Literary Hoaxes


A literary hoax is a situation where an author of any medium that is published masks their own identity by assuming another. The term literary hoax implies certain assumptions about what is labeled authentic literary works which is said to represent the personal effort of an author or group alone claiming responsibility for what is produced. Conversely a literary hoaxer seeks to obscure his or her own contributions to the work that is produced, offering it as the effort of an entirely different person often concocting elaborate back stories and smokescreens to keep the illusion of the imaginary author alive. In a recent and thought-provoking analysis of literary hoaxes Ken Ruthven contends that 'since what a society values will show up obliquely in what it rejects, reactions to literary forgeries illuminate perceptions of literariness' (Ruthven, 2001). Many points create this account to be worthy of note to those working in the area of ethnic minority literary criticism and their relationship to 'literariness' (Gunew).

To produce a literary hoax is to “deceive by amusing or mischievously fabrication” (Byrne, 10/03/09), the question is when does a hoax in the literary world cross the line and become an outright fraud? The Ern Malley affair was deception to poke fun at modern poetry the hoaxers attempting to writing the worst version of it could; in which case their intentions were to make a literary point. Helen Demidenko hoaxer had a literary point to prove; the Victorian Premiers Prize for Ethnic Literature was a joke and that any author with an ethnic sounding name could get in easily (Byrne, 10/03/09). The problem with Helen Demidenko and other cases outlined in the following section is while no one ever met Ern Malley, Helen Daville was caught out impersonating Helen Demidenko when she carved out an ethnic identity appearing in pleasant blouse, folk dancing on ABC's Sunday Arts (Byrne, 10/03/09).

There are many examples of these hoaxes and some are explored below. There are many others that are also interesting and impressive.

Examples ern-perry.jpg


Ernest 'Ern' Malley (1918-1943) was the name created for a fictitious poet, invented by Harold Stewart and James McAuley., both of whom were poets themselves. In an effort to sustain the fiction, Stewart and McAuley formulated a context for the arrival of Malley's work on the literary scene; Malley, a young working-class man, had been a secret poet, and his never-before-seen poetic works were discovered by Ern's sister, Ethel, after his premature death of Grave's Disease in Sydney at the age of 25. These were then sent to Max Harriswho collated works for Angry Penguins, a reputable modernist literary journal based in Adelaide.
This elaborate hoax was directly aimed at Max Harris, and seven months after the poems had been published, the controversy began. Word got out through a friend of Stewart's, Tess van Sommers, a budding journalist. The story was released, creating a shock-wave of scandal. Some believed, particularly in Adelaide, that Harris, having sent the poetic works to another editor, was attempting self-satire, writing and submitting his own works. Harris began his own investigations, whilst Stewart and McAuley planned to reveal their story to the public in print. Newspapers and journalists themselves were searching for answers. All involved suspected someone different was to blame. It was a scattered and messy situation. The truth was finally released in the university newspaper, On Dit, that Stewart and McAuley were responsible. Harris was given instructions to make inquiries regarding Angry Penguins under Section 108 of the South Australian Police Act with respect to "printed matter of an indecent immoral or obscene nature" (Heyward, 1993:184). Oddly enough, Harris defended Ern Malley on charges of obscenity in 1944, as he loved the literature.

Angry Penguins, Ern Malley edition
Angry Penguins, Ern Malley edition

This case sparks questions of the freedom and liberty of Stewart and McAuley - did they have the right to lie about the identity they created? In the context of this course, one could suggest John Stuart Mill's 'Harm Principle' (On Liberty); - - was it permissable for these poets to lie about Malley's true identity if it wasn't causing harm to another? Was it causing harm to another? If not, does that give them the right to perform such an act? Malley's poetry, despite the poems themselves, were designed to target Max Harris and their perceived degraded state of poetry within Australia. Some could suggest that there was an intention to harm, at least mock, Harris and the poetry he published. With intentions aside, was harm done? In the end Harris went to court to protect Malley's work, as he enjoyed the literature - - thus one could say that initially Harris may have been harmed/mocked, but he loved the poetry. This tests the limits of Mill's argument - - does his 'Harm Principle' hold ground if the one being harmed does enjoy the proxy of the harm?

In the text 'The Ern Malley Affair" by Michael Heyward, the chapter 'Indecent, Immoral, Obscene" deals with the trial and reason why the poems came under fire. According to the text, Max Harris, editor to the literary magazine Angry Penguins, was charged with 'Indecent Advertisement" (Heyward, 1993:184). What is interesting here is that it wasn't the writers of the poem who were being charged, but the editor who published these poems and made them available to the public. This bring responsibility into the discussion, who should be responsible for the content, and their interpretations by the public? During the time of the trial, it was only rumoured that the poems where not actually written by Ern Malley, so in court, they believed they were Malley's written work, and that this writer was deceased. When the possibility of a hoax was presented in the courtroom, Harris insisted that it did not matter who wrote these poems. What he was interested in was the poems themselves, and the work is still significant, disregarding whether it was accidental or not.

The poems were considered by Malley as 'serious literary works'. Throughout the trial, it was a constant arguement that these poems, although sounding crude or vulgar, they never had the intention to incite sexual emotions. These poems, published in a literary production, were meant for the kind of audience who would appreciate and understand the poems in the correct context Harris stated "our publication is intended for cultural minds, who understand these things, and place ordinary thoughts on a higher level" (Heyward, 1993:187). What was interesting though Section 108 there was no allowance as a defence for literary or artistic merit as an argument because if children had access to the magazine, then it was not valid to claim the publication as a serious literary forum (Heyward,1993:184). The law did not take acount of literary and artistic merit until 1953 (Heyward, 1993:211).

Individiual perspective of the poems was a running theme throughout the case. Harris insisted that he could not assume what others interpreted in the poems, because everyone was entitled to their own opinions and that cultured minds and ordinary minds would view their meaning differently. These points also suggested that perhaps it was 'only the mentally depraved' who would see obsenities and indecencies within the poems.
In the end Harris was fined £5 in lieu of the six weeks imprisonment. Reed would later comment "the guardians of our morals take liberties which are quite unpardonable..though one doesn't know whether to lay most blame on them or on the legislators or on the public which permits them to function in this way" (Heyward, 1993:210).

Michael Heyward draws a crucial distinction between the Ern Malley hoax and the Helen Demidenko Affair (below): 'One big difference between what she has done and what Harold Stewart and James McAuley did, is they very cunningly crafted the whole Ern Malley-Ethel Malley story. It's a brilliant story with plenty panache and if we were to look at the fibs that Helen Darville has told about herself, it doesn't cohere the same way, that it's not nearly as cunningly worked out'. (Ryan & Thomas)

Ern Malley and Bill Henson

This case bears similarities with Bill Henson's photographs. The online invitations portrayed a photograph taken by Bill Henson of a naked girl, who was underage. This caused much controversy, and the question of responsibility also comes up. Like the poems, was it the creator of the work or the published who is responsible for the exposure of the works? Both works were intentionally published for a selected audience, but problems arose when they leaked into the general public. But who is responsible? The artist/writers, or the people in charge of their publication?

Censorship also enters the argument. Should the creators of the artwork have restricted themselves when beginning their piece? Both parties were aware that their works would eventually reach the public's eye, that was their intention. Both had an intended audience, both argued that their piece was meant to be viewed within a context, by cultured minds and those who have knowledge in the selected area. Were they aware that perhaps the non-intended audience would also see and be offended or would not understand? If they had restricted their views and censored themsleves, then their freedom of expression would have been compromised, but as we have seen, by honouring their freedom of expression, they have inadvertently (or purposely?) given up some responsibility.

In order to understand the following example, the Demidenko Affair, it is essential to contrast it with the renowned Australian literary hoax, Ern Malley and his spurious poems, The Darkening Ecliptic. (Ryan & Thomas) This is not by mistake, that the two shameful groups were separated for approximately fifty years (Malley poems--1943; Darville--1993). WWII forms a setting for both The Hand that Signed the Paper and The Darkening Ecliptic.
Darville's novel encompasses the idea of presenting how postmodernism adheres to no clear standards of literary value. If she had the ambition to become another Ern Malley, she was up against a difficult obstacle. Since hoaxes depend greatly on pastiche (in the sense of stylistic imitation) she had placed herself in the strance position of having pastiche pastiche. As she wrote herself in a 1995 article, 'For those who feel the need of ethical signposting, the fictional form I have employed clearly doesn't provide enough in the way of didacticism...Aside from being an insult to the reader's intelligence, authorial moralising denies the reader space to draw his own conclusions' (Ryan & Thomas).

Helen Demidenko/Darville

external image handpaper.jpg
Helen Demidenko is the hoax author and columnist who composed the novel, The Hand That Signed the Paper, which was actually written by twenty-year-old Australian author Helen Dale (born 1972) [also known as Helen Darville] whilst she was studying literature at university. This book is constantly referred to as a book of scandal, one of Australia's biggest literary scandals, despite winning many literary awards such as the Australian Vogel Literary Award, since it was released (Morrison & Watkins; 2006). The novel explores the role that the Ukrainian SS played throughout the Holocaust, accused as being anti-seminist and receiving a huge bombardment of condemnation by Australian Jewish community leaders.

When interviewed by the ABC in 2006, Dale stated:

[Music in background - - Pearl Jam's 'Jeremy']
"I've always liked Pearl Jam's 'Jeremy', because it manages to capture, in a way that, say Bowling for Columbinedid in an extended way, some of the destructive thinking and motivations that can arise in adolescence, and certainly was the type of thinking that I wanted to explore in my book and has always exercised my mind since I was quite young. I would be the one sitting there observing people, wondering which was the kid who could flip the switch and go off the deep end. They were obviously thinking about the same sort of thing—what is it like, how do you deal with being someone who doesn't conform and what are the consequences in our society of someone who fails to conform?"

This quote shows very clearly Dale's intention in writing her novel, which was so controversial. She chose to loosen the censorship in her work and write about a topic that caused discussion and disagreements, rather than reducing the blunt nature of her work. She didn't observe any responsibility to her readers, but rather, to exploring this difficult and complicated topic. She expressed her freedom and right to explore the idea, despite its implications.

In 2006, Dale also wrote in a blog the reason for writing under a pseudonym:

"I hadn’t intended the pseudonym to hold for very long. It was designed to last until my main source for the novel died. At the time, he had terminal bone marrow cancer and six months to live. I promised him that he wouldn’t be prosecuted under the War Crimes Act on my account. Shortly after I won the Australian/Vogel Award, his cancer went into remission and faced me with a real quandary. I decided to keep the pseudonym, although came perilously close to letting my publisher in on the secret. I only stopped from doing so after receiving an absolute stinker of an editorial report. It accused me of racism and called my novel propaganda and a pornography of violence. They would not divulge the editor’s name to me, only sending a photocopy of her report and refusing to answer questions when I rang. In a fit of immaturity, I figured that two could play that game. I tore up my half written letter and binned it. If a custard pie hits me in the face, I figured, it’ll get you lot as well."

This quote shows that the pseudonym gave both Dale's source and herself the freedom to express and explore a complicated and, to some, distressful topic.

Interestingly in regards to this text, the censorship issues were with the morals and ethics of this work rather than the usual questions over artistic merit and literary worth. This (the limits of Freedom, Andrew Riemer) forms an interesting insight to the complexities of censorship and public offence in Australia. In this text "the emphasis has been thrown onto the reprehensible way in which the author, her publishers, and literary panels are suppose to have conducted themselves. The plea was, in other words, for restraint, essentially for self-censorship." (Riemer, 1996, pg220) This interest in self-censorship seems to be an issue we are running up against in all the various research we have done throughout this study. Our society has had external censorship enforced so heavily upon us that we have been ingrained with social morals and codes. People are expected to act within the bounds of these codes and to self-censor their work and personal conduct. It is when someone steps outside these boundaries that the society becomes offended. What is most upsetting more often than not, is that the offender is asking the society to question their bounds and examine their reasonings for such boundaries, yet the fear of having to do this, for some reason, sends society into a moral panic over censorship. In regards to this work, what is most interesting is that the society was not asking for the bounds of censorship to be extended in order to encompass this kind of work, more-so they were looking to simply condemn the artist and her associates. Why is this do we think

It is evident that certain topics and the literary presentation of certain facets of experience tend to fall beyond what those standards and values tolerate. In the present intellectual and political climate , the sexual abuse of children is probably the one area where are broad consensus has been achieved. That should not be taken to imply that the subject in general is considered to fall beyond the limits of acceptability. (Riemer, 1996)

Wanda Koolmatrie

Another similar and well known case of misused identity is evident in the story of a writer known as Wanda Koolmatrie. Referred to as the 'greatest... theft of Aboriginal identity' Wanda Koolmatrie in fact turned out to be a white male - an Australian taxi driver named Leon Carmen. Carmen had used this false identity to compose an autobiography known as 'My Own Sweet Time' telling the story of a woman who was a member of the stolen generation, taken from her family in 1950.

The truth was revealed 3 years after "Koolmatrie's" initial publication, after Carmen had already recieved the 'Nita May Doobie Award'. This occured as a result of Carmen's wish to write a follow-up novel, and his subsequent obligation to meet his publishers face to face. The revelation caused a public outcry; not only was the book a lie and the author a fraud, but the man who wrote it had no affiliation with the indigenous community at all. The book became a blight on the publishing house and was seen as an exploitative insult to the Aboriginal population and an embarrassment to its believing readership:

Carmen was able to link (and blur the boundaries between) indigenous cultural organisations and cultural elites, including the 'literary establishment', the publishing industry, and intellectuals, making each a target of reactionary populism.'

Through Carmen's justifications, the publication of such a book was supposed to demonstrate the gender disparity in the Australian publishing houses in favour of female writers, and also the partiality for 'minority authors', in this case an Aboriginal woman. Carmen may have demonstrated this truth, but as a result of the hoax he was forced to return his prize money for the Doobie award. 'My Own Sweet Time' was removed from sales and widely condemned.

Evidently there are many restrictions placed on literature which concludes that freedom does not exist because writers have the responsibilty of writing appropriately and not offending others. If they brake these boundaries then consequences arise, in this case the consequences saw Carmen's book being taken away from sales and him being heavily criticised in the media.

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Norma Khouri

Norma Khouri is the author of Forbidden Love, first widely acclaimed and recieved as an important non-fiction work on the repressive conditions of life for women in Jordan. The book is centred on the honour-killing of Khouri's best friend Daria, who was charged with falling in love with a Christian man and as a result murdered by her family. Initially Khouri was congratulated on so boldly revealing this story which endangered her and isolated her from her native Jordan, hailed by human rights groups and favoured by media around the world for furthering womens' rights in the otherwise "backwards" middle east. When Malcom Knox, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald,

Intentional Fallacy

Coined by literary critics William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in their 1946 essay 'The Intentional Fallacy', the term 'intentional fallacy' is used to criticise the supposition that the meaning of a piece of literature as intended by the author is the most important and the most 'correct' way to interpret said work (1946, p. 468-488; Wikipedia). The problem with this assumption is that a literary work can be read differently by different people based on the readers' individual life experience. In the case of literary hoaxes, the fact that there were controversies when the real authors were found out was only because there were readers who regard these hoaxes as quality literary works in their own right. Regardless of the intent of the authors, the Ern Malley case for example, the resultant literature seemed to gain admirers of significant literary knowledge such as Harris who even defended the meaning of certain Ern Malley poems in court even though the original authors did not intend to create actual 'literature' that made sense. If the original authors' intent is taken as the only way to read the literary text, the Ern Malley works should only be regarded as nonsense; however, even through the simple poem interpretation exercise in the lecture, it could be seen that the poems can be read in a few different manners that conclude in cohesive interpretations, contrary to the authors' statement that they should not be coherent texts.


(Anyone can add...)

Works Cited:

ABC 2006 "Whatever happened to Helen Demidenko?", ABC Radio National, viewed 10 October 2009, <>.
Dale, H. 2006 "My life as a young Australian novelist", Australian Libertarian Society Blog, viewed 10 Octover 2009, <>., "Pseudonym Definition",, viewed 10 October 2009, < >.
Jennifer Byrne presents: hoaxes (2009) website:, first airing:10/03/09, accessed 18/10/09.

Heiss. A, 'ANU Reporter; Aborigines taking control of their history'.
Heyward, M. 1993, "Indecent, Immoral, Obscene" The Ern Malley Affair UPQ pp 182 - 212; 275 - 7
Gunew, Sneja Marina (2004). Haunted Nations: The Colonial Dimensions of Multiculturalisms. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London. p. 72.
Mill, J.S. 1910, "On Liberty" Utilitarianism, Liberty and Representative Government, p. 65-77.
Morrison, J. & Waltkins, S. 2006, "'Scandalous Fictions: The Twentieth-Century Novel and Public Sphere", Palgrave Macmillan.
Ryan & Thomas (2003).Cultures of Forgery: Making Nations, Making Selves. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, NY. pp. 178-181
The Ern Malley Official Website -
Wikipedia, "Intentional Fallacy", Wikipedia, viewed 10 October 2009, <>.
Wimsatt, W.K. & Beardsley, M.C. 1946, "The Intentional Fallacy", The Sewanee Review, Vol. 54, No. 3, p. 468-488.