Faketion and JT Leroy
I call it “Faketion”. For the last few years, any number of writers, editors, and Oprah’s book club have been taken in by two writers, JT Leroy and James Frey
whose persona were as much fiction as anything they wrote. Is this Milli Vanilli gone literary? Isn’t there a long history of pseudonyms and misdirection in the literary world from George Elliot forward to Clifford Irving to the Education of Little Tree? There's also a long history of impostors that predates Tony Curtis movies, Catch Me if You Can , and Princess Caraboo like scenarios. The crucial difference is that in earlier generations impostors would pretend to be rich, royal, or simply exotic. Both Frey and Leroy found a path to celebrity by pretending to be more pathetic and damaged than they really were, yet somehow able to tell the story of their "survival". Had they simply held up a sign at the local mall that said "Injured Iraq War Vet, Will Work for Food", we would have ignored them whether or not they actually drove home in a Lexus.
Any number of very well known writers/editors were fooled by Leroy/Abbot. They edited his/her stories, supported readings, offered praise, even gave money. They are the ones who invested in Leroy being real. I read maybe two Leroy stories when there was a feature article in the Chronicle some three years ago. I’ve never read James Frey. So, why am I the one who feels so cheated by this adventure in performance art?
I’ve written for most of my adult life. I don’t claim to be any great talent, but I’ve put a lot of time into it. I’ve never been anywhere near Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, or Sharon Olds. To them, I remain some speck underneath the slushpile. Perhaps I belong there, I don’t really know. Somehow, a couple of wannabe rockers got a hearing/read from all these people by faking a backstory and a writer. Some insist that the product was still “good”, highly readable, etc. In fact, there’s even a movie in the can based on Leroy’s writing waiting to be released.
Frey got himself endorsed by Oprah, the single biggest force in publishing, with an addiction recovery story that posed as his autobiography. Leroy wrote fiction based on a constructed life of a “lot lizard”, an adolescent boy left to work as a truckstop prostitute in West Virginia. I could go on about how the real world, particularly the Bush administration keeps pressing the boundaries between the unimaginable and the actual. In this case, the misadventures of WMD, misdirection of Valerie Plame, and JT Leroy all successfully duped the New York Times for a variety of reasons. I could go on and on about the social significance of the twin frauds here while talking about William Gaddis’s the Recognitions, but maybe that’s why I’m still on the slushpile.
I could go on and on, but honestly, I’m just pissed. The whole tale hurts me, as an aspiring and long frustrated writer, in ways that non-writers probably can’t fathom. While, I’m seeing all these apologia from the various people who are in a position to help unknown writers who happened to get duped, not a single one seems to have shed a tear over what this may have cost writers like myself who foolishly persist in the "fiction" that it's the writing not the persona of the writer that matters.