JT Leroy, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Eileen Myles, T Kira Madden

Maybe it was because it was a different time

I am trying to understand the outrage behind the JT Leroy saga. Laura Albert is a writer and actress. She created what she called an ‘avatar,’ JT Leroy. She wrote a novel which became a best-seller. She followed up with another work of fiction, a collection of stories. This book was picked up by Hollywood and a film was made. So let me ask, what’s wrong with that?

The outrage comes because Albert hired an actress to portray Leroy. The subterfuge worked for a while, but eventually an investigative reporter found out that Leroy was Albert’s pen name. The problem is that Albert had told people that Leroy was not a pen name but a real person.

All of a sudden, the books and film became worthless, part of what has been called a literary “hoax.” Even though JT Leroy was not real, the books certainly were. And at no time did Albert, or the actress she hired, claim that the books were anything other than what they were, i.e., works of fiction. So why the outrage?

Steven King used the name “Richard Bachman” to write a series of novels. When the world found out that Bachman was King, Bachman’s books were merely added to King’s ouevre. Yet Albert was unfairly ostracized, even though one could argue that the whole JT Leroy portrayal was astonishing performance art.

What is a novel, anyway? And should the author’s true identity always be a consideration? Do we damn J.R.R. Tolkien because he never visited Middle Earth? Eileen Myles’ Inferno: A Poet’s Novel is really a memoir, isn’t it? When she writes about afternoons spent at the home of Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, she is referring to the author of Tambourine Life and his wife, the author of The Descent of Alette. By saying, “this is a novel” is Myles warning, “I have modified the facts?”

T K. Madden’s recent Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls approaches the question from the opposite direction, billing her work as a memoir but warning that her subjective memories of facts are her own. The level of detail in Madden’s work is similarly the opposite of the Latin legal rule, falsus in unus, falsus in omnibus: the truth of the details she recounts is strong evidence of the truth of the whole. Madden brings South Florida to life, she brings the 90’s to life: mentioning the padded strap of a Sony videocamera is but one accurate detail in a book full of trenchant observations.

Yet Myles’ book is full of observations as well. Annie Ernaux’s works fit well within what the French call autofiction , the Japanese the I-novel and sometimes read like a letter to a friend.

Those who claim “memoir” but actually write fiction are treated harshly–Little Pieces comes to mind. Laura Albert was treated just as harshly, but made no claim of truth.

Noam Chomsky once asked, “do the facts matter?” Perhaps the facts only matter when presented as facts. A journalist who lies is outside the pale. A novelist writing narrative fiction should be able to tell a story, whether that story is based on historical facts or invented, as they say, out of whole cloth.

Were JT Leroy’s “Sarah” to become popular today, would anyone care that Laura Albert had used a pen name?