Fact and Fiction, Authenticity and Stories of Oppression

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As you might already be aware if you’ve seen the NYT, “Margaret B. Jones” lied about her background. She grew up wealthy, rather than poor. Her self-reported escapades and good deeds were lies.

And a Holocaust memoir published in 1997,”Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years”by Misha Defonseca, was also fake. Rather than literally living with wolves as a child during the Nazi occupation, the author admitted she isn’t Jewish as she had claimed, and that she spent the war in reasonably safe circumstances in Brussels.

And of course two years ago James Frey’s memoir,”A Million Little Pieces,” was found to contain made up or severely exaggerated details about the author’s drug addiction and recovery.

And JT Leroy, who supposedly was a young truck-stop prostitute who had escaped rural West Virginia for the dismal life of a homeless San Francisco drug addict, but was able to turn his terrible youth into a thriving career as a writer, was a fraud too. He didn’t even exist.

And then there was Asa Carter, a racist speech writer for George Wallace, the bestselling author of “The Education of Little Tree: A True Story,” a literary phenomenon published in the 1970s as a “true story,” even though rather than being a Cherokee orphan, Carter was a virulent white supremacist and segregationist from a privileged background.

Should publishers be held to a higher standard of care, to protect readers from this sort of opportunistic and exploitive fraud? Or should readers cynically assume all memoirs are ragingly dishonest? Certainly one needs to be wary of pseudonymous bloggers, see e.g. this great post, and also this, this, this, this, and this.

–Ann Bartow

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0 Responses to Fact and Fiction, Authenticity and Stories of Oppression

  1. toby says:

    Just a reminder, it is a common misconception, but the JT LeRoy books were always published as fiction.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    But the folks involved in the Leroy scam still tried to benefit from the interest and sympathies evoked by a false story of the author having overcome overwhelming oppression.

  3. ddavid says:

    For what it is worth, I think that Toby is right and there is a failure to draw a meaningful distinction when comparing JT (Laura Albert) with the other authors. All of them expressly labeled their work as fact, Laura labeled her work as fiction.

    As to the creation of JT, this is not unique, for many authors have pretended to be someone they are not. Female authors have pretended to be male, in order to be taken seriously. The creation of a backstory is not unique even to authors. Bob Dylan (of course not his real name) has revised his putative background any number of times. There is not even anything unusual about artists choosing to have someone pretend to be them. Andy Warhol hired people to impersonate him at various events.

    In the end, the real question is whether the fiction that JT/Laura wrote has value. Writing fiction is not like watching a trained dog doing tricks and marveling at its ability to do such. While in the world of non-fiction or memiors the background of the author is key, since you are accepting as true the events recited in the book, in the world of a novel, it is the writing that counts. If it is good, great. If it is not, don’t read it.