January is National Literary Fraud Month!

It looks like it’s a shaping up to be a fine month for literary fraud, as two somewhat prominent authors are accused, in different ways, of not being who they say they are. The first is James Frey, whose millions-selling addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces may not be nearly as non-fictional as he’s suggested, according to The Smoking Gun, which in a long investigative piece concludes that Frey either amped up or made up several of the events in his Oprah’s Book Club-selected tome. The second is “JT Leroy,” a young author whose tales of child prostitution and drug use were all fictional, which is good because it now appears the author may be entirely fictional as well, the creation of the couple who claim to have found him as a strung out-teen and helped whip him into literary shape. When Leroy makes public appearances, it’s actually the sister of the male half of the couple. The author (if he exists) has issued a statement noting he uses stand-ins because of personal issues, but there are other things in the article to suggest he’s vaporware.

I could not personally care less about whether JT Leroy turns out to be fictional or not. I find fictional people writing fiction no more or less objectionable than real people writing fiction, because it’s fiction, after all. This looks to be a slightly more convoluted sort of ghostwriting thing that the people making the TV show Lost will be doing in the spring when they publish a novel “written” by “Gary Troupe,” a passenger on that show’s ill-fated plane (I believe he was the one that got sucked into the engine). Fake people writing fiction just adds another level of meta to the proceedings, if you ask me.

I understand some people who feel personally invested in the author will feel a bit betrayed to learn he doesn’t exist. But you know, the nice thing is, the books still work, because they’re fiction. I tend to be very results-oriented rather then process-oriented when it comes to fiction, which is to say what I care about is whether the book is interesting, not whether the author had to struggle up from drug addiction, or led a life of gilded ease, or was raised by ferrets or what have you. Maybe when I go back for my MFA (ha!) I’ll care about the circumstances of the author and production of a book. In the meantime, really, as long as the book is good, I’m good.

I’m only barely more engaged with the James Frey fracas, possibly because I have a real antipathy toward the addiction memoir genre, which I find tiresome and self-pitying. Yes, it’s nice former junkies have gotten both catharsis and a book deal. Doesn’t mean I have to read the resulting book. Indeed, I have not read Frey’s book; I feel pretty strongly that if you’ve read one “I’m a jackass junkie who abuses people, vomits on myself, gets hauled into rehab and comes out thankful I’m still respiring” tome, you get excused from the rest for all time, and I’ve read one, thank you very much.

(This should not be read as me saying I have no sympathy for people who were formerly addicted who have turned their lives around. I have friends and family who were and who have, and I’m immensely proud of them for having done so. I just hope they don’t write a book about it. It’s been done.)

Given my lack of interest in the book and antipathy for the genre, it’s difficult to rouse myself into caring that the man defrauded millions of addiction voyeurs; indeed my first reaction reading the story was “well, he’s sold three million. He’s set anyway. Good for him.” It’s sort of the same lack of sympathy I’d feel for people watching “amateur” porn who might feel violated that the people making squishy noises there on their TV actually get paid to do it. Perhaps this makes me a bad person. I’m not sure, nor sure if I should care. I do know I’d rather watch amateur porn than read an addiction memoir, for what that’s worth.

However, let’s also keep focus on the fact that if The Smoking Gun’s article is indeed factually correct (and the site’s been pretty good at being factually correct so far as I know), then Mr. Frey is a lying liar who lies, and his “memoir,” whatever its literary qualities, is thereby a piece of crap. One of the things I find absolutely henious in the various discussions of this incident I’ve seen online is invariably there’s someone who shows up and says something idiotic like the “literary” truth of the memoir is more important than the “literal” truth — i.e., it’s okay to lie about events in a non-fiction book if it makes for a better story (see an example of just such a dumbass statement here).

In a word: Bullshit. If one purports to write a non-fiction account of an event, one is, by definition, enjoined from writing fiction. If you write fiction and claim it is non-fiction, you are lying liar who lies. Writing something that “feels” true does not make it true, and the fact that people will come forward to defend “truthiness” over truthfulness in non-fiction makes me want to go on a rampage with a shovel. The tolerance for what one wants to be the truth at the expense of genuine truth is why we currently have a government which is of the opinion that truth looks exactly like a urinal.

If you’re going to write fiction, call it fiction, for Christ’s sake. People love romans a clef just as much as actual memoirs; indeed, they feel naughtier because you know the sex scenes are going to be better written. Writing non-fiction novels only works when you are Truman Capote, or intermittently if you’re Tom Wolfe. I may be going out on a limb here, not having read him and all, but I’m guessing Mr. Frey is in fact neither of them.

Update, 12:32: Mr. Frey comments on his site, and his comment is essentially “no comment.” (No permanent link, so if you come to this entry after 1/9/06), the link may not go to the relevant entry.)

29 thoughts on “January is National Literary Fraud Month!

  1. The operative thing, in my frenzied little mind, is that the one thing that distinguishes non-fiction from fiction is that it is supposed to be the ‘truth’. If the whole thing ain’t the truth, then you can’t count on any of it IMO.

    It’s like the people who make excuses for psychics who are caught cheating, like that James Van whats-his-name. “Just because he cheated this time doesn’t mean he always cheats,” they say. But how do you know?

  2. Like you, I’m much more bothered by memoirs that are actually fiction than by novelists who are actually somebody else.

    This reminds me of a controversy from a few years back (I think this came out in the 1990s) — the supposed memoir The Education of Little Tree was revealed to have been written by a white supremecist. The guy who wrote it, IIRC, was best known for being the speechwriter who wrote the “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” speech (or at least its most memorable line).

  3. “National Literary Fraud Week”

    Does this mean we can expect a John Twelve Hawks unmasking sometime in the next few days?

  4. One thing that immediately struck me while reading the excerpts from the book in the TSG article was how wretched Frey’s writing is. His prose reads almost like some teenager’s blog; it would require only a few “OMG”s and “LOL”s to fully fit the mold. And what’s with his habit of randomly capitalizing words in his sentences, like Cop or House or Addict, and what criterion is he using that allows him to determine that Assholes should be capitalized but “beer gut” shouldn’t?

    Oh…that’s right. It’s something shitty writers call Style.

  5. “You write fiction, you’re telling lies pal.”
    William Boyd – Long Story Short

    I’m pretty much on the side of the fence that says it doesn’t matter, but it is nicer to know, I guess, that your author is in fact just another part of the story.

    Someone wrote it at some point, ultimately.

  6. To cap off National Literary Fraud Month, we need an announcement that Lemony Snicket is a real person, and has just escaped from the rabbit hutch in which Daniel Handler has been keeping him.

  7. I do know I’d rather watch amateur porn than read an addiction memoir, for what that’s worth.

    Judging by an admittedly small sample size, much amateur porn qualifies as live-action addiction memoir. So you’ve got both bases covered, sort of.

  8. Hmm. Did Frey take that website down? Or is it just overloaded? I’m getting errors.

    Anyway, I briefly skimmed the Smoking Gun article yesterday. I thought it was interesting because I read excerps of that book several weeks ago and my internal lie detector in my brain was going ding, ding, ding! I wondered why Oprah’s entire staff didn’t catch that?

  9. I don’t understand how something like this got written, let alone published. Aren’t books like these supposed to miscarry halfway through, when the author realizes which bodily orifice he’s talking out of? My faith in the better judgement of people has been shaken…

  10. There’s a duck between fiction and nonfiction called creative non-fiction, which is where I assume most memoir lies. It’s sort of a jumble of fiction with some facts thrown in, or the other way around. I kind of love the idea. It’s the wink you get given when someone starts telling a tall tale. Since I assume most memoir falls into that soft place, I personally don’t really care whether memoir turns out to be true or not.

  11. Yeah, unfortunately for Mr. Frey, he’s on record saying that it’s all true, so he doesn’t have that excuse.

  12. Are the J.T. Leroy books purportedly grounded in the author’s own experiences? That’s a bird of a different color from the “Lemony Snicket” kind of fake authorship.

  13. Are the J.T. Leroy books purportedly grounded in the author’s own experiences?

    yes, but they are clearly labeled “fiction”. on the dust jacket of “sarah”, the book is entitled “sarah: a novel by jt leroy”. nowhere in the publisher-produced copy for the book does it say that the novel is based on leroy’s own experience, however, that is broadly hinted at in the blurb quotes from other writers. it’s the *marketing machine* that talked about the sources of leroy’s fiction, not the official voice of leroy or of the publisher. clever.

    There’s a duck between fiction and nonfiction called creative non-fiction, which is where I assume most memoir lies. It’s sort of a jumble of fiction with some facts thrown in, or the other way around.

    not really. “creative nonfiction” is not yet terribly well defined. the way it’s taught in creative writing programs emphasizes using the *structures and strategies* of prose fiction, not the fictionalization part. “creative nonfiction” isn’t necessarily a hedge, and doesn’t say anything about the factualness of the *content*.

    the semi-fictional memoir is just a recent invention, popularized by dave eggers. but you have to recognize that eggers was very open about the fact that a lot in “heartbreaking work” was fiction — he even discussed it *in the book*. this was partly for dramatic effect, and partly a meta-moment, intended to make readers question all past memoir, which is supposed to be taken as factual, but secretly includes composites and outright fiction. (look at orwell’s “homage to catalonia” frex.)

    jumping off of eggers’ “heartbreaking work”, other writers have been combining fiction with memoir *openly* and creating a new hybrid genre. some (cf michele serros and kip fulbeck) have even called their books “fictional autobiographies”. that’s *not* what frey did. he named his book a traditional memoir, and then claimed repeatedly that it was all true. there *is* a new term for that. it’s called “lying”.

  14. According to Smoking Gun, Frey actually wrote his vomit-fest as a novel, tried to sell it, failed, then called it a memoir. Turns out people will read garbage if they think it actually happened. Why on earth is that?

  15. “Turns out people will read garbage if they think it actually happened. Why on earth is that?”

    Same reason wrecks and disasters exert such a fascination, would be my guess.

    If TSG’s story is accurate, then Frey is a pretty sad case. (On the upside, maybe he can write another memoir about why he felt like enough of a nonentity that he needed to reinvent himself as a badass “Addict” and “Criminal.”) The most unfortunate thing, though, is that he didn’t just con Oprah and her mighty Book Club; he was using his phony background to represent himself as an authority on how to beat addiction. That’s really not on.

  16. I’m essentially recycling my comment from Steve Gilliard’s news blog here, but my problem with JT Leroy is that the creation of this persona is not an entirely harmless hoax. I wrote,

    “If the creation of the JT Leroy persona were just some performance art-like hoax on the g/literati, it would be amusing. There’s an interesting lesson there about what we consider authentic, and what expectations we have of writers of so-called “transgressive” fiction.

    The Leroy Collective, however, threw in AIDS and transgender identity, neither of which are discardable identities or sympathy bids for the people who actually live those realities.”

  17. The most unfortunate thing, though, is that he didn’t just con Oprah and her mighty Book Club; he was using his phony background to represent himself as an authority on how to beat addiction. That’s really not on.I haven’t actually read the book, but I did recently hear a long interview with Frey (a month or so ago) where he did at least make it very clear that he was not an authority at all. He presented his books (I suppose one must question the validity of his second book, My Friend Leonard as well, at this point) as his story and nothing more. Of course, if it’s not really his story, then….I must say I’m pretty annoyed to hear about this, because I thought that one of the points he made in the interview was extremely valuable: AA is not the only way for people to get sober (and maintain their sobriety). This has apparently caused quite the uproar in the addiction community, but it is an unremarkable assertion to me, as I have personal knowledge of someone who was, by anyone’s definition, a functioning alcoholic, much to his (and his family’s) detriment. Without AA or any other sort of organization, he quit drinking and after several years began drinking socially, which he’s been doing for at least the past decade without slipping back into his old ways. He was the kind of drunk AA claims doesn’t exist.That being said, in this interview, Frey did say that he thought for someone who wanted to quit drinking, AA was probably the best first choice; he freely acknowledged that it works for some and it’s certainly easy get access to a meeting. He just said it didn’t work for him and left it at that. Unfortunately the party line from AA is that they’ve got the only plan that’ll work — I hope that Frey being discredited (if in fact this is all true) doesn’t cement that notion any more firmly in the public mind.(Disclaimer: I am a regular poster here, but since I’m discussing someone else’s issues here, I prefer to remain…well, Anonymous (hey, I never said AA didn’t have any good ideas….))

  18. Hi, appropriately anonymous.
    Your line on Frey is -as far as I can tell – unique, and that’s truly saying something this week. On that alone: you deserve a reply.
    Your reasoning is that Frey’s debunking shouldn’t debunk the debunking AA deserves for its cultish insistence on being the only true way to manage the demon drink.
    My answer is that no one needs MORE bullshit on this matter.
    Frey makes being non-AA the more badass, the more “macho” option.
    Because it seems clear he lied about the “badass” component of his addiction and recovery I think – with respect – it’s a bit of a stretch to cite him as a valuable source on alternatives to AA, even ignoring his specific fibs.
    But I am sort of in awe of your loony logic!

  19. Jody,As I said, I haven’t read his book (either of ‘em, for that matter), so my opinion is based solely on one interview I heard with him. At least in that interview, he did not seem to be positioning himself as a ‘badass’ in any way. I also noted above that he specifically said (in response to a caller on the show) that he would recommend AA as the best first choice for someone trying to quit drinking. Perhaps this is significantly different from what he presents in his book, but it hardly seems to be the sort of rabid anti-AA sentiment some people suggest.I certainly never implied I considered him a “valuable source on alternatives to AA”, I said that one part of his message (that there are such alternatives) tallied with facts that I’ve personally observed. If it turns out that his whole memoir is fiction from start to finish, it doesn’t mean that everything the man says has no truth to it.Put it this way: he also said that being an addict is a terrible way to live — this seems to me to be a true statement that does not rest on facts (or “facts”) presented in his book.I fail to see how this logic is “loony” in any sense, but you are of course free to believe differently.

  20. Appropriately Anonymous,
    By “loony logic”, I simply mean that while there is some internal coherence to your argument (if I may summarise it thus: an alleged liar, even if he turns out to be an actual liar, does not necessarily tell lies about everything), it IS slightly, delightfully, bonkers to fasten on “one”, self-diagnosed “extremely valuable” point Frey made in “one” interview – because it happened to chime with a particular hobby horse of yours!
    It’s giving Frey a bizarre pat on the head amid this fascinating debate about the nature of memoir, wider responsibilities between a writer, his publisher and readers, subjective recollection, the value of confessional literature, Oprah’s imprimatur, so on and so forth.

    And for you to further write: “At least in that interview, he did not seem to be positioning himself as a ‘badass’ in any way” implies a startling ability to ignore the gist of much of the overwhelming commentary on the subject.
    Quibble if you like with the word “badass” as slang. But it’s central to Frey’s portrayal of himself during his addictions, it’s the question TheSmokingGun sought to answer (just how much of a “badass” was he really?) and it’s the core of the debate (does it matter if he was less of a “badass” than he said he was?).

    It also seems odd that you’ve read enough to notice Frey’s personal rejection of AA caused “quite the uproar in the addiction community” yet failed to become informed about so much else.

  21. Jody,We really don’t seem to be communicating well here. You seem to be interpreting what I’ve written here as some sort of defense of Frey (“…a bizarre pat on the head…”), which it most certainly is not. I’m sorry if you don’t feel my point is important enough to raise while others are discussing the literary issues involved, but (again…) I haven’t read the book, so I don’t really feel qualified to address most of these topics. I’m not denying that they are fascinating, I just don’t have the information I’d need to have an informed opinion on them.My original point was “I hope that Frey being discredited (if in fact this is all true) doesn’t cement that notion [that AA is the only way to beat alcoholism] any more firmly in the public mind”. I stand by that, and your oh-so-charming characterization of my position as a “hobby horse” doesn’t really do much but make me believe that you’re pretty smug.When you say “It also seems odd that you’ve read enough to notice Frey’s personal rejection of AA caused ‘quite the uproar in the addiction community’ yet failed to become informed about so much else”, I get the feeling I’m being accused of something, but it’s not clear what. Like I said in both of my previous posts all I know about the guy I got from an interview with him (your scare quotes seem to imply some doubt that this interview ever took place, so I’ll mention here that it was on the “Ron and Fez” show on XM radio around late November/early December if I recall correctly). In my original post, I said that it had apparently caused an uproar, because it was a topic addressed in the interview. I can’t really confirm or deny that it had, so I refrained from stating it as fact. I have definitely not researched the matter, and reading over my previous posts, I don’t think I’ve presented myself as any kind of expert.

  22. creative nonfiction is not supposed to skew facts, it is creative in the sense that it reads like fiction, but is in fact nonfiction.

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