Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Revisiting an old acquaintance

If you've been reading the NYT's books coverage, you know that Laura Albert, a.k.a. JT LeRoy, has been successfully sued for fraud by the filmmakers who bought the option for thr novel Sarah. Stephen Burt in Slate today makes the point that all of the fuss over LeRoy's identity seems to have little, if anything, to do with the work itself.

The specific claim against Albert seems to hinge on marketing: that the LeRoy identity was created as a ploy to bring attention to and help sell Albert's novel. This led to some particularly weird arguments. Albert's defense was that LeRoy was a genuine identity, created in part to help Albert deal with past sexual abuse. Antidote International Films countered that "LeRoy" had stiffed them for the tab at a lunch meeting. (The NYT articles, behind the Times Select wall, are here and here.

I think I've discussed this at length in this post, but I have to lend support to Burt's argument that the LeRoy controversy is really about nothing but marketing. I've never read the book (and have no intention to do so), but I don't see why it matters whether it was written by a gender-ambiguous street prostitute or by a committee of trained monkeys. I am, however, irked by the cult of personality that surrounded LeRoy and the implied argument that the book was only worthy of attention if it was an authentic result of someone's experience. ("It's a novel, but it really happened!")

So I smiled when the golden boy identity came crashing down, but Albert on the whole seems much more worthy of our pity than our contempt. And the book, good or bad, should stand on its own.

The kicker is that there are rumors of interest in an Adaptation-style film project revolving around Albert/LeRoy and her work. I hope she makes back the money she lost in this lawsuit and then some.


Tim said...

I thought the fraud had more to do with a contractual dispute, especially over the film rights, which are now as-is close to worthless. You can't impersonate someone else as a legal entity, or take payments made to someone else -- that's what's fraudulent about it.

Gavin said...

I think it's a debatable proposition that the film rights are worthless, especially when there are people in the courtroom mulling over film ideas, both dramatic and documentary.

However, you are correct that the legal point is that the contact, having been made with someone who doesn't exist, is null and void. I don't know how pseudonymous publications are normally handled—I wouldn't be surprised if there is usually a contract signed in the author's legal name—but the claim for damages in this case seems to me to have little to do with the arguments that are being discussed.

The novel is still the novel. The story is still the same. The film production crew may think that they bought someone's life's story, but unless there's something in the contract to that effect, they didn't. If Laura Albert had signed using her legal name, I don't think there would have been a case.

I think, in my non-legal opinion, that Laura Albert committed fraud by signing that contract as JT LeRoy, but I think that her liability should be limited to the sum she was paid for the film rights. I don't see any reason why she should be held liable for production costs unless the producers can establish that Sarah was sold as a true story, and I haven't seen any arguments to that effect.

They bought a novel, and I don't see how Laura Albert is legally accountable for the fact that it turned out to be fiction.