A week in books

Tales just too good to be true
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The Independent Culture

It was lucky that I chose last week to mention a forthcoming memoir of life in Neasden by an eminent Massachusetts academic. NW10 sounds so uncannily like a conceit devised by Michael Frayn or Alan Bennett that it would have tempted fate to cite it in a paper bearing today's date.

In fact, I forswore April Fools years ago, after describing a new novella that Thomas Pynchon had published with the little-known Black Skunk Press of Omaha. This (as I thought) quite transparent canard still managed to flap around the Pynchon fanzines, and then Web sites, for years thereafter.

Hoaxes (especially literary ones) have a strong tendency to take wing and enjoy a vigorous life of their own, from James Macpherson's Celtic bard "Ossian" in 1760 to the great New York abstract painter Nat Tate, brought at last to critical attention by William Boyd. Only last week, that old friend of Paul Bailey and Beryl Bainbridge, "Rhoda F Comstock", leaped into the limelight after the two novelists paid tribute to her masterpiece, "As Flies to Wanton Boys", at the King's Lynn Festival.

Long-running hoaxes thrive when a large enough constituency needs them to be true. In the wake of two failed rebellions, the Edinburgh literati hailed Fingal by "Ossian" as a pillar of Scottish heritage. Pynchon's paranoid fans require mysterious new works, just as Australian intellectuals of the 1940s had to believe that their backyard cultivated world-class Surrealist poetry from "Ern Malley". Those stains on the "Hitler Diaries" come from tea, not age? Never mind: the presses are rolling, and the circulation's bound to boom. Then there's the least amusing example of all: Neo-Nazis still quote from "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", forged by the Tsarist secret service more than a century ago.

The desire to be duped determines the success of the con, not the yarn's credibility. So you'll just a have to trust our story, on page 9, that Murdoch's HarperCollins has thrown another multi-million donation at the world's lousiest writer. After all, no one (in their right mind) could want that to be true.