In August, PEN Center USA withdrew its prize nomination of John Smelcer’s young-adult novel “Stealing Indians,” citing concerns that Smelcer’s claims to be a member of the Ahtna tribe were fraudulent, and that his writing was, in the words of one critic, “rife with stereotypes and riddled with errors.” As novelist Marlon James asked on a public Facebook post (more or less rhetorically), “Why does this always happen? Why do these people keep making the same stupid mistakes?” Kevin Young’s new work of nonfiction, “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” offers a rich and thorough answer to James’ question. Chronicling the history of such fakers as Smelcer, Young offers a long history of the hoax, beginning with a series of famous humbugs from P. T. Barnum’s sideshow. Barnum began his career by exhibiting a woman named Joice Heith, whom he claimed had once been George Washington’s nanny (putting her age at 161 years old) — an early example in a long line of black Americans put on stage to be gawked at by whites for who they were and, crucially, who they were not. Harvard Theatre Collection / Houghton Library / Harvard University "Ashbury Ben the Leopard Boy" and "Zip," 1885. "Ashbury Ben the Leopard Boy" and "Zip," 1885. (Harvard Theatre Collection / Houghton Library / Harvard University) Barnum’s humbugs set the stage for a long and winding tour of impostors and forgers: from 19th century Spirit photographers like William H. Mumler and Barnum, to Clifford Irving’s hoaxed “Autobiography of Howard Hughes” in the 1970s to recent newspaper fabulists Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, and on and on right up to Rachel Dolezal, who resigned her position at a local NAACP in 2015 when it was revealed she was a white woman who had been portraying herself as black. And while it can be tempting sometimes to see hoaxes as more or less victimless crimes (certainly Barnum thought they were), Young’s litany instead makes clear that there’s far more at stake here. NBC News/ Anthony Quintano / Associated Press Rachel Dolezal said that while her parents are white, she self-identified as black. Rachel Dolezal said that while her parents are