Five Books Whose Authorship Has Been Disputed

Rule No. 1 in this parlor game is, forget about books whose authorship is clouded by the mists of time. Nothing written before 1500 counts here. What critically acclaimed or bestselling books do you think were not written by their purported authors? Did Ted Sorensen write Profiles in Courage? Does anyone doubt that Anne Desclos was the true author of the Story of O? How about Robert E. Howard's Conan stories: Is it barbaric to suggest that he didn't write them all?

Democracy: An American Novel
Published anonymously on April Fool's Day in 1880, this political novel started a guessing game unequaled until Primary Colors came out anonymously in 1996. But Joe Klein was unmasked within months as the author of Primary Colors, while the authorship of Democracy remained in doubt for more than three decades. The publisher, Henry Holt, finally attributed the book to Henry Adams, though many 19th-century literati had suspected his brilliant wife, Marian "Clover" Hooper Adams. Some people still think she either wrote the book or had a significant hand in it. After her suicide in 1885, Henry Adams destroyed many of her letters, deepening the mystery.

Ali and Nino
The plot revolves around the love between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl, but the true glory of this simple novel is its description of Baku's isolated yet cosmopolitan society on the eve of the Russian revolution. I first read it after a reporting trip to Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, when its authorship was still uncertain, though the title page listed the author as Kurban Said and the copyright holder (since 1937) as Leela Ehrenfels. The question was, I think, firmly settled a few years later by Tom Reiss, who wrote about his search for the identity of Kurban Said in a delightful New Yorker article and later in The Orientalist, a 2005 bestseller. His conclusion: The author was Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish refugee who adopted the alter ego of a Muslim adventurer named Essad Bey.

And Quiet Flows the Don
Could a Communist Party hack write a great novel? A lot of anti-Soviet writers, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, doubted that Mikhail Sholokhov was capable of writing this Nobel Prize winning epic and suggested that Soviet authorities might have falsified its authorship to reward a Hero of Socialist Labor. But Russian literary friends tell me the matter is now settled: Sholokhov almost certainly did write "Tikhii Don."


Go Ask Alice
I admit right off that I have not read this book, and I don't plan to. All I know about is the controversy over its authorship. A bestseller in the 1970s and still in print, it is supposedly the diary of an anonymous teenage girl who died of a drug overdose. Copyrights suggest that the author could well be the purported discoverer and editor of the diary, Beatrice Sparks.

Macbeth
The Earl of Oxford, anyone?

-- Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  September 18, 2008; 7:46 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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What about the long standing rumor that Capote wrote To Kill A Mockingbird? Surprised that didn't make this list.

Posted by: Travis Erwin | September 18, 2008 9:11 AM

Had heard back in the 60's as an undergrad that Profiles in Courage had been written by Georgetown professor Jules David.

Posted by: askett | September 18, 2008 9:38 AM

Okay, not a book, but I believe the Earl of Oxford wrote "The Night Before Christmas" too!

Posted by: Terry | September 18, 2008 1:48 PM

But Go Ask Alice was written by Jefferson Airplane!

Posted by: Anonymous | September 19, 2008 12:34 PM

There was a Kosinski novel -- I think it was Being There -- that someone else claimed to write. I believe it was one of the author's writing students.

I assume Primary Colors doesn't count...

Posted by: mark tarallo | September 20, 2008 12:56 PM

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