Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Heart is Also Quite Gullible Apparently

Okay, so Ayelet Waldman was also conned by the JT Leroy literary scam. Actually, she's one of a sort of inner circle of influential writers who were conned into believing that a 40 year old mother from Brooklyn was actually a teenaged transgendered prostitute from West Virginia. Since her name seems to be on the call-list for articles about The Heart is Totally Full of Shit we can understand why she would want to write an article on the really interesting part of the story- why so many people fell for such a transparent hoax for about a decade.

But, her Salon article on the scam is, well, really wierd actually. She's, supposedly, telling us how she was scammed: in fact, the article is called "I Was Conned by JT Leroy". However, she starts the article with: "There's nothing I find quite as annoying as the phrase 'I told you so.' But, well, I told you so. Five years ago, after I read Armistead Maupin's 'The Night Listener," a novel based on his experience with a literary hoaxster, I started insisting that the real JT Leroy was most likely a 50-year-old Midwestern woman. Turns out I was off by a decade or so."

So, wait- she didn't get conned by JT Leroy, but the rest of us did? Wasn't the whole point of writing this article that she did, actually, not tell anyone so, but told a lot of people much the opposite? Am I missing something here?

Apparently, "Leroy" was interested in her husband, who is famous, as she tells us a number of times in the article, but flattered "his" way into her heart, a little transgendered waif who just wanted to be loved. Sort of Dickensian- Little Nelly. I think her point is that she fell for it, even though she knew she was falling for it, because he stroked her considerable ego. There's something hysterically narcissistic about this line in particular: "I can't, of course, speak for Madonna or Winona Ryder, but I was snookered by something JT inspired me to feel about myself." Which is basically telling us that "I was friends with someone who was friends with Madonna and Winona Ryder!!!"

In the end, she believes it was all no big deal; who cares, right? "It probably did little harm, except to the egos of those of us who were fooled, and it probably did some good, if the books themselves found an audience among the very people JT was pretending to be." She's probably right. A few points though:

1) The books themselves are kitsch. They were popular because they supposedly showed us a side of life that few knew really existed. Well, having grown up in the part of the world they portray, around actual truck stops, I can attest that they portray a side of the world that really doesn't exist. But, that is transparently bullshit. I figured they were written by a NYC teenager. I was close.

2) They do reveal a Brooklynite's fantasies about the corrupt underbelly of the Southern Other, and how ready and willing NY and LA media elites were to believe in those fantasies. "Under the sham of flag-waving and bible-thumping, these people are dirt-poor perverts!!" Thanks. We've heard that song before.

3) So, there is something fascinating about the fact that urban-dwellers would rather hear a transparent lie about the South than actually hear about the South. It's interesting how the lower classes still fuel the sexual fantasies of the upper classes- not much has changed since de Sade.

4) Also, there is something fascinating about the fact that people with connections, power, and publicity get to lie to the rest of us and then pull out the "Ha-ha! There is no truth!" card. One of my favorite letters here comments: "The fact that it is fictional doesn't necessarily undermine the message of the work, but it does reveal something disturbing about our seemingly collective desire for verisimilitude in the genre of memoir, already remarked upon eloquently by other commentators here and in the piece in New York Magazine." But, is that really disturbing? Wouldn't people want to believe that a memoir is not entirely fictional? As an accomplished memoirist has noted in the comments, the JT Leroy books were, in fact, sold as novels, although allegedly inspired by the novelist's life. And I'd say that was their main selling point- this boy supposedly knew of what he wrote.

5) Lastly, there are some sad aspects to the story that Winona Ryder and Madonna can feel free to ignore:
a) There are real live transgendered teenagers, abused teenagers and people with AIDS who may have a legitimate desire for verisimilitude in a novel about someone in their situation,
b) The "Aren't Southerners Creepy?" sort of porn really is class-conscious in the ugliest way,
c) It is sort of sad to think that those geniunely great writers who are struggling in places like West Virginia won't have a chance against well-connected liars who tell the urban aristocracy of the image what they want to hear. Actually, with publishing becoming a gamour-&-glitz star-factory, it's downright depressing.

Note: Corrections made to original post.


Jenny said...

I've read over a dozen blog entries and "official" journalism pieces on this thing(which fascinated me), and yours is the best. The best writing, and most importantly, the best take: your points are dead on and true. What you mention about the appeal of fake-southern-fried-perviness is the bit it seems every other writer skims over or totally ignores. Thanks.

Rufus said...

Thanks so much! It is a fascinating story, isn't it? I like the old Disney art on your blog, incidentally.

Rachel Howard said...

A correction to your points numbers 4 and 5: JT LeRoy did not write memoirs. LeRoy's books are novels. They were marketed as "autobiographical," and they did rely on this invented persona to boost their poignancy.

James Frey, on the other hand, wrote highly embellished memoirs. One interesting aspect of these concurrent scandals is a cultural confusion over the difference between a memoir and a novel, and a confusion over the ethical obligations regarding truth in each.

Rufus said...

Right, point taken.

Rufus said...

But, cultural confusion notwithstanding, the books were, indeed marketed as having been based on the author's own life. The invented persona was their main selling point. Is this a reasonable way to sell, or read, fiction? Not at all; but again, the JT Leroy books are simply not strong enough as works of fiction to sell otherwise. So, what's interesting to me is the fact that even fiction seemingly cannot get sold anymore without the author having a glamourous backstory.

Phyllis said...

Thank God someone finally made this point. And haven't the people of West Virginia been through enough lately without putting up with this stuff?

One thing people fail to understand is that fiction above all must tell the truth. Fiction like JT Leroy's is one big lie.

Rufus said...

Well, of course, there is surrealism, sci-fi and such. But, what bugs me about this brand of fiction is that it purports to shine a light on a hidden part of the South that, ultimately, is entirely invented. I suppose that there is fiction that:
a) Reveals truth about the real world (such as Steinbeck, or Proust) /or
b) Reveals truth about the author's own fantasy life (such as William Burroughs).

What bothers me about the JT Leroy books is that they clearly fall into the second category, but were sold in such a way as to convince the reader that they came firmly from the first.

I'm sure the people of West Virginia have much more important things to worry about than this. The timing might seem bad, but remember that the books came out over the last 11 years and the scandal broke over three months ago. Besides, I'm guessing that most people there will just laugh, shrug their shoulders, and ignore all of this. :)