Sunday, October 16, 2005

Real or fake?

Yesterday the Hugo House held an inquiry called "Real/Fake - Examining the intersection of fiction and real life." We went to about 1/2 of the day's events, including a panel (two notable slam poets, a famous blogger, a 'zinester, a tech professor/activist) that somehow got off topic and spent most of their time talking about their writing and activism. One question posed to the panelists: Who are your influences (in terms of writing/spoken word as forays into the political)? One of the panelist mentioned J.T. LeRoy, a young (he was 19 when he published his first book), homeless, cross-dressing prostitute, junkie, unbelievable abuse-survivor, and brilliant writer.

The panel continued, still never really coming back to the Real/Fake thing, which I found irritating. During the Q&A portion, someone from the audience said he had recently heard that J.T. LeRoy is not who he claims to be, but instead a woman in her late 30s who created him, and fooled a lot of people in the last decade...literary critics, publishers, celebrities, and the New York Times, among others. He asked the panelist to respond: "Hmmm...really. I'll have to check that out" was basically all she said. Isn't this exactly what this panel is suppose to be talking about!?!

I haven't read J.T. LeRoy, but looked him up once we got home. Two articles have been printed within the last week or two about the possible hoax by a woman named Laura Albert, supposedly one of LeRoy's closest friends and mentors. Both journalists assert that Albert is LeRoy, with some convincing evidence. I won't go into all the details -- short version (Washington Post) and long version (New York Magazine) -- but my question is: how does one feel when a thing or person they've believed in is a hoax?

1) Outrage. I can understand how people could be believe in someone for so long, read about his experience and feel some of his pain only to find out that he doesn't exist. No one likes that I've-been-had-by-a-chump feeling. The writer has played on the emotions of the reader to make a buck and/or gain attention/notoriety.

2) Indifference. It doesn't matter if J.T. LeRoy is real or not...the stories are compelling, brilliant, and shed light on the plight of many homeless/transgender/abuse surviving/heroin using teenagers like the character. What's "real" anyway...J.T. LeRoy may very well be a real part of his creator. Aren't we all amalgums of fiction anyway?

3) Admiration. So maybe I wouldn't have pulled a stunt like this (or even had the brains to come up with it), but what a brilliant ruse! So many writers are aching to get published, and this one found a way to make herself so compelling that the agents and publishers couldn't help but read her work. It helps that she's a fine storyteller too, though the story surrounding the writer is way more interesting.

If I had read and been attached to LeRoy, I think I would feel a combination of these. While pulling the wool in this way is low, these are apparently stories worth telling by this particular teller, real or fake. It's hard to say what the motivation is, but if it's getting the story told, then Albert (or whomever) has done a damn fine job of it, albeit in a slimey and incredibly fascinating way. Ten bucks says a movie is in the works.

(And speaking of movies, the recent The Heart is Deceitful of All Things is based on a LeRoy book.)

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