The multiple plagiarism accusations first unearthed by Guardian Australia that have plagued John Hughes and his latest novel, The Dogs, causing the book to be withdrawn from the longlist of this year’s Miles Franklin awards, have left the literary community agog.
But Hughes’ carelessness with crediting other writers’ words (or his deliberate intertextual referencing) is just the latest of many scandals in the publishing world.
On the off chance you may have thought the world of letters was staid, here are 10 famous instances of lies, hoaxes, plagiarism, scams and other mischief-making to have rocked Australia’s literary establishment over the years.
1. Forbidden Love
Norma Khouri’s book Forbidden Love (2003) was supposedly based on the true tale of an honour killing in Jordan. The memoir became a bestseller and was published in no fewer than 15 countries but a year after it was released it turned out that the entire story was fabricated. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Malcolm Knox was at the forefront of the investigation into Khouri’s deception. The paper noted in 2004: ‘Khouri has misled the world both on the page and in person.‘
2. The poems of Andrew Slattery
Poet Andrew Slattery had won or been commended in a number of high profile awards, only for it to later be discovered that many lines in his poems were cribbed from other writers, including Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. The Newcastle poet won the Rosemary Dobson Prize in 2010 for a poem with lines such as ‘bruised like a forceps baby’, ‘You keep old roads open by driving on the new ones,’ and ‘Death will come quickly like a cat jumping onto the bed’. As Susan Wyndham pointed out however, ‘the lines were written by the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and the American Beat poet Charles Bukowski.
3. Another plagarising poet
Poet Graham Nunn was also discredited after literary sleuths found multiple instances of unsourced borrowed work in his writings. Brisbane-based Nunn was director of the Queensland Poetry Festival between 2004-2007. His poem ‘Fortune’ from his 2010 anthology Ocean Hearted, was duly found to be almost identical to ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ by a Canadian poet, Don McKay. At the time Nunn posted on his blog that he was often inspired by music and other books and that such inspirations were sometimes ‘creatively appropriated in the formation of a new work’.
It should be noted that although sampling, paste-ups and centros (a work wholly composed of verses or passages taken from other authors) are often used in poetry, they are only valid if the original source is acknowledged.
4. Mutant Message Down Under
In 1990, Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan was released, purportedly about the journey of a middle-aged, white American woman and her interactions with a group of Indigenous peoples in Australia. Morgan stated the book was inspired by actual experience, however research in central and Western Australia failed to uncover any evidence of her presence in the area or the existence of the tribe in question.
Dumbartung. a corporation set up to promote Aboriginal arts in Western Australia and abroad, released a report undertaken to investigate the claims in Mutant Message Down Under, the result of which was ‘a unified voice of opposition to the exploitation of Indigenous cultures throughout the world’.
5. My Own Sweet Time
In a similar case of cultural misappropriation, Wanda Koolmatrie’s novel My Own Sweet Time was released in 1994 by a publisher specialising in the work of Indigenous authors but Koolmatrie never existed. The book is believed to be the work, either jointly or individually, of two white Australian men: John Bayley and Leon Carmen. My Own Sweet Time won the Nita May Dobbie Award for women writers before being revealed as a hoax in March 1997.
6. The Adventures of Louis de Rougement
The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (1899) as told by the author himself, was an elaborate patchwork of embellishments and outright lies. A Swiss explorer who claimed to have many adventures in Australia, de Rougemont made up colourful and fanciful tales including 30 years living with Indigenous Australians in the outback. He claimed that the tribe with whom he had lived had worshipped him as a god.
In 1899 he was a music-hall attraction in South Africa and billed as ‘The greatest liar on earth’. On a similar tour of Australia in 1901 he was booed from the stage.
7. Jack Rivers and Me
Paul Radley’s Jack Rivers and Me won the inaugural Australian/Vogel Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts by writers under the age of 35 in 1981. Radley was voted Young Australian of the Year by the National Australia Day Committee in January 1982 for his contribution to Australian literature. In 1996, it was revealed that the novel as well as two subsequent books were actually written by Paul’s uncle, Jack Radley. Jack Rivers and Me would not have been eligible for the Australian/Vogel Prize had it been submitted by Radley Senior, given his age. Stating that he ‘was probably rebelling against age discrimination’, Jack Radley later questioned ‘why discriminate about a first novel whether you’re 80 or 18?’ After the controversy was revealed, Archie Weller’s The Day of the Dog – originally the runner-up – was declared the inaugural Vogel winner, and Paul Radley was disqualified.
8. They’re a Weird Mob
John O’Grady invented the persona of Nino Culotta, the main protagonist, to write They’re a Weird Mob (1957) about post-war Australian immigration. It was not actually penned by an Italian migrant but by a second generation Irish-Australian. The wildly successful book was later turned into an equally successful movie. By the time of O’Grady’s death in 1981, sales of They’re A Weird Mob approached the million mark.
9. Helen who?
Helen Demidenko’s Miles Franklin-award winning book, The Hand that Signed the Paper (1994) was allegedly based on family experiences of the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s, leading to collaboration with Nazis. Demidenko claimed to be Ukrainian (even wearing embroidered blouses, part of the Ukrainian national costume, and performing Ukrainian dances) but her real name was Helen Darville and she was the daughter of British migrants. The author is now known as Helen Dale and her book was later republished under the Dale nomenclature.
Read: 2022 Miles Franklin shortlist announced
10. Inventing Ern Malley
Arguably the most famous Australian literary hoax is the Ern Malley affair. In order to make a point of showing how easy it was to conjure up nonsensical verse in the manner of the modernist poetry they so despised, James McAuley and Harold Stewart came up with a fictitious poet called Ern Malley and created his body of work in 1943. Malley’s poems ended up being far more read than any original work by McAuley and Stewart themselves, and have since inspired a range of other works, including the play The Black Swan of Trespass and numerous books, most recently Stephen Orr’s Sincerely, Ethel Malley.