An unbelievable true story…

Helen Demidenko caused a stir in literary circles in the mid 1990s. I remember at the time wondering why there was such a fuss? After all, the crime she was accused of was that she had made up her family history (and surname) in order to promote her novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper; That didn’t seem so serious to me at the time. I have author friends who use pseudonyms. Rappers frequently exaggerate their stories of growing up in poor neighbourhoods, business people overstate the poverty they were raised in so that their story of being ‘self-made’ sounds like more of an achievement, and people use their resumes to make them seem like they have achieved more than they have. Authors make up fiction for a living, so what was so bad about concocting a back story for the author to make the story seem more authentic? Isn’t that consistent with fiction? After all many movies have created online back stories which purport to be real for their tales (eg: The Blair Witch Project).

As it turns out there was a lot wrong with it. Helen (whose real surname was Darville) hadn’t merely exaggerated a background but created a fictional one and then used that as justification to portray a Nazi sympathising family in a more humane light than is typical for novels featuring the holocaust. She said the novel was based on interviews with her family who became characters in the book, but this was a fabrication. This is the source of the controversy as critics who had argued the novel wasn’t historically accurate had been fobbed off by the claim it was her family’s story, when there no such biography had occured. In short, the false identity made the novel appear more important than it was since it seemed to be telling a previously unknown part of history. Instead, it was an imagined narrative which, well, was just not as interesting to the award judges or public.

The discrepancy only came to light after the book won the Miles Franklin award – one of the most prestigious literary awards in Australia. Helen was the youngest ever winner at the time. When the truth of her family was raised she admitted her “hoax” (as it was described by the media). More controversy though, followed when the book when on to win more awards and, later, was accused of plagiarism.

Further adding to the controversy are Helen’s intentions behind making up her story. It seems some of her intent was malicious, and she appeared unrepentant and to revel in the war of words: “Australian literature was, she arguee, “burdened with a level of ideological conformity that would do East Germany proud”. She was appalled by the “ridiculous pretension and self-importance” of the intellectual world, especially when critics “tried to prove that I must have had some sort of sneaking association with the League of Rights”. The response “made me determined to humiliate a group I considered spineless, and my invented persona became ever more over the top”.1

The whole saga was so prominent in the news cycle not one, but two books were written about it: Robert Manne’s The Culture of Forgetting: Helen Demidenko and the Holocaust and Andrew Riemer’s The Demidenko Debate. Which partially explains why it took over two decades before Helen published a new novel (under her married name of Helen Dale). It is worth noting her author bio in that book plays up both her Miles Franklin award and the controversy of The Hand that Signed the Paper.

The key questions arising for me are: What role does an author’s background have in justifying the literary merits of their works? Should literary awards be judged blind to the authors details? The question really comes down to how you think a book should be interpreted and whether or not the author’s background is relevant for that interpretation. As someone who has seen and sold books purely on the basis of the author’s bio I will abstain from offering my own opinion for fiction books, but do, in general, think that for non-fiction the author’s background is important and relevant for how the text should be interpreted.

Next time I’ll talk about a very famous book which, through the change of a single expression, had its whole meaning altered. To make sure you don’t miss out, please consider subscribing to my mailing list or this website.

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