originally published June 13, 2013

The notion that ‘sex sells’ is a concept older than advertising itself. The beauty within that tiny catchphrase is that, for a long time, advertisers could manipulate the concept and the public really had no idea that they were merely succumbing to the prodding of their most base urges. We now live in an age of cynicism, where nothing is true unless snopes.com says so, where doubt and suspicion line the walls of our world-view, and where grand hoaxes upon the masses might be a little trickier to pull off.

Well, maybe. It’s impossible to say whether or not the great hoaxes – in particular the great literary hoaxes of the past could fool people today. It didn’t take long before everyone knew that the book topping the bestseller list last year was an adapted piece of Twilight fan-fiction, sprinkled with rough sex. But in the end, it didn’t affect sales.

In fact, it probably helped sales. It’s not a far cry from what went down some 34 years ago, back when the paperback-loving public went ga-ga over Naked Came The Stranger.

Mike McGrady, a columnist for Newsweek, was sifting through the bestseller list one day in 1966. He was… well, disgusted might not be the right word. He was saddened by the current state of American literary culture. Where once the upper tier of book sales consisted of works by J.D. Salinger or F. Scott Fitzgerald, now it was dominated by what he saw as low-brow work by Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann. A book needed no intrinsic value – it only needed sex. Throw in enough swarthy, sweaty men and buxom, sensual women and the faceless denizens combing the nation’s bookstores will slap down their cash.

So Mike decided to prove it. He rounded up 24 of his Newsweek colleagues, nineteen men and five women, and set out to write the worst novel of all time. There was to be no literary merit, no societal insight. Just sex. Heaps of humpy prose and dollops of detailed boinking – that was to be the center of the action. Pulitzer Prize winners like Gene Goltz and Robert W. Greene chipped in, as did respected journalists like Marilyn Berger and Harvey Aronson. Each writer was given one chapter, and all the credit went to Penelope Ashe.

Ashe was none other than Mike McGrady’s sister, in the photos anyway. She was a perfect stand-in for a fictional trash-fiction writer.

The book needed to be disjointed. The story was about a husband and wife radio host team, and the wife’s attempts to sleep with as many men as possible to get back at her husband for having an affair. One chapter involved her sleeping with a mob-linked singer, another with a rabbi. There was to be no consistency, and in fact several of the chapters had to be severely edited because they’d been written too well.

Naturally, the book was a hit. It climbed the bestseller list, selling close to 90,000 copies before some of the authors began to feel guilty about their royalty checks, and revealed the hoax on The David Frost Show in October. When the public found out the book was a hoax, they were outraged. And by ‘outraged’, I mean they were outraged that they hadn’t thought of it first. Sales climbed even faster once the scam had been outed.

This wasn’t the first time that bookstores were stocked with a practical joke. Back in the mid-50’s, talk radio host Jean Shepherd unleashed an on-air rant about the sorry state of the bestseller lists. Not the content of the books on the lists, but the lists themselves. He felt it was ridiculous that requests from bookstores counted along with actual sales in order to determine the most popular books in the country. Jean decided to do something about it.

First, Jean encouraged his listeners to head to their nearest book peddler and ask for the Frederick R. Ewing novel I, Libertine. Neither the book nor the author existed, but Jean wanted to see if he could manipulate the numbers. He provided a plot outline, and even touted the racy book as having been banned in Boston.

While it’s not known whether or not Jean’s listeners’ requests actually tweaked the bestseller charts, it did prompt Ian Ballantine of Ballantine Books to hire an author to pummel some words on paper that roughly followed Jean’s plot. They drafted artist Frank Kelly Freas (the guy who designed MAD Magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Newman) to craft a cover, and the book was on the shelves.

While I, Libertine never topped the charts, it did succeed as a wicked prank, and demonstrated the power of non-fiscal interest on the publishing industry. The book’s proceeds were given to charity, and Jean himself got in on the finished joke, appearing on the back cover as a stand-in for the fictional author. The look on his face says it all.

Going back a little further, perhaps you’ve heard of Instructions And Advice For The Young Bride. This was a booklet written in 1894 by Ruth Smythers, describing ways for the young newlywed lass to avoid the unpleasant act of sexual congress with her new hubby. You know, because women hate sex, or at least they sure did in 1894.

Except they didn’t. It took almost no wizardry or investigation by literary experts to discover that a number of terms and references in the book didn’t exist until the 20th century. There was a rumor that a 1998 University of Washington class on human sexuality may have penned the hoax, but evidence exists that it was around beforehand. Ultimately, the text appears to be less than twenty years old. But no matter – not everyone is a literary sleuth or even a moderate fact-checker on the internet. This one was well-traveled and no doubt fooled thousands of insufficiently skeptical eyes.

The King County (in Seattle) ombudsman, David Krull, got himself fired over this little hoax. He forwarded the text of the booklet to his female co-worker who happened to be getting married. Krull had meant the email to be a joke, a light-hearted poke at the culture of marriage. His co-worker and her fiancé were not amused, and Krull was fired for misconduct.

There are a few lessons to be learned from all this. First, people can be easily fooled, and so long as you’re fooling them with something that’ll whet their carnal appetite, they won’t care. The publishing industry is far from perfect – hell, no industry that peddles culture to the masses can be expected to get it right all the time.

Also, we should learn that if someone you work with is tragically humor-deficient, you’d be wise not to forward them any jokes with even the slightest hint of mature content. I don’t know, maybe it was Krull’s delivery. It’s all in the word choice, you know.

  • Written by guest-columnist Ernest Hemingway III

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