I am shelving two works in progress (recollections of my grandparents’ home in Pittsburgh, and a post-Marxist reading of Peter Jackson’s King Kong
, to respond briefly to the maelstrom of controversy surrounding authors James Frey and JT Leroy. I have read and thoroughly enjoyed (if that is even the right word when speaking of stories that explore, in harrowingly gory detail, the miserable realms of drug addiction and prostitution) works by both these authors, strenuously recommended them even. Yes, I came to these books under the impression that they were memoirs, i.e. “non-fiction.” Yes, I’m sure that somehow influenced my opinion of the stories as I read and evaluated them. But, for reasons I’m struggling to explain, I just can’t seem to bring myself to feel angry, cheated, or even particularly bothered to find that in reality the stories were (if Frey’s case) embellished or even (in Leroy’s case) completely fabricated.
I fell asleep on the sofa last night around 2 am discussing all this with Eric, who to his credit is a fantastic arguer. I don’t argue so well, as anyone who knows me or has even taken and introductory logic course can testify, so perhaps you, dear readers, can help me make sense of this. Before sketching out some of my thoughts (which will hardly come in a cogent, thesis-driven format), allow me catch you up. A few years ago, James Frey published his riveting memoir A Million Little Pieces
, chronicling his odyssey of recovery from an extreme drug addiction. Frey’s book is receiving scrutiny
because of allegations that certain events in the story (i.e. A stint in prison) didn’t actually happen. I have heard that you can now return your copy of the book for a refund. (Does this remind you of anything, say, circa 1989? I’ll come back to that later….)
JT Leroy’s story is even murkier. In 2000 a young, reclusive, transgender author appears on the scene with a memoir called Sarah
the supposed tale of Leroy’s childhood as a backwoods, teenage truck stop prostitute. Leroy, a supposed HIV positive drug addict, won the sympathy and literary acclaim of celebrities, literary and otherwise. As it turns out
, the books as well as the entire persona of JT Leroy, was a scam cooked up by a mysterious author. Now famous writers and literary critics feel duped and embarrassed. Groups are hollering minority exploitation and the lines between art and reality have been gooily blurred. What a mess!
I just struggled for 20 minutes with a paragraph I had to erase because I realized I was attempting to sketch out for you not only 5 years of studies in art history, my moth-eaten philosophy of art, as well the 20th century shift away from enlightenment philosophy and decided that was biting off decidedly more than I can chew (got a new cavity filled over break incidentally). I might as well jump right in. The bullet points maestro! (Consider this an essay test and these are topics to “respond to”)
• Uh, does objective truth exist? I told Eric that although I pretty much exclusively read memoirs and works of “creative non-fiction,” I’m not really offended to learn that some of them are not true. In fact, I assume that there is untruth inherent to the stories, not even for the steroid-pumped details included, but more for every omission. When I tell you my stories, I’m sorry to admit it dear reader, but there is lots of information I leave out. It’s still the truth right? I suggested that perhaps it is not the veracity of these books, that appeals to me, per se, but rather, the aesthetic form that emerges from such a narrative premise. Eric asked: Suppose the readers of your blog found out all these stories were actually being written by a 40 year old male house-dad? What would they think? I couldn’t really answer on your behalf but as for myself, I said I would be so impressed with the imposter’s ability to inhabit the banal existence of this aimless, identity-crisis-addled, directionless, 20-something that I wouldn’t really care. “So why does he have to pretend to be you?” Eric asks wisely, “Why can’t he just write a novel, a work of fiction?” Touché, which brings us to bullet #2
• Does art imitate life or is it the other way around? Or both? I’m not bothered if a writer of creative non-fiction charms her way into my world of ideas, but, Eric points out, I might be very bothered if a con-artist charms her way into my life and after performing any number of clever and entertaining lyrical tricks, absconds with, say, my computer. The elaborate sham created by the author of JT Leroy’s books, is in my opinion, one of the most brilliant, provocative works or art I’ve heard about in a long time, if only for the fact that it has caused us to wrestle with such a plethora of deep, deep questions. But it was also mean, and capitalistic. Almost the entire cast had no idea they were involved in the performance, a candid camera of the literary canon if you will. And this author has millions in the bank now. I know I’m asking the oldest questions in the book but to what extent need ethics apply to art? If we forgive these breeches atop the aesthetic peaks of ideas, will it lead to an avalanche of depravity in the “real world” down below? (should a president be able to, I don't know, get away with leading a country into war over false pretenses? Do journalists obliged to report "the truth?") That snowy slope is, after all, rather a slippery one. But although I haven't sorted through all the details, I remain unconvinced.
*The hierarchy of authentic experience.
I’m gonna come out and say it. The Comfortable, privileged and safe literati have an unquenchable thirst for, and grotesque fascination with suffering. I feel qualified to say this because I am describing myself here. Many of us know our comforts were not really earned. We secretly hate ourselves for being so lucky. Our lives are dull and inauthentic. “Out there” (some vague place where life is full of danger and adventure, the stuff that really constitutes “living”) are people with amazing stories to tell. Stories about triumph over adversity. The details are like rubbernecking at the scene of a car accident. These are primal instincts at work. We need to hear the stories from these poor people to make us feel alive, but more over to experience powerful feelings of pity and hope. How dare someone fuck with our sentimentality? Our vicarious nightmarish fantasies? How dare one of US, capitalize on one of THEM? What we call “exploitation” has a good deal to do with our phenomenological strategies for ordering the world. Simply put, if I embellished any of my stories no one would care. Because they are boring stories to begin with. And that’s why I’m not a famous writer. That, or because I wasn’t brilliant, or depraved enough, to pretend to be someone I’m not.
I have to go to work. Before I leave I will tell you about one of the best presents I ever got (true story, I swear). When I was 16, shortly after we’d been busted for smoking cigarettes at school and had to make a very costly appearance in juvenile court with our drawn-faced mothers (through which I sat on the bench sullenly hunched over a copy of Notes from the Underground
, Jenny gave me her one and only Milli Vanilli tape. As you may recall, when the Milli Vanilli lip-synching scandal broke, people rushed to the stores to return their “in authentic” tapes for a cash refund. I’m inclined to think this eagerness to recover a buck demonstrates a human impulse equally onerous to the one that prompted the fraudulent producers of the record to fabricate (ha ha, Fab!) a product and mislead a popular culture market. I’m not sure why I was so enthralled to have that tape. I think I really liked the songs. I might have had inkling that I possessed a relic from a site, which, as an adult, I’d come to view as one of the most important ruptures in contemporary theory.
Now days no one really cares about that scandal. Shakira sings through a mic that adjusts her pitch when it leaves her mouth. We have bent and stretched a little on what we find acceptable when it comes to authentic and inauthentic. And my guess is that we will continue to do so.
You won’t catch me asking the library to refund the 20 cents in fines I incurred on my copy of A Million Little Pieces. I considered, for a laugh, returning the copy of JT Leroy’s Sarah
that I shoplifted from a Naperville Barnes and Noble (“yeah, turns out it wasn’t a real story, so here, you can have it back, sorry about that”), but I don’t think so. Besides, if you want to know the whole story, the book was a present to Victor (who was the first to break all this news to me and another reader who enjoyed it very much even when he found out it wasn’t “real”).
There is lots and lots of reading to be done on these scandals. So Enjoy!