Tuesday, January 10, 2006

As Though Frey Weren't Enough -- JT LeRoy Is Exposed As Yet Another Literary Fraud

In additon to James Frey's outing as a fabulist posing as a memoirist, I learn that on Monday, the New York Times published an article revealing the true identity of the perpetually mysterious author JT Leroy. The two images I put onto this blog are not culled from Google Images. Oh no. I scanned these bad boys in myself. I bought this book for full price at Vroman's because Dave Eggers said in the introduction of the book that, and I'm not making this quote up, "JT LeRoy's first two books, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, will prove to be among the most influential American books of the last ten years." I mean, why NOT buy a book when the writer gets an intro like that? Well, JT's a big fake. He's actually a she, as it turns out, and not a young, transgendered former child prostitute as he'd sold himself to be.

I'm going to go out on a limb and briefly explain why I think the frauds perpetrated by LeRoy (actually Savannah Knoop whom no one suspects of actually writing the LeRoy books) and Frey, are wrong.

Frey first. I think Frey's offense is worse than LeRoy's because Frey put a "memoir" out into the world and filled it with bombastic, self-aggrandizing exaggerations and a lot of outright falsehoods. When it came out he said things to the press like, "I didn't invent anything." He sold his story as truth, which is one thing, but I think the duty of a memoirist in general is to, at the very least, try their best to write what really happened the way they saw it. No one reading the thing is expecting 100% fidelity to actual events, memory and life don't work that way, but I think about 100% of readers are expecting a memoir to relate the events of one's life as close to the writer's recollection as possible, and to not include deliberate lies and not to deliberately mislead their readers.

Part of why I think Frey opted for the memoir route as opposed to its original incarnation as a novel, was because his memoir often doesn't ring true. More often than not characters and the events related all get fantastically overblown. (Strangely, in most of the write-ups he's been getting today as a result of yesterday's expose, the fact that he's worked as a screenwriter is used as an explainer for his overcooked, bombastic style. As though most screenplays and screenwriters were all writing "The Last Boy Scout 2". I had no idea there was so much animus out there against screenwriting in general. But I digress.) For example, Frey couldn't just be on an airliner completely high on cocaine, he had to be out of his mind on cocaine, covered in all manner of bodily excretion, and with no memory whatsoever of how he'd gotten there. He couldn't just get arrested for drunk driving because he was sad about a girl, he had suffer a brutal police beatdown and narrowly avoid 3 years in jail because he was sad and angry about a girl. As a novel, editors and publishers weren't buying it, for whatever reason. Does that mean it's ethically okay for him to change the story around a little, slap "A Memoir" on its cover and call it good? Of course a half-baked novel about addiction and recovery will be more interesting as a memoir (at least to publishers), because all the crazy stuff you write about suddenly HAPPENED IN REAL LIFE. You get readers to turn OFF their bullshit meters when it's a memoir, where with a novel, most people only turn them down, and only to varying degrees depending on the story and the writer. It's cheap, and he got called on it and I think that's fine.

I think something similar happened with the movie Fargo. The Coens thought it'd be a gas if they put up a title screen that said what happened was based on true events. It was not. It was bullshit. Fargo was a story. They were lying and I don't think artists should get some kind of free pass under the guise of creative license. I think it's in the artist's best interest to be concerned with, and serious about truth. If you've written something with both fictional and non-fictional elements, you should be upfront about that. You've limited your audience by a lot when you do that, which is why I think someone like James Frey didn't want to be upfront about the more fictional elements of his book. Because when you do mix fiction and non-fiction you're essentially writing experimental fiction, and experimental fiction doesn't sell. When you're a writer primarily concerned with being "the best writer of my generation", as Frey once said he was, then it's not in your best interest to be upfront about the truth to hide a middling writing talent. You got to sell books after all.

As for JT LeRoy. I don't know if he duped a lot of celebrities into thinking he (now she) was a literary genius, or if the true author was actually in league with the celebrities because she's a good writer who couldn't get a seat at the publishing table, and they wanted to help her with this new strategy of writing/performance art just to get her great stuff out into the world. I'm leaning at this moment towards the former. The NYTimes article seems to point less towards desperate measures taken in the name of art, and more towards devious measures taken in the name of opportunism, but there's not yet enough information out there to prove it one way or the other. Do I feel duped because I bought one of "his" books? Sort of, but not really. I knew there were questions regarding JT LeRoy's true identity when I bought it. I suspected, given his mind-blowingly lurid personal history, that he might be full of shit, but I also thought Eggers and all of the folks who gave blurbs for Harold's End (see above) had to be in on the joke if he was full of it, but also seriously thought the fiction itself deserved attention, (and so far as I know, it was always sold as fiction -- autobiographical fiction, but still fiction). So I played along -- I wanted to be "in the know", in with the literary "in crowd", so I bought it. Goof's on me. The stuff isn't bad, (and it has great full-color illustrations in it -- it's a nice edition anyhow) but worthy of the kind of praise Eggers was dishing out? Not by half. If Harold's End had been written by, for example, a 40-something male divorcee who'd attended Princeton and published a few stories in some little magazines back in the early nineties, would any of the "JT LeRoy novels" gotten the same attention written as they were by a transgendered, HIV-positive, West Virginian, former child prostitute who'd made good? Doubtful.

I think Shawn brings up really good points in his comment on my last post, and a lot of this Frey business probably does have to do with perception. But because Frey was so unequivocal when the book came out about how true it was (because people were initially dubious even back then), this Smoking Gun article cuts him much deeper. Other memoirists get away with similar stuff, I think, because either they're a) more honest about the limitations of memory, b) less prone to completely making shit up like Frey does, or c) their books don't have to endure the same level of scrutiny Frey did because most memoirists aren't picked to be a part of her Book Club. I think fiction and non-fiction are great, experimental fiction is great -- I know that memoir's really hard to do with perfect recall and I respect any person who tries so long as the attempt is made in good faith -- but willful telling of untruths for purely dramatic reasons under the guise of fact doesn't do anyone any good. It doesn't limn the ever-fluid nature of Truth -- doesn't artfully explore the boundaries between one's identity and one's work -- all it does is mislead consumers, the ever-shrinking pool of readers, for one's own personal gain. To me, Frey's and LeRoy's fraud isn't much different than Dave Pelzer's fictitious childhood sold as fact in A Child Called "It", or Kevin Trudeau's snake-oil book Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About where he claims to have a cure for cancer. If the intention's are selfish and bad, a lie's a lie's a lie? Right?

Okay, enough of my pompous, rantings. In other, more mundane Crane-related news, I took my Crown Vick in to the body shop this morning. $688 for the dent the tractor-trailer made (all covered by USAA), and, if I want, just $50 to fix the dent made by the Russian dude who drove my stuff from Atlanta to Pasadena. May do that, too. Not much else besides that and writing today. Hope everyone had an awesome Tuesday. Please weigh in with opinions. More tomorrow.

5 comments:

blankfist said...

What's wrong with opportunism? I don't think keeping your integrity and being opportunistic are mutually exclusive. Then again, I'm not really in the mood right now to bolster my opinion with any sort of thoughtful perspective, so let me just say this: Will ethics lead you to sell your novel?

However, being the advocate to ol' Lucifer himself, let me also say this: I get you. I think integrity is the most important value a human can keep hold of, but are there times when that integrity should take a backseat in order to accomplish what is driving you, what compels you to have that integrity in the first place? Would you, Crane, put a simple, two line blurb at the beginning of your novel stating it was based on real events if you knew a publisher would the publish it? Knowing that maybe, just maybe, this could be the forgivable first leap into becoming what you've always wanted to be? Or would you squander that chance, the possible only chance, to experience the great beginning to what you've made your lifelong journey?

And what does 'integrity' truly mean when you've reached the end of your life knowing that you could've made it that much easier, that much more comfortable, that you could've done what you've always wanted to do: get published? Because, in a hundred years, you will be dead. In a hundred years, no one will know who Crane is. In a hundred years, your integrity won't mean diddly. In a hundred years, people won't be regretful of how such an honest and upright person like you could go his entire life without publishing his works when liars and deceitful men make the break.

Nah, in a hundred years no one will care. They won't even care about the crooked being crooked. In fact, the crooked, the Rockafellers, the Bushes, even the Hitlers, will most likely be remembered and regretfully most times honored for their acheivements (except for Hitler -- can't see anyone sanely rooting for that guy). The Nobel Peace Prize winners will slip silently into obscurity.

Yeah, that's about right.

Ron Franscell said...

From author/blogger Ron Franscell at http://underthenews.blogspot.com ...

American literature -- considered an oxymoron in the rest of the world -- has gone downhill fast since New York surrendered America's storytelling standards to Hollywood, where illusion -- EVEN IN TRUE STORIES -- is exactly the point. Today, the "perfect" story is determined by its film-worthiness more than its literary quality. In the name of creating Californicated literature, New York editors have blurred the line until even they don't know what's true. "It's a good story," they'll say, "so who cares if it's an utter and ballsy lie?"

I care. Capote admitted on the bookjacket that "In Cold Blood" was fictionalized in some part. Coleridge's definition of fiction was "the willing suspension of disbelief." What if it's not willing? That's the difference between making love and rape, albeit without either the exhilaration or violence. If you thought you were reading a true story, you were conned. What if we found out next week that the famous Zapruder film was, in fact, a Hollywood dramatization passed off as a hyper-realistic eyewitness home-movie and you shoulda seen the look on your face and, oh, isn't it funny how we fooled you??

This is the literary equivalent of Reality TV. They tell you what you're seeing is real, but it's not real at all. It's simulated reality, edited into convenient 30-minute bytes ... and we eat it up.

In America today, we live with too much fiction posing as fact. Blogs, books, politics, TV, videogaming, movies -- and some would say, even the news -- thrive on it. But it's not art to swear you're telling the truth and then fib. That's just common lying. The artful trick is to tell me you're lying and make me believe every word is true.

Fried Pepperoni said...

Wow. I can't tell if this is getting deep or just deeply nerdy (perhaps why no one else is responding). Regardless, intentions and integrity are absolutely different than perceptions and it sounds like this Frey guy went out of his way to perpetuate a lie in order to sell books. That's pretty smarmy. At the same time, I still can't help but play devil's advocate a bit because it seems like there's a pretty fine line these days in art between being smarmy and being really clever, doesn't it? Take the case of Charlie and Donald Kauffman, one of whom doesn't even exist and yet still got nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Adaptation. That's clever, right? I sure as hell thought so. Guess it goes back to intentions. Kauffman's were harmless and in fun, and I think the Coens were the same with Fargo. As i believe they said on the dvd, the basis for the film came from a story their grandmother told them about that she had heard from someone else, who probably heard from yet someone else. As is the case with most gossip, the version they heard from their grandmother was more interesting than the actual event and that's what they went with - there may be some truth there in that story, but it's not a dramatic reenactment. Personally, I think the disclaimer of truth works well for that film because it fits the content and underlying motif of community miscommunication and exaggeration when someone SWEARS that what they're telling is the truth. More importantly, I think it works because knowing it's bogus doesn't change the fact that it's a super-great movie. Finishing In Cold Blood and having recently seen Capote, I know that there is obviously some discrepancy between the two - either the book or the film isn't retelling the event in a completely accurate manner, but damn if both aren't still very, very good. Is this the case with Frey's book? Doesn't sound like it. Oops.

If I remember correctly, there's a quote about this topic in one of John Gardner's books that stuck with me . I'll paraphrase: "There is no impure motivation in art because it's the art that ultimately is judged." I both love this and dislike the fact that the quote allows for smarminess on Frey's level. If his book is really honestly good, then it'll stick around - hell, it will probably even sell better now than it did before. If not, then later shmuck. No memoirist is worthy of being front page news anyway, and without Oprah we probably wouldn't have (well, Crane would've) even heard about this. My one fear is what I expressed yesterday, that this could lead to a very slippery and disappointing slope if websites go investigating the authenticity of narrative non-fiction. (And aren't there more important guns that the smoking gun could be smoking??? I mean, seriously...) The LeRoy thing is a good example. I mean when you think about it, what's the difference between using a fakebio (a pseudobio) and a pseudonym? Isn't Lemony Snickett just as fake as LeRoy's persona? If he/she's fictional stories are praised, is it hypocritical to criticize he/she's fictional life? Both take the same amount of craft and talent, no?

At any rate, personally I think Frey should've just come clean at the height of his fame, maybe even while he was ON the Oprah show if he really wanted to be dramatic, and then had fun with it. If I were him I would get busy writing the memoir about my fake memoir and talk about how I pulled the wool over so many eyes and how desperate people are to read about (and believe!) another person's incredible miseries. I'd go on Letterman and proclaim to be the literary Andy Kauffman, so people would tune in to see what stunt I would pull next. Instead, it sounds like the guy's just a douche. You don't say "I didn't invent anything," if you really invented quite a bit. Douche.

moran said...

Booooooooooriiiiiiiiiing!

Shannon said...

What about Memoirs of a Geisha? I though it was a true story and then at the end, this WHITE GUY says he made it up, but HE CAN because he knows all about that culture. I was so angry I tore the book in half, and then entered the strong man competition because before that I didn't know I had the strength to rip a book in half. So now I'm working on phone books and my upper body, the delts and what not.
But, "I digress" what I mean to say is, why does that author talking about Japanese prostitues get to call it a memoir and then make it into what I've heard is a bad movie? Hmmm? And these other guys get put through the wringer? Maybe I should have done more research about the author, but the word memoir hits my ear as a true story. So I know the pain you must be feeling.
But the best way to stop the pain is to stop going brokeback over authors. Mmkay. I'm out.