Truth and a million little consequences
IN 11 YEARS of writing about myself, I’ve never bothered to make anything up. I could have been a pirate or an astronaut, or at least done something interesting enough so that people would stop asking, “Why does that dude keep writing about himself?”
Everyone else, it seems, wasn’t so stupid. Last week, James Frey got nailed for having made up some of the most salient parts of his rehab memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” such as the fact that he was a bad-ass criminal who fought with cops and went to jail for crack possession. Turns out, Frey was more like a guy who was in seven or eight large chunks.
Also last week, we learned that author J.T. LeRoy, a 25-year-old transsexual novelist whose mother pimped him as a cross-dressed child prostitute and who got his first book deal at age 17, does not exist. A woman in a bad wig did all his public appearances. His books -- two of which were optioned as movies scheduled to be released this year -- were penned by Laura Albert, a 40-year-old rock singer, writer, mom, former phone-sex technician and person with way too much free time.
The hoax became obvious when the New York Times -- which had previously been burned by its money-saving national correspondent, Jayson Blair, who filed his stories from various bars across New York -- checked LeRoy’s expenses for a travel story he wrote about a trip to Paris for four. He turned in only three Air France receipts. Even I know that the one thing a writer is supposed to exaggerate is an expense report.
I’ve read Frey’s book and several LeRoy essays, and the weird thing is, knowing they were built on a lie doesn’t make me like them any less. I also don’t seem to mind that half of the reality shows I watch are clearly fabricated by writers. I’m able to parse which ones are written through a combination of my finely honed journalistic skills and the fact that at the end of the show the credits list “writers.”
I shouldn’t like being played like this. After all, I wouldn’t have bought “A Million Little Pieces” if I knew Frey was just a suburban kid trying to look tough, and I wouldn’t have checked out LeRoy’s writing if I didn’t think he was an abused freak show.
Frey seemed to understand his work’s immunity from truth when he appeared on “Larry King Live,” which is worth watching just for the moment when King asks, “Can this incident cause you to fall back into the area of drugs or liquor? Might be logical.” King, it turns out, is the most annoying crack dealer in the world.
In the interview, Frey repeated, seven times, that his book has an “essential truth” about his life. To make himself less vulnerable to attack, he also brought his mother on.
Oprah Winfrey, who called in at the end of King’s show, made Frey’s point about essential truths even more bluntly: “The truth is this: I read and recommend books based on my connection with the written word and its message.”
For the first time in my life, I agree with Oprah.
In his essay, “What Is an Author?,” Michel Foucault argued that the author function will soon disappear. I think he’s right, mostly because he’s a famous French philosopher and I felt dirty after saying I agreed with Oprah.
Unlike a discussion or an e-mail or journalism, a book isn’t a mode of communication. It’s a work that exists in and of itself, apart from the author’s intent, even apart from the author’s identity -- “Hamlet” is still just as good even if it’s not written by Shakespeare. (Again, just feeling dirty about the Oprah thing.) This, in essence, is the strict constructionist judicial approach to applying the law they were talking about during the Samuel Alito hearing.
So I can’t figure out why I don’t lie. It’s not that I chose journalism because I’m obsessed with unearthing truths. I chose journalism over novels, sitcoms or screenplays because it came with a steady paycheck. Plus, they print your name at the top of what you write in big letters. You try finding a staff writer’s name in sitcom credits.
I think it’s because I’m desperate to be noticed for who I am, and a fabrication wouldn’t satisfy my ego. The kind of fame that Frey and the woman who writes under LeRoy’s name and even Oprah -- whose public persona seems so far from her real persona -- seems unsatisfying. Also, making up things seems really hard.