Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Save the fiction for the page

Writers are born liars. When you start stringing words together, the tide-pull of creativity can carry you off just as easily as one blinks an eye. It is all about destroying the world and rebuilding it as you wish. The headlines have been filled of late with writers who’ve been busted for crossing the line: Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, James Frey. Now it’s JT LeRoy, who, as it turns out, doesn’t exist at all; it was a pen name for former partners Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop, with LeRoy portrayed in public, under a wig and dark sunglasses, by Knoop’s half-sister Samantha, and various other unnamed “stand-ins.”

What’s amazing about this particular hoax is that it went on for so long; the ruse started in 1996, and by January of this year, LeRoy’s name graced the covers of three novels, one of which, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, was adapted for the screen in 2001 by writer-director Asia Argento (daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario). According to Wikipedia, pieces under LeRoy’s name have been published in American Zoetrope, McSweeney's, Memorious, and Oxford American magazine's 7th Annual Music Issue; this in addition to LeRoy’s editorial contributions to The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 and MTV's Lit Riffs, among others. Those are just the highlights.

You gotta hand it to them, really -- they got a lot of mileage out of the lie. But it’s still a lie. The publishing industry is, of course, shocked, shocked that someone might deceive them, but apparently they easily forget that fiction is a writer’s stock in trade. Granted, journalists like Glass and Blair are more of a problem than Frey and LeRoy; journalists are supposed to walk that higher path, to hew to the truth, no matter how hard it is to wrestle it into the framework of the story you wish to tell. LeRoy’s backstory was the thing that sold people on the writing; the same with Frey. When it comes out that the backstory is embellished or invented altogether, it puts the work in a different light. But the work is inanimate; it has no feelings to hurt and no blood to draw. There’s no immediate, primal satisfaction in attacking the work, because going after the creator is so much more viciously satisfying.

A compelling, well-told story, no matter how outlandish, creates believers. People want something to believe in; they look to creative thinkers of every stripe for leadership and guidance, to ease the pain of being alive, and when it’s perceived that they’ve failed us in some way, anger makes them forget that it was just a simple story, about people trying to make it through a day in a complicated, brutal and unfair world. Albert and Knoop shouldn’t have misled people the way they did, but history overflows with many such deceptions, however altruistic their intent, which many still place great faith in. So it goes.

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