Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Trendy Writer is Deceitful Above All Things

As a followup to Emma B.'s thoughtful post here about the JT Leroy hoax, here's a look at the aftermath.

First, this excellent piece in the Guardian by Laura Barton makes a very good point about authenticity in its last paragraph:

It is all a matter of authenticity. Is it because if JT LeRoy is not a drug-addled hobo hooker made good, we feel embarrassed ecause we've been conned, as if we paid full price for a Louis Vuitton purse only to find it was a fake? But nothing has been taken from us. The books remain: as startling and disturbingly beautiful as they ever were. There is nothing that has sullied the New York Times's assertion that "his language is always fresh, is soul never corrupt". And what strikes me more than anything is that in this age of overblown celebrity, where people such as Paris Hilton can be famous purely for being Paris Hilton, mightn't JT LeRoy represent the precise inversion of this? The work is all. The identity is irrelevant.
After the jump, more thoughts and revelations from folks with egg on their faces.

Most prominently, there's the reaction of Dennis Cooper, whose early support gave JT the imprimatur of authenticity and credibility JT needed to be taken seriously. Without Dennis Cooper, there would have been no JT (and that's not even considering the likelihood that Laura Albert was directly inspired by the traumatized boy-Lolitas of Cooper's fiction). Cooper is (understandably) one of the most bitter ex-friends of JT:

Would Laura have been able to publish Sarah and THIDAAT under her own name? Well, first of all, I don't believe she would have written them in the first place sans the encouragement and hands on editing of the circle of writers who formed the first layer of the scammed.

If those stories weren't backed up by the authenticity of the author's autobiography, but were known instead to have come from the imagination of a woman in her late thirties, I think they would have been seen as overly deliberately provocative and shocking, and their crudeness would have been seen as flawed writing, not as the understandable and kind of interesting failings of a emotionally screwed up, homeless teenager.

Would I have given that much support to Laura if she'd called me up out of the blue and told me she liked to pretend she was an abused teenaged street prostitute and had written the earliest of the stories later published in THIDAAT? No, I wouldn't have, although I might have tried to give her some advice if she wasn't too creepy, though I have a feeling I would have thought she was creepy from the outset.

Um, who's the creepy one? The struggling aspiring writer trying to scam the deeply unfair publishing word, or the wildly popular writer of violent pornography about little boys who, lo and behold, only has time in real life for traumatized little boys? Can't you hear his disgust when he writes "woman in her late thirties"? I wonder which is the cardinal sin, being a woman or not being a teenager.

Cooper also shares this bit of juicy gossip:

From what I understand via people closer to the immediate situation than myself, [Laura] is kind of losing it at the moment, not having truly grasped the obvious -- that she could be cornered.

And one of his commenters tells a story about seeing Laura on a public bus basically flipping out for no reason. Aww.

There's also Michael Chabon's wife (sorry, but that's how she identifies herself) writing in Salon about her phone relationship with JT, which involved long gab sessions about family problems and their kids (hm, not many gay hustlers I know like to drone on and on about which private school would be best for their 5-year-old).

I can't, of course, speak for Madonna or Winona Ryder, but I was snookered by something JT inspired me to feel about myself. Sure, there was the general entertainment value of listening to stories about the train wreck that was his life. Even as pure fiction they were fascinating. But more than that, talking to JT made me feel good about myself. It might have been because he gave me the opportunity to feel completely sane and secure. It might have been because I was flattered that the same person who whiled away hours with Margaret Cho also seemed to enjoy talking to me. But mostly it was because whoever he was, he seemed so genuinely in need of advice and assistance. It feels awfully good to be needed. It feels good to think of myself as someone so generous with my time that I was willing to devote hours of it to a fucked-up near stranger. That's why I can't possibly be angry at having been taken in. I got as much out of it as he did.

Backtracking, in this piece in the Voice a few years ago (cited in this New York expose a couple months ago), early supporter/boring writer Mary Gaitskill speculated about whether or not she was being played:

It's occurred to me that the whole thing with Jeremy [J.T.] is a hoax, but I felt that even if it turned out to be a hoax, it's a very enjoyable one. And a hoax that exposes things about people, the confusion between love and art and publicity. A hoax that would be delightful and if people are made fools of, it would be OK—in fact, it would be useful.
Hm, I'm sure Mary's pretty glad today that she's on the record with that little parachute, but does she really feel "delighted" that she and her friends have been made fools of in a very public way? More than just being made fools of, she and Dennis cooper and the others were exposed as creepily fetishizing and romanticizing victimhood.

Best of all, though, is this essay on Susie Bright's blog. She makes a pretty good case for why the hoax was not delightful or useful, but just plain cruel. One of her commenters probably speaks for a lot of folks in San Francisco and elsewhere: "Anyone who would do what JT has done is the ethical equivalent of a rapist." It's that kind of oversimplified thinking that got them in a mess in the first place, but luckily Bright is a bit more measured. One of her best points is about how this reveals the desperation writers can feel because of the focus on celebrity and backstory in the publishing world:

Did any of you see how the Times of London made this point recently? They pulled a prank on publishers. They sent around two VERY famous, LEGENDARY author's stories, with their names stripped off. The stories themselves are superb examples of both writers' work. All the big agents and publishers received the stories as if from a new, middleaged novelist looking for a deal. No pictures were sent, or scintiallating personal material. None of the recipients recognized the authors. And in each case, they were turned down flat. So you see, V. S. Naipaul couldn't get a deal today if he tried, starting out.

There are also other interesting tidbits hidden in the long (and fun to read) comments to Bright's piece. For instance, Bright reveals that:

Ms. Albert [the woman who concocted JT] actually DOES know me from the past, because we worked together on an erotic spoken word album in the early 90s called Cyborgasm. The mind reels. No wonder s/he seemed so familiar with my work.

Emily Albert, not looking a thing like her protagonist, has all this time arranged for her blonde sister-in-law, Savannah Knoops, to “play” the role of JT in public. This explains why the "Physical Version of JT" always sounded like an inarticulate boob in public, because it really isn’t Emily, who has a way with words.

I have heard from one friend, too mortified to post here, who says she wrote a whole story for JT that the two of them were supposed to collaborate on. And he got the check of course. So who knows how many people "wrote" for JT.

Oooh, the tawdry gossip. I'm sure Bright's confession is heartfelt, but one wonders if maybe she hasn't wised up a bit and realized that if she's first out of the gate with a JT mea culpa, she's pretty much guaranteed inclusion in the inevitable JT movie (who plays Susie Bright? Kate? A plumped up Renee? Dare we hope, Reese? You know Susie's considered it already).

Overall, I think it was Bright's commenter Jojoba who best summed up my personal reaction (a kind of counterpoint to Laura Burton above):

I hate to say it, but you had it coming. You can't cheat an honest man. Was the writing of JT LeRoy really any good without the background story? Not really, but it was the story that got all these phony liberals heart strings so they all bought into the JT backstory. The irony is that just like Milli Vanilli the actual artwork hasn't changed, the books are exactly the same as when they were first published.

The art is all that remains, indeed. And it's just as crap now as it was before.


  • At 7:21 PM, Blogger Susie Bright said…

    No, I hadn't thought of the movie version until now! You are so funny! I'm sure I won't be in it, since I am really a minor character compared to some. The people with the biggest vale of tears to unleash are just sitting in their chair, still stunned.

    But since you started it, I would MUCH rather be Reese. I loved her in FREEWAY.


  • At 10:26 PM, Blogger Joseph said…

    Check out what Dennis Cooper has to say about it on his blog.


  • At 10:53 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Eek, I'm still getting used to the fact that the people I blog about might actually read and reply to what I wrote. My next post was going to be a survey of Laura Albert's solo work, so I'll have to take out that whole section comparing her unfavorably to Kathy Acker. Heh.

    Reese as Susie Bright? And the Oscar goes to...

    Oh, and Joseph, thanks for the heads up about DC's blog, I'll incorporate it into the post...

  • At 6:42 AM, Anonymous vintage purse said…

    Ever wish you could surf all day. I wish I could. I can only say you ahve a great blog and take off. Want to find a vintage purse site sometime today. Again, thanks.


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