If you're going to read only one bad book this summer, read one by an author who does not exist.
You'd think being incorporeal might hold you back from a publishing career, but in fact the opposite has been true.
Usually, book hoaxes involve fake stories presented as fact.
James Frey, for example, and the famous scolding he got from Oprah for making up parts of A Million Little Pieces. Or the invented memoir Misha, in which a young Jewish girl escapes the Nazis during the Second World War and briefly lives with a pack of wolves.
That last part should have been a hint.
But fictional memoirs are fundamentally sad and depressing. It's much more fun when the book is real and the author is made up.
One of the first is the I, Libertine hoax, concocted by radio host and writer Jean Shepherd (you know him for the movie A Christmas Story, based on his childhood). In the 1950s, when Shepherd was working the late, late, so-late-it's-getting-early shift at a New York radio station, he became irked that bestseller lists were based not just on sales, but on requests to bookstores. Why not ask his listeners to head out and all request the same, totally fictional book, thus getting it on the list and proving the whole system ridiculous?
So he and his listeners devised a novel, I, Libertine, by the nonexistent Frederick R. Ewing.
The hoax proved so successful that it reached the ears of a real publisher, who worked with Shepherd to bring it to reality. Most of the actual writing was done in one marathon session by renowned science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon.
The book was released in 1956, with Ewing still credited on the dust jacket.
Naked Came the Stranger emerged 13 years later.
The mastermind was Mike McGrady, a Newsday editor who was tired of the Valley of the Dolls-style bestsellers crowding the spinner racks, selling lurid, badly written tales. If sex sells, he thought, why not cram a book to the brim with it, just to show how much bad writing people will overlook.
Over the course of a very boozy weekend, the authors each took a chapter, with no thought to consistency or continuity. They dubbed the author "Penelope Ashe," who was played in public appearances by McGrady's sister-in-law.
It sold 20,000 copies before he and his co-conspirators revealed the hoax. It's sold 400,000 in total and remains in print.
Then there was Atlanta Nights, a sting operation in literary form. It was aimed at PublishAmerica, a vanity press with pretensions of being a real publisher. (The vanity press test: do they pay you, or do you pay them?)
Not only did PublishAmerica draw numerous complaints from writers, it had this to say about science fiction scribes: "They have no clue about what it is to write real-life stories."
The gauntlet had been well and truly thrown down.
Led by James D. Macdonald, a gaggle of about 30 science fiction authors decided to test PublishAmerica's claim to only consider "quality" works. They wrote the most wretched, vapid, awful, and confusing work. It has two chapter 12s, and chapter four reappears in the guise of chapter 17. Chapter 34 was "written" by random text generating software.
In 2004, PublishAmerica agreed to buy Atlanta Nights. The authors, going by Travis Tea (another dead giveaway) were jubilant. PublishAmerica suddenly withdrew its offer, a bad move. The book has sold surprisingly well ever since then.