A book fan who masquerades as a publisher, authors with fake identities, and work that’s not quite as original as it appears… the average person’s view of the literary world is probably a montage of a writer typing away in an idyllic spot, then battling with a bespectacled editor before it gets published, followed by a parade of book tours, readings and so forth.
But, real life really is stranger than fiction, as these audacious stories prove. Here are the biggest literary scandals, where fact and fiction have an uncanny knack for impersonating one another.
An Italian-born, bookish type with a degree in modern literature, Filippo Bernardini, then 29, of London, hungered to advance above his position as a low-level rights manager at Simon & Schuster and make his mark on the world of publishing. As he would later write in a notorious letter reprinted in The New York Times, he “cherished” unpublished manuscripts and longed to feel connected to authors.
In January 2022, Bernardini was charged with identity theft and wire fraud. He was accused of impersonating publishing professionals in order to get his hands on the world’s literary treasures and faced a prison sentence of up to 20 years. As the Assistant Director of the New York FBI, Michael J. Driscoll, put it at the time, Bernardini was trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, “but in the end, he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.”
The book thief had targeted manuscripts by Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Ethan Hawke and Sally Rooney, among many others. Publishers and writers feared their work was going to be pirated and released onto the web.
At one point, US industry publication Publishers Weekly wondered if it was an Australian behind the scam. Why? Because Bernardini impersonated a bookstore located in Melbourne’s Yarraville – The Sun Bookshop, owned by Deb Force.
An email address that looked identical to The Sun Bookshop’s was the latest to approach agents and publishers to ask for pre-publication manuscripts for purportedly legitimate reasons.
Bernardini’s modus operandi had included replacing the lower-case ‘m’ in “Random House” with the lower-case letters ‘rn’ so that, at a glance, fake email addresses and domain names looked legitimate. Now he was using the same cunning to impersonate this little Aussie bookstore.
Owner Deb recalled thinking, “‘This is insane! I’m just this tiny bookshop in Melbourne’. I was really scared that somehow, I was implicated but I didn’t know how.”
By the time Bernardi was taken into custody, he had got his hands on 1000 unpublished manuscripts and created more than 160 fraudulent internet domains impersonating real entities and individuals in publishing.
When he was finally arrested, the case got even stranger. Despite the industry’s fears, Bernardini never leaked, sold or ransomed a single manuscript. He just wanted to read them.
“I never wanted to and I never leaked these manuscripts. I wanted to keep them closely to my chest and be one of the fewest to cherish them before anyone else,” Bernardini wrote in a federal court submission. “I never believed that it would snowball into me performing these crimes as prolifically as I did. I got carried away.”
He was spared a prison sentence and ordered to leave the US.
How did Helen Darville believe she would get away with claiming to be Ukrainian when writing The Hand that Signed the Paper?
Published under the name Helen Demidenko in 1994, the author gave interviews and speeches about her Ukrainian family history that informed the story. She even recounted being teased at school for being “Uranian”.
Winning the Miles Franklin and later the ASAL (Association for the Study of Australian Literature) Gold Medal brought Helen acclaim, but also scrutiny.
The book was criticised for being anti-Semitic and soon Helen Demidenko was revealed to be Helen Darville. Her father was not Ukrainian, he was British.
Norma Khouri’s stunt took things further.
Her story was that she had fled her home in Jordan after her friend, Dalia, was stabbed to death for falling in love with a Catholic. In exile, in Greece, Norma worked as a housekeeper while furiously writing a memoir and manifesto against the practice of honour-killing.
The book, Forbidden Love, became an international bestseller and Norma became a literary star. She was granted permanent resident status in Australia on the grounds that she was a “distinguished talent”.
It was The Sydney Morning Herald’s literary editor Malcolm Knox who unravelled Norma’s story. She had been born in Jordan but left at age three. Now a married mother-of-two, she spent 27 years of her life in Chicago.
When pressed by The Weekly in 2007 she said, “Look, I did lie, but I lied for a reason. It wasn’t fame and fortune I was after, not at all. It was about the issue [of honour killings].”
When teacher, essayist and award-winning literary fiction author John Hughes published The Dogs, it showed early signs of reaching, and perhaps exceeding, his earlier levels of acclaim. That was until allegations arose that John had plagiarised the work of Belarusian Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexievich, author of The Unwomanly Face of War.
An investigation by The Guardian picked up on the glaring similarities between Svetlana’s book and John’s. After being shown the passages, John said the inclusion of Svetlana’s original work, first published in 1985, was unintentional. He wrote, “I did not at any stage … intend to pass off Alexievich’s work as my own and was truly surprised when I saw the material in the article.”
John, whose mother and grandparents had fled Ukraine during World War II, explained that he had taken oral histories from his own grandparents. He had typed notes of Svetlana’s work in order to teach voice to his creative writing students, and must have, over the years, “come to think of them [Svetlana’s passages] as my own”.
John’s response to The Guardian’s discovery met with comments ranging from sympathetic to sceptical. However, in the weeks that followed, literary sleuths uncovered other examples of passages in The Dogs that had been lifted from literary works, such as The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina.
John provided a second statement to The Guardian. This one was defensive. “I’ve always used the work of other writers in my own. It’s a rare writer who doesn’t,” he wrote.