Are you for real? It’s the almost simple question undoing all manner of non-fiction writers and journalists of late, not to mention those ‘fiction’ writers who coast vicariously on their own life stories for a little salacious authenticity when crafting a bestseller. No one, it seems, is above a lie or three when advancing a career is involved. Least of all the greatest snake in the grass of all: a writer!
In the last few days yet another literary controversy has exploded as two bright young American stars have been exposed for fraudulently cultivating the kind of hip, seedy persona more usually left to rock stars like Kurt Cobain and the Beat writers of yesteryear. James Frey, the 36 year old author/confessor of A Million Little Pieces (2003), and its sequel My Friend Leonard (2005), and J.T. LeRoy, the 25 year old who wrote the autobiographical novels Sarah (2000) and Harold’s End (2005), and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2001), a short story collection of similar ‘reality’. You’ll note that my descriptive shorthand—‘author/confessor’ and ‘autobiographical novel’—suggests some sleight of hand in both cases already.
A Million Little Pieces was a cult publishing sensation when it first appeared. It was finally pushed over the top in September of last year when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. The result was that only the latest Harry Potter book outsold Pieces in the USA in 2005, where it has racked up total sales of 3.5 million and still sits atop the New York Times Non-Fiction Bestseller List 15 weeks after Oprah’s blessing. That kind of success invites the sort of x-ray attention and train spotting for facts that should make even the Pope himself quaver when handing out his bio sheet.
Frey’s life story is, of course, a little shadier than the Pope’s (so far as we know). A Million Little Pieces is a memoir that deals with his intense drug and alcohol abuse, and how Frey recovered his humanity at a rehabilitation clinic. It’s told with a James Dean aura of rebellious attitude and criminality further enhanced by a friendship with a Mafia boss who becomes his mentor at the clinic. However, a recent check through police and FBI records by a website called The Smoking Gun has cast many elements of the story into doubt. It seems Frey was not quite the bad boy he has boasted of being.
If you have actually read A Million Little Pieces, though, you can see the recipe for hubris oozing through the language, a penchant for self-worshipping edginess and roosterish machismo that already signals a somewhat one-eyed and inflated view of his world. It’s a nonetheless cracking if overextended and relentless read in that vein of dirty realism most finely evoked by such obvious influences as Charles Bukowski. The difference being that Bukowski always had a flair for self irony and humour, and a curiously brutal sensitivity that gave no quarter to anyone’s lies, including that of his own myth as America’s Barfly poet laureate. One reason, perhaps, why so many fans fail to see that the softness in Bukowski’s later work is just as raw as the toughness in his earlier material? They just don’t want that level of honesty messing with the image.
Still, if Frey is to be convicted for exaggeration and “telling a few stretchers” as Mark Twain once put it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain also defined the novel as “a lie told by liars”) it would be sad day for literature, even if it is of the non-fiction kind. I say this because of the age-old argument about subjective and objective truth, and a feeling we are all caught before our own eyes, our own way of seeing things. Like an argument between friends or the break-up of a marriage, the actual truth is usually somewhere in-between the various parties involved. No one person is likely to have it in the bag.
The genre of Creative Non-Fiction—an umbrella term at many writing schools and universities these days that embraces Literary Journalism and its 1960s precursor ‘The New Journalism’ (Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, et al) as well as increasingly melded forms like memoir, travel, and the personal essay—is constantly debating these issues and bumping up against notions like truth, veracity, authenticity, accuracy, and possibly the most significant word of all, ethics.
We expect a war correspondent to have all their facts right, be it the so-called ‘magical realist of journalism’ Ryszard Kapuscinski, or more grounded, analytical storytellers in a reportage mode like Robert Fisk, Paul McGeogh, or David Rieff. Venture down into the muck of documenting your personal relationships, family history, personal trauma and other selective revelations and the rules—perhaps even the idea—of fact become rather more elastic and certainly difficult to dispute with the teller who deals in them.
Unfortunately this capacity for elasticity has seen a number of major journalists caught out in the last few years for grossly exaggerating or even inventing stories, causing immense embarrassment at organisations like the New York Times and The New Republic (see Shattered Glass on DVD for a taste of this deluded careerism in the guise of happening journalism). With an increasingly partisan media retailing opinions to an audience that only wants the news it likes to hear—that is, a media serving a right or left leaning niche market—the facts disappear in a blizzard of opinion. Instead of facts driving a story, forming an enquiry, pushing the writer to essay a situation that might even go against the grain of their own philosophies and faith, what is often called an angle—and is more like ‘spin’ these days—drives the facts towards whatever argument has already been decided on before the story even began. It isn’t too much of step, then, in such a cynical, crowd-pleasing climate to start dispensing with the facts altogether.
Ironically, adherence to the truth—no matter how incongruous, embarrassing, shameful, or bleak—is what acts as an acid on the weaknesses and excesses of the non-fiction writing, be it in journalism or the more expansive and exciting quicksand of literary non-fiction. This is not just a matter of ‘the facts’ but of style and voice too. Put simply, adherence to the truth makes a story feel right. Perhaps the most famous compromise of that standard is Truman Capote’s imagined graveyard scene at the end of In Cold Blood, still rightly considered the benchmark for what he called the ‘non-fiction novel’. A brilliant study of a murdered family and the killers who are eventually hanged, there was no happy ending available to the writer. Capote felt a need to resolve that artificially, blighting his immense achievement in synthesizing research with dramatic storytelling with a dreamy and unconvincing denouement he always regretted.
Clearly the discipline of truth will always be its own best defence, if one can only draw a line in that sand firmly enough. But the truth is that ‘the truth’ will often be shaded. By those facts excluded as well as included, by how they are arranged, perceived and expressed or emphasized. It’s all these interpretative problems in realism that lead fiction writers to acclaim the superiority of their form over the dubious ‘art’ of non-fiction. Pablo Picasso’s observation that “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth” being a much favoured dictum among novelists feeling more than a little besieged by non-fiction writers’ somewhat hokey claims on what is authentic and relevant today.
It might be better understood that fiction and non-fiction hold hands more closely than many writers and journalists would care to admit or understand, and that delineating lies and truth is not always so easy or simple a task. How often have we told a story, compressed it, refined it, ‘til the story overtakes the experience and is the reality we went through. Thus the unreliability of that old demon spirit, memory. But if I can forgive Frey for his ‘stretchers’ as I am hinting at here—if not for the blowhard machismo that drove them into life—what about the J.T. LeRoy scandal that is also wagging so many tongues in America’s book world now as well?
LeRoy’s first book Sarah was published when he was only 20, mirroring in a novel his own misadventures as a teenage transvestite prostitute inspired by a prostitute mother to hawk himself at truckstops in the American South. It was perhaps no wonder that My Own Private Idaho director Gus Van Sant would be enchanted by this and sing LeRoy’s praises, but by the time Garbage were singing about the author in their song “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)” and he was posing in a tutu for Vanity Fair horrible feeling was in the air.
Up until now people had more or less bought the story that LeRoy was a former child prostitute himself, who contracted HIV then slowly redeemed himself through writing with the help of a middle aged rock ‘n’ roll couple called Laura Albert, 40, and Geoffrey Knoop, 39. The support of a growing assortment of celebrity admirers from Courtney Love to Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, added to the kudos. Certainly his books benefited greatly from their milieu of dirty celebrity, as well as LeRoy’ s evasive presence, which mostly involved phone interviews and very rare public appearances. Only now it seems there isn’t so much dirt and even less presence. J.T. LeRoy is a hoax, the invention of Knoop and Albert, who actually wrote the books. J.T. LeRoy does not exist.
Knoop’s half sister Savannah would pretend to be him when necessary, always in character—so to speak—in a blonde wig and dark sunglasses. An androgynous image that only heightened the appeal of his transgressive writing—a bit of Jean Genet, a dash of Jim Carroll (people who actually did write from the edges they spoke of)—as he appeared throughout the pages of various groovy magazines worldwide, talking to celebrities on his wavelength or in adored profile himself. It was not hard to sense the desperate marketing motor of ‘cool’ behind this, the triumph of image over content that has devoured much of the publishing world and the way we ‘read’ writers as much as rock stars or soapie actors.
So to hear now that J.T LeRoy is in fact a middle-aged, middle class woman with a con-artist’s style—a much less pretty hustler than he was at first purported to be, not that beautiful alien child in a wig—hardly seems like such a big deal. In so many ways LeRoy is the literary star all these magazines and marketing gurus and fame junkies wanted and made and got. Andy Warhol would have been no doubt thrilled by the fakery, if not downright fooled himself. All Knoop and Albert did was appeal to a readymade desire at work.
In all the current outrage around LeRoy—all the duped and red faces who will no doubt try to bury how fast they rushed in to admire this ‘talented wunderkind’—one must ask if the writing any less strong or amusing or strange, with its Southern gothic flavours and sly humour, any less prone to gimmicky extravagance and something curiously hollow? Does knowing LeRoy is a fake now make ‘his’ work less than it was when it was first published and acclaimed, or is that just a matter of adjusting to the full truth of the writing rather than what went on around it?
I can’t help but feel these latest controversies about distortion, lies and fakery have less to do with their progenitors than the larger climate of distortion, fakery and hype that fires their brightness and dominates what passes for a culture. Both LeRoy’s mischievous creators and a recalcitrant James Frey, as well as their champions and their critics, might well run an old nursery rhyme of yearning for immortality round in their heads as they look into the firmament of modern fame and ask of themselves ‘twinkle twinkle little star how I wonder what you are.’
Mark Mordue is the author of the non-fiction work, Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip, published through Hawthorne Books in 2004.