter trolls, writers, private school students…) But then, he really crossed a line (and it wasn’t just pissing off Roxane Gay.) In light of a series of comments made by Yiannopoulos that were deemed sympathetic to pedophilia and child abuse, publisher Simon & Schuster dropped Yiannopoulos’s memoir, for which they’d originally paid a six-figure advance. The scorned writer then sued the publisher, before dropping the suit himself earlier this year.