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JT Leroy and the Author as Character

I have not read Sarah or The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. They sounded really, really depressing, and that’s just not my thing. I should clarify: It’s not just that I don’t enjoy reading depressing novels, although I do not; it’s also, more crucially, that I do not believe that suffering—the suffering of a character, the suffering of that character’s creator—equals literary merit.

Nor was I interested in JT Leroy as an indie superstar, and, as he became an eccentric and bewigged literary celebrity, my disinterest turned to mild antipathy. I was very bored with JT Leroy before I had read a single word he’d written.

Then it turned out that there was no JT Leroy. That’s when I got interested. It wasn’t merely schadenfreude, although I did feel more than a little bit of that. What caught my attention was the fact that JT Leroy’s debunking occurred at almost the same time as the deflation of James Frey and the unraveling of Kaavya Viswanathan. I followed all three stories and wondered—as I’m still wondering—what these episodes say about readers’ expectations, the role of the author, the business of publishing, and the cult of authenticity. James Stafford’s Independent interview with Laura Albert—the woman who invented JT Leroy—has given me some new ways to think about these issues.

Albert begins by trying to excuse her hoax with a metaphor: “If we’d had a party and I’d brought two bottles of wine, and we had a great night and got a little drunk and had fun, then after I told you there was no alcohol in the wine, hey, we still had fun, didn’t we?” How one answers this question depends, I think, largely on how one feels about being deceived. It’s not that fun was not had; it is, rather, that the memory of the fun is tainted if one interprets the lie not as a joke but as an abuse of trust.

But I think Albert makes a crucial mistake when she uses the word “fun.” I kind of doubt that most readers experienced JT Leroy’s tales of teen prostitutes and crystal meth as “fun”. I also think she misunderstands her audience’s understanding of truth. It is certain that some readers derived a dark, voyeuristic pleasure from Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, but I believe that a lot of people read books like these because to read them is to bear witness to the suffering they describe. Either way, it seems that it’s not enough to read stories about abuse and degradation: We also want to know that it actually happened.

Stafford says as much when he writes, “Perhaps the gravest charge against Laura is that she deliberately led people to believe that what the books described had actually been experienced by JT. Readers took her novels for memoir and it made the pain they described all the more appalling. It also made them more compelling and enabled her to sell more copies…” This is, of course, what got James Frey into trouble. A story that publishers passed on when it was presented as fiction became an Oprah book when it was a true story. Albert’s deception is slightly murkier: JT Leroy’s stories were bought and sold as fiction, but everyone seems to have assumed that they were essentially memoir, that the horrors they contained were actually experienced by the shy, frail, strange boy who wrote them. The author’s biography was vital to their appeal.

It’s easy to understand how people who befriended JT Leroy might have felt betrayed and disoriented by the discovery that their friend didn’t actually exist. I am less sympathetic, though, to readers who feel betrayed. Fiction either works or it doesn’t. A novel or a short story should succeed or fail on its own merits. An author’s personal suffering shouldn’t enter into the equation.

But, obviously, for a lot of readers—and this includes editors and critics—it does, and it’s fascinating to me that Albert defends her work by explaining that JT Leroy’s suffering was actually her own. That is, she’s still claiming that the fiction wasn’t really fiction, so it remains valid. She is arguing that suffering equals artistic merit.

This argument is not a new one. It seems to be implicit in much of what passes for contemporary literature—especially middle-brow literature. A book about an alcoholic, or a guy laid-off from his job at the steel mill, or a girl who is raped by her father gets an automatic ration of credibility that has nothing to do with its aesthetic merits. This has bothered me since I read She’s Come Undone—a book which, I believe, paved the way for a lot of depressing crap that passes for worthwhile fiction—and it bothers me anew every time I have to review some cartoonishly gloomy new novel with literary pretensions.

While I do not, myself, appreciate tales of squalor and misery, it’s easy for me to see how daytime talk shows in narrative form have a built-in audience. I’ve had a harder time understanding why so many critics seem to like these books, but I think Stafford is getting at something when he talks about his own reluctance to investigate the many inconsistencies in JT Leroy’s life: “Who would dare question an abused child?” I wonder if reviewers worry that to criticize a novel about, say, a crack addict is to criticize the crack addict, and if such criticism seems especially proscribed if one believes that the author who created the crack addict was, in fact, a crack addict. If this is, indeed, the case, I wish that reviewers would overcome their fear of offending.

Anyone who wants cleverly packaged “reality” has about a million TV shows from which to choose, and the web is paradise for voyeurs of all proclivities. I think it would be good for books and good for readers if we could separate stories from their creators, if we could dismantle the cult of authenticity that shackles a novel to its author’s biography and inspires writers to write and publishers to publish dubious works of autobiography. I know that it’s utterly unrealistic to hope for this, but I hope for it nevertheless.

July 24, 2007 | Permalink

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