Tuesday, January 10, 2006

deceitful above all things, indeed.

so, i'm sure you've heard. you know, about James Frey being a total liar and JT Leroy not even really existing.

for some reason, i am completely and totally fascinated by this. technically, they are two different stories with two different sets of ramifications, but the fact that they both broke within 48 hours of each other? holy shit. it makes it difficult to process in its entirety. being a girl who studied and analyzed books and authors for a solid six-year stretch (never mind all that pesky work i did in high school), this is like a gold mine for my little brain. where to start, where to start?

i'd say the issue of authenticity is central here. both cases are so shocking because the authors claimed to be "authentically" something, and it turned out to be a lie. the Leroy case is a little more complicated in that "JT Leroy" wrote (in my understanding) autobiographical fiction, but the autobiography on which his fiction was based was a fabrication. This makes the judgement more difficult - what, exactly, is wrong with the fact that a 40-ish woman musician wrote under the guise of a teenage transgendered former prostitute? other than the fact that she didn't, you know, tell anyone that.

BoyCat and i found that we disagree on the answer to this question. he, in sum, doesn't think there's anything wrong with Laura Albert's deception per se, but that the problem begins when she (and her other partners in crime, her husband and sister-in-law) eventually embellished the tale to include Leroy's HIV-positive status, and used that to curry sympathy and favor from well-minded people. BoyCat is unwilling to condemn her for merely creating the original fabrication. i, on the other hand, am totally willing to do that. my instinct is to say "of course it's wrong!," but i'm have a harder time pinning down a reason why.

in trying to figure out why what Albert and her co-horts did was "wrong," i find a tangle of things knotted up in my mind: the authorial voice, fiction, non-fiction, minorities and the disadvantaged, ego, greed, good writing, bad intentions. and i don't even know the full story - who knows why Albert did this? on the surface, it seems to be about finding a way into a publishing industry with certain predilections and biases, and then exploiting that industry and its money-making ability for personal gain. but who knows? we certainly never will. even if Albert ends up writing a tell-all book about her reasons "why," it will never be a three dimensional picture of the truth. so i'm left with this bad taste in my mouth - with a sense that some unspoken rule has been broken, with a sense that someone who never even existed has been wronged. and yet, i find myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all. oh, the contradictions, the conundrums - the ridiculousness of it all!

and James Frey, well, that's a little more cut and dry. this guy wildly exaggerated or out-and-out fabriacated an autobiography of himself, made millions off of it, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. what will Oprah do? seriously, what will she do?? ooooh, i really hope she does something. because it seems to me like there's nothing Oprah likes less than being made a fool of. if you haven't had a chance to read the Smoking Gun report that i linked above, you should - it's fairly jaw-dropping. it seems to me like TSG ended up having a serious ax to grind with Frey by the end of the whole investigative process - part of me wonders how much he managed to dig his own grave here by acting like an arrogant, juvenile, "who-me-no-way-i'm-invincible" prick.

all in all, the publishing industry has had a wild beginning to their week. you do have to wonder how this kind of blatant hoaxery (just made that word up, i like it - is there even a plural noun form of "hoax"?) got past the sentinels so relentlessly and continually. will heads roll? will books burn? will Oprah kill?

stay tuned.

7 comments:

elizalou said...

I was just discussing this a few minutes ago. A few questions came up that I haven't really had time to think about. I'm not arguing here, I'm just kind of throwing them out there. 1, 2, 3, explore.

First, as a reader, shouldn't you go into anything with a critical eye? Don't you get more out of a book when you think about specific parts and question them?

Is it worth reading something if you're going to believe everything you read? How is irony achieved if not through these literary tricks? Take, for example, Lolita. If you were to take everything in that book literally, you'd have to think that Nabokov was advocating child rape. He's absolutley not and that's what makes the book so good (am I the only feminist that likes it?).

And last,are we owed anything by books, even those claiming to be memoirs? People read things to be entertained and turned on. Memoirs are especially gripping because of the "personal" view they offer. But is Reality television actually real? Do people get so upset when it turns out that Omorosa is really not a total bitch, but is sort of a fame whore?

Oh, wait, they do. I haven't read the book nor anything about the author, so these are just kind of philosophical questions.

Fluffy Dollar$$$ has an actual well thought out post about this.

Done.

jayniek said...

The James Frey case, in isolation, seems, on one level, alluring... if only because it raises contentious issues like authenticity and authorship and weaves them into his already spiderwebby plotline. For that book.

But, if he is to contend that this was employing a literary device rather than simply lying, then we have the start of a literary avalanche. Literary truths are meant to be angled and twisted, but the core of a memoir relies on nuggets of truth, or the center starts losing hold. And then we either have a "postmodern memiorish piece" or...umm... fiction.

Sure, we never know in what reality the author's truth is located, but as long as s/he gives us loose directions on how to find it, then who am I to question its relative truth?

dorothy rothschild said...

Salon has as their front-page story a piece by Ayelet Waldman (Mrs. Michael Chabon) on how she got schnookered by JT (sort of). She has some interesting observations about why she (and other writers and celebrities) went out of their way to help JT. Worth a read, but what's really good are all the snarky comments.

Would the JT Leroy books have been published if not for the backstory? I mean, if they'd just been sent to an agent, or to a publisher left to stand on their own merits, would they have ever seen the light of day?

Would Frey's book have been able to be published if he had tried to sell it as a novel?

elizalou said...

oooh, good point, dorothy. I didn't think of it from that angle.

kate.d. said...

dorothy, how funny, i was posting about the salon piece while you were commenting here :) i'm such a salon junkie, it's ridiculous.

kate.d. said...

oh, and elizalou, i think it's hard to compare lolita to this because it was decidedly fiction. lolita is interesting and contentious on a whole bunch of levels (i have to say, i did enjoy it as a reading experience - i read it in a matter of days, and like nabokov's use of plot structure and language), but it's something different.

the other questions concerning the nature of reality and criticism, well, that would take more time! maybe more posts on this later....

elizalou said...

So you got your Oprah answer! Thank god for Larry King, eh?

I just don't know what to think about this whole thing anymore. it kind makes me never want to read another book again, you know? Just in case. Well, not really.

My sister called last night asking me to join a book club with some of her friends. She thought we would start with Emma. She called me today. A few people don't want to read a "classic". Their suggestion? "A Million Little Pieces." People are insane.