Wednesday, January 11, 2006

More Frey/Leroy talk

Ayelet Waldman (novelist and Michael Chabon's wife) discusses J. T. Leroy on Salon

Doubleday shrugs off questions about James Frey's truthfulness in the New York Times.

Today's entries into the fray (the Frey fray?) give me a good opportunity to clarify a point or two and make another point explicit.

First, as a fiction writer myself, and considering that one of the authors in question is a fiction writer, it's counterintuitive for me to argue that LeRoy and Frey are liars. Frey's publisher makes a good point about the difference between biography/autobiography (which is scholarly and should be held to certain standards of accuracy and objectivity) and memoir (which is not and cannot). Since Frey's books are supposed to be memoirs, there is a good deal of wiggle room for embellishment. There is some talk that Frey himself considered his book a semi-autobiographical novel in the tradition of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, and that it was his publisher that wanted to market the book as nonfiction.

The bigger issue in my mind, as Waldman points out (yes, Waldman talks about Frey in her LeRoy piece), is that Frey himself seems to have embraced that marketing, even going so far as to present his experiences and choices as an alternative to addiction treatment programs like AA. This becomes extremely problematic if the experiences that Frey presents turn out to have been fabricated. (There is a huge difference between writing a novel in which a character invents a religion and writing a book that describes a new religion, followed by an application for tax-exempt status.)

Likewise, it almost doesn't matter that J. T. Leroy may not exist. The only issue with a J. T. LeRoy novel written by a 40-year-old woman who likes to play dress-up instead of a 25-year-old gender ambiguous boy is that LeRoy's work is presented as confessional narrative. It may not be entirely nonfictional, but a claim is made that it is based upon the author's experiences. Again, there are a lot of people who have criticized the whole genre of confessional literature. Isn't LeRoy himself the best argument that one need not be a damaged teenage boy to write like one?

What it really comes down to, in my mind, is that in today's publishing climate the best way to jump out of the slush pile is to present a fantastic "true story," and as both Frey and LeRoy show, it works. Laura Albert may well have been a cult writer without J. T. LeRoy, but she wouldn't have had the home phone numbers of Julianne Moore and Winona Ryder. James Frey, novelist, may have been the next Chuck Palahniuk, but I have a feeling that he never would have been invited to Oprah.

The infuriating thing is that it shouldn't matter. The rage fueling much of the Frey/LeRoy backlash is that of writers who are doing similiar work and can't even place it in a literary magazine, much less party with Madonna in Rome or cash that big Oprah check. Frey and LeRoy were able to distinguish themselves from the pack and find a mass audience by appealing to the cult of authenticity. I think it's instructive that they had to lie to do it. If they are liars, it is at least in part because we wanted them to be.

Reality television, meet reality literature.

(Ed. note: a writer for The Daily Show adds to the discussion in the New York Times.)

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