Sunday, 20 May 2012

Review: Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes by Melissa Katsoulis

Book cover for Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes by Melissa Katsoulis
While Telling Tales was my Random Reads pick for this month, chances are I would have read it soon anyway. It just looks exactly like my kind of book - accessible non-fiction neatly arranged by topic, with a funky cover and, most importantly, about a topic I adore - books.

When Dionysus the Renegade faked a Sophocles text in 400BC (cunningly inserting the acrostic ‘Heraclides is ignorant of letters’) to humiliate an academic rival, he paved the way for two millennia of increasingly outlandish literary hoaxers. The path from his mischievous stunt to more serious tricksters like the controversial memoirist and Oprah-duper James Frey, takes in every sort of writer: from the religious zealot to the bored student, via the vengeful academic and the out-and-out joker. 

But whether hoaxing for fame, money, politics or simple amusement, each perpetrator represents something unique about why we write. Their stories speak volumes about how reading, writing and publishing have grown out of the fine and private places of the past into big-business, TV-book-club-led mass-marketplaces which, some would say, are ripe for the ripping. For the first time, the complete history of this fascinating sub-genre of world literature is revealed. Suitable for bookworms of all ages and persuasions, this is true crime for people who don't like true crime, and literary history for the historically illiterate.

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).  

Visit the author's website here.

1 comment:

  1. I am going to need this book. It's going right on my wishlist!


Grab my Button

Booking in Heels

Booking In Heels Copyright 2008 Fashionholic Designed by Ipiet Templates Supported by Tadpole's Notez