Columbia Law School

A Tale of Three Hoaxes: When Literature Offends the Law

Molly Guptill Manning



Literary hoaxes have taken many different appearances, and their ability to continue to evade early detection by publishing houses, readers and reviewers adds to their mischievousness and the intrigue surrounding them.  Typically, hoax literature provides a compelling narrative that lures readers into valuing the words being read because they are supposed to be true.  Consequently, once the hoax is revealed for what it is, readers often experience strong feelings of disappointment, anger and embarrassment for having been tricked; some are even amused for having been played the fool.  Countless times, the book industry has been brought under fire for not catching a hoax before a book is released for public consumption and allowed to ravage unsuspecting readers.  Despite cries for reform, few changes have been made and publishing companies have increasingly been hailed into court for resolution of disputes arising from these literary capers.  In fact, over the last century, hoaxes have spawned congressional hearings, lawsuits and even criminal prosecution, yet they show no sign of slowing and, if anything, have only grown more prevalent.

This article examines the tradition of the literary hoax, and then focuses on three unique examples that resulted in court intervention.  Part I provides a brief history of literary hoaxes and samples the many guises they have taken over the years.  Parts II, III and IV provide detailed accounts of the hoaxes perpetrated by Arthur Train, Clifford Irving and James Frey, respectively, and explore how Train got away with his mischief, Irving ended up behind bars, and Frey and his publisher became entangled in a class action lawsuit and a multimillion dollar judgment.  Part V attempts to reconcile the differing outcomes for Train, Irving and Frey.  As there is a dearth of case law clarifying what acts might result in civil liability, an examination of past hoaxes and their resulting litigation lends some lucidity as to what acts might result in imprisonment, monetary damages and public acquittal for one’s literary sins.


ISSN 2161-9271 (Online) | 1544-4848 (Print)

© Copyright 2014, The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York.

Published in Partnership with the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia University Libraries/Information Services.