It’s been quite a week for literary scandals. First, The Smoking Gun made a persuasive case that Oprah-anointed author James Frey had fabricated crucial swathes of his best-selling addiction-and-recovery memoir A Million Little Pieces. Second, the New York Times offered its own strong case that the cult novelist JT LeRoy—a former child prostitute and recovered heroin addict, whose raw and “honest” writing had made him a celebrity darling—was merely a persona invented by writer Laura Albert and “played” in public by a friend. You might conclude from all the media hoopla that these hoaxes have upended our long-held ideas about truth and literary merit. But are we really all that surprised?
Long before his book was exposed as fraudulent, the James Frey phenomenon was itself Display A of what has become a deep-seated conviction of our therapeutic culture: Not only is the line between what is factually true and what is purveyed as “authentic” blurry indeed, but the inspirational power of a work of imagination or memory is the most relevant currency by which to judge its value. Frey’s manuscript entered the market as a document whose fate rode more on its packaging than on the artistic merits of its prose, perception, or plot. He peddled Pieces to publishers as a novel, and, when that didn’t work, he was content to sell it as memoir in the hopes of capitalizing on the allure of confessional revelation. He fancies himself a Writer—and has publicly dissed Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer—yet his fabrications seem dictated less by aesthetics (à la Truman Capote) than by a desire to tug ever more brutally on our heartstrings. And like any author, he knew that as soon as you go on Oprah, you’re not promoting your book simply on its artistic merits, but on its claims to be an inspirational artifact.
Yet those very claims, as his book itself cannily acknowledges, are suspect. In A Million Little Pieces, Frey repeatedly excoriates the “bullshit” stories that shape our interactions with people, politicians, and the media, especially the stories that are billed as the most raw and honest. When a former rehab member—and a rock star—shares with the inmates a confession of his own outsized consumption of alcohol and drugs, Frey, infuriated by how “sincerely” the speech is made, imagines beating him up: “I would tell him that if I ever heard of him spewing his bullshit fantasies in Public again, I would cut off his precious hair, scar his precious lips, and take all of his goddamn gold records and shove them straight up his ass.” Frey’s claims to be a truth-teller in an age of emotional mountebanks who savvily manipulate public sympathy are, in part, what appear to distinguish his memoir from other recovery memoirs. By vaunting his skepticism of the pieties of being an addict and a victim, he made his story seem newly real— or authentic—in an age of packaged sound bites. Except that all the while he was busy providing his own sound bite: “The truth is what matters. It is what I should be remembered by, if I am remembered at all. Remember the truth,” he incants in a style all but tailor-made for a motivational speech. In fact, Frey sounds much closer to Tony Robbins than to Frederick Exley.
You could almost say that JT LeRoy peddled “his” work as a memoir, before unveiling it as fiction—a safer (though less lucrative) route than Frey’s, but the signposts are pretty much the same. Presenting himself as a former cross-dressing child prostitute who worked at truck stops, and had become a heroin-addict, he reached out to an assortment of cultural celebrities as a writer now eager to reach audiences with his work. Thus he, too, relied upon the drama of descent and recovery to attract attention to his persona—and thereby endow his novels with the culturally very marketable status of “real” artifact, not just art. Not surprisingly, it worked. His “authentic voice” was championed, editors were moved, and he published Sarah, the story of a young prostitute with a life remarkably similar to what seemed to be his own. He got the kind of media play most first novelists can only dream of.
From a purist point of view, LeRoy’s initial foregrounding of his “autobiography” turned his fiction into a therapeutic object rather than a purely literary one from the start. While some writers might have been bothered by this, LeRoy actively invited this confusion. If it was impossible to extricate the horror of the author’s experience from the accomplishment of the “fictional” work, all the better. Instead of being attacked, perhaps he ought to be celebrated for cannily playing the game his own way.
The fact is, doubts were raised about the accuracy of Frey’s memoir from the start, both in reviews and in cocktail party chatter. And people have long believed that LeRoy was, in some fashion, the invention of another writer. So who is now shocked, shocked that dissembling is going on here? Not Doubleday, which continues to endorse its author. Not Oprah, if you caught her call-in during James Frey’s exclusive interview with Larry King this week, to tell viewers that the “underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me, and I know it still resonates with millions of other people who will read this book.” It was a perfectly scripted “unscripted” media moment. Her message summed up the reigning ethos, in which the once-opposed cultural vocabularies of therapeutic authenticity and postmodern subjectivity fuse: If a book moves you, it’s true.
Ours, it seems, is a cultural landscape in which emotional “honesty” is alchemized into an artistic truth, and every reader gets to decide for himself whether the inherent artifice of the story matters to him—all while writers themselves cynically (and correctly) presume that most readers have no investment in what a purist might call “artistic merit” in the first place. We want to be surprised by the revelation of these fabrications, because if we were truly surprised, it’d mean that we care about truth in the first place. But in the end, it looks like the media hysteria is inspired less by our feeling “conned” by Frey and LeRoy, and more by a need for a cathartic public debate that will leave everyone feeling happy: a Salem witch hunt where no one is burned at the stake.