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.)