Deception: On & Between The Covers

Typee Portion of Cover

In discussing Herman Melville’s Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, David Samuels writes in Lapham’s Quarterly, “All literature is a species of fraud.” Authors routinely borrow from other sources and process first- and second-hand experiences through their imaginations. Melville was no exception.

Typee was originally published in 1846 as a travelogue purporting to describe the author’s four months on a Polynesian island. Soon after publication, however, reviewers questioned the accuracy of the story, with one prominent review “dismiss[ing] it as a ‘piece of Munchausenism.’”

Apparently, like the “sock-puppets” we have today, Melville defended his credibility in anonymous articles. According to Samuels, “The suggestion that Typee was a fraud stung Melville deeply.” Yes, he took creative liberties with the details of his time on the island, but he otherwise believed in the truths behind his autobiographical fiction.

I read Samuels’ piece with more recent examples of literary lies in mind, such as the disgraced James Frey’s embellished memoir and the beloved J. K. Rowling’s impersonation of an ex-military police officer.

There’s nothing wrong with adding creative touches to nonfiction or assuming a pseudonym, as long as the resulting books are marketed appropriately. As I said on this blog back when we first learned about the famous woman behind ex-military police officer “Robert Galbraith,” “We don’t expect a fictional novel to be real between the covers, but we do expect the text on the front and back to reflect the truth about the book’s origin.” In that case, “Galbraith’s” biography, which was almost entirely a fabrication, claimed that the idea for the main character “grew directly” from the [fake] author’s “experiences.”

A fake author bio that suggests a work of fiction is based on first-hand fact is a problem from a consumer protection angle. So is a memoir or travelogue that is closer to fiction than to real-life. Sometimes that happens inadvertently–the effects of memory over time–but deviations from the truth shouldn’t be intentional. If the front and back covers indicate that the content of the book is factually accurate, then that’s what readers should get. After all, it is often one of the factors that convinces consumers to spend their hard-earned money on that book instead of one of the others on the shelves.

These days, it seems like most people refer to Melville’s Typee as a novel, not a memoir or travelogue, thus resolving the controversy around its authenticity. The struggle behind the marketing of that novel nearly 170 years ago is one that many authors probably identify with today. Saying a book is based in fact might increase sales, but authors and publishers take a risk when they lie. Nobody wants to be accused of “Munchausenism,” right?

Not that it’s unusual to twist the truth sometimes. We do it for a variety of reasons, from sparing someone’s feelings (“hey, that’s a great haircut!”) to keeping ourselves out of trouble (“I swear, the dog ate my homework!”). But some lies are worse than others, and among the more pernicious examples are the ones that manipulate people into making purchasing decisions based on false information (a/k/a consumer fraud).

Other fabrications might not be such a big deal.

On that note, today’s my 28th birthday! It’s not a total lie. I don’t feel any older than that. 😉


  1. Happy belated birthday! I hope you had a nice one. 🙂

    Reading your post, I thought immediately of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which I have seen listed as both nonfiction and fiction. It’s quite obvious Capote took creative license in writing his book (which I really liked).

    I don’t feel particularly upset about the Rowling/Galbraith false bio–not enough to keep me from reading Rowling’s books anyway. But I do disapprove of lying in a bio–or the need to. I get the why (marketing/sales–which doesn’t make it right), but it’s dumb and can lead to huge embarrassment when the truth comes out.

    I read any memoir with a grain of salt, knowing the author likely embellished and took creative liberties. Add to it that when you deal in memory and perceptions, it can get complicated. Two siblings might not remember one childhood event the same way. It’s a given. I’d like to think, however, that a book labeled nonfiction, like a memoir, is at least mostly true–has the important facts right.

    I don’t read as many memoirs as I once did, admittedly. The whole scandal with Little Pieces and subsequent untrue memoirs put me off of them. If I wanted to read an inspiring fictional story, I have shelves full of options.

    I think it’s disrespectful to the reader to pass off fiction as nonfiction. It’s easy and lazy and not doesn’t say much for an author’s integrity.

  2. I’m twenty-eight every year. Happy birthday!

    Remember the Blair Witch Project? It was presented as a documentary, and that was an extremely brilliant bit of film making, not to mention that approach helped make the movie a surprise indie hit. To this day, I’ll bet there are people who believe itt was a real documentary.

    Was what they did wrong or right? 🙂

    1. Thanks! It was a nice birthday. I have vague memories of the Blair Witch Project. Was it advertised as real? I didn’t think so, even though I agree that there are some people who probably believe that it was. As long as the ads weren’t misleading, then it’s okay in my book.
      Have a great weekend!

  3. I’m inclined to agree with janceewright about the Rowling/Galbraith thing. In fact, I rather liked the deception and understood where she was coming from. If you don’t want to ride on your reputation as a certain kind of author, isn’t it fair to not refer to that name? The Galbraith novel did not really appeal to me when I first saw it, and knowing later that Rowling wrote it didn’t bother me. I still chose not to read it. I know of authors who have taken as their pen name the name of their first person narrator. This is an amusing affectation but relatively harmless in the great scheme of things. The Typee thing was new to me. I had always thought of it as a novel, and don’t find that the controversy much affects my reading of it. I didn’t think it grabbed me the way Moby Dick did, and that was heavy going at the time.

    And whatever birthday it really is, have a good one!

    1. “If you don’t want to ride on your reputation as a certain kind of author, isn’t it fair to not refer to that name?” True, but then Rowling could’ve simply used a pseudonym with a vague bio. Instead, the bio was very specific and claimed experience that impacted the development of the book. That’s the problem. I think most people weren’t bothered by Rowling’s deception, though I do wonder if they would’ve felt differently had it been an unknown author claiming military service.

      Thanks for the birthday wishes! I’m 34 today.

  4. I didn’t really see the Rowling/Galbraith thing as a huge deal, but I can see where you’re coming from, at least in theory. Personally, I thought the fake biography added a touch of fun and realism to the whole thing, and I didn’t really think about it much past that. I don’t really tend to pay attention to author biographies and the like – if the book is good, I’ll read it. If not, I won’t. But these are all very good points.

    1. Hi Jancee! You’re definitely not alone in feeling that way about the Galbraith bio. I think some people would’ve been more offended by it had it been James Frey with a fake bio instead of Rowling, but then there are others who just wouldn’t be bothered by it. I do read author biographies, and I’m much more likely to buy a book when the author has some connection to the subject (even when it’s fiction).

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