Sunday, January 08, 2006

Pseudonyms and other lies

I don't know how many of you are familiar with J. T. LeRoy. He is the author of one novel and one collection of stories, each supposedly highly autobiographical, although the author himself chose to remain a bit of an enigma. The story was that he had spent time as a cross-dressing prostitute, with his mother acting as his pimp, until rescued by Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop. A gender-hopping, streetwise, media-savvy phantom, LeRoy became friends with several literary figures, including Dennis Cooper, Mary Gaitskill, and Mary Karr, some of whom offered financial support when LeRoy declared that he was HIV positive even though none of them had ever actually met LeRoy face to face.

New York magazine published an article in October that asserted that LeRoy's works were in fact written by Laura Albert, who is herself a San Francisco musician and scenester with a history of inhabiting multiple public identities. A small hullabaloo ensued, in which the New York Times, which had published at least one travel piece by LeRoy, and had commisioned another piece on the HBO series Deadwood, ended its relationship with the author because it could not establish his identity. Tomorrow, the Times will publish a piece identifying J. T. LeRoy's publc face as Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Koop's half-sister.

I've never liked pseudonyms, but this would be a tempest in a teapot had not LeRoy's "history" been so publicly mined to lend credence and authenticity to his writing. Thomas Pynchon serves as an illustrative counterexample. Pynchon's reclusiveness has long been such that there has been a great deal of speculation that he doesn't exist at all. For Pynchon, however, it doesn't really matter. The work stands alone. So much of LeRoy's fame, however, seems to hinge on his audience's identification with LeRoy himself.

There will be enough indignation that I hardly need to add mine. The sad thing is that it need not have mattered. A pseudonym doesn't have to be a lie.

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