Perhaps truth is making a comeback. It would seem anachronistic that at a moment when dishonesty pervades all levels of government, when news reporting must detour through “spin alley,” when fringe religious theories masquerade as science, that the public would place a high premium on truth in literature. Yet, open the Arts section of the New York Times any time in recent months, and one can read numerous stories about the unmasking of literary hoaxes, most notably the “outing” of authors James Frey and JT LeRoy. While Oprah Winfrey has had the opportunity to accuse Frey on national TV, proclaiming that she feels “duped and betrayed,” the rest of us are left with lingering questions: why do we find ourselves lately so beguiled by literary fakery? Are all frauds equal? Most importantly, what allows hoaxes to flourish, and what, if any, social purpose do they serve?
James Frey catapulted from relative obscurity to the best-seller list when Winfrey picked his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, for her book club, an unusual choice considering its tales of drinking, drugging, and brawling. Unlike snobbish ingrate Jonathan Franzen, Frey graciously accepted the Oprah windfall, appearing on her show and gushing about what a bad boy he had been. Quickly transforming himself into a Dr. Phil-esque guru, Frey told viewers that if he could overcome addiction, anyone could. Millions of middle-aged women bought the bravado, until a January 8 investigative report appeared on the website, The Smoking Gun (TSG), alleging that substantial parts of the book were fabricated. Initially denying the report and threatening suit, Frey finally came around and admitted, where else but live on Oprah, that “most of what they wrote was pretty accurate.” As of this writing, A Million Little Pieces remains the 11th top seller on Amazon.com.
In early February, the New York Times confirmed that the elusive author JT LeRoy, who, as the story goes, overcame the trauma of being abused and prostituted by his crack-addict mother, and published his first book at age 16, was in fact a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert. LeRoy’s Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful of All Things, and Harold’s End were published as novels, but with an autobiographical subtext, bolstered by a PR campaign undertaken by Albert and friends. Much of the investigative work unmasking LeRoy was done by Stephen Beachy in New York Magazine, who narrowed down to three the possible candidates behind the moniker. The Times managed to establish that LeRoy was in fact a group effort: Laura Albert wrote the books, while another woman posed as LeRoy in public. Still the paper of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, the Times took credit for breaking the story, barely acknowledging Beachy’s legwork.
Though these two stories have now been equated repeatedly in the news, they bear some differences. When Beachy questioned LeRoy about his findings — it remains a mystery with whom he was actually speaking — LeRoy did not deny the accusations; s/he essentially admitted that the figure of JT LeRoy was a fabrication, and that the books were a communal, “family” effort. Frey, on the other hand, denied TSG’s accusations until Winfrey herself called him out. Subsequently, he continued to excuse his actions by claiming that lying in print became a coping mechanism he used to overcome his addiction. The lead-up to publication of A Million Little Pieces, as reported by TSG tells a different story, however: Frey shopped the book around as a novel and it was rejected by 17 publishers before Doubleday picked it up as non-fiction, and the first major literary fraud of this century was born.
Of course, such chicanery is by no means new. Literary hoaxes have been around as long as literature itself. The Romantic movement was beset by several major hoaxes in which authors passed off their own work as ancient or medieval texts. Similarly, lost works by Shakespeare have been “discovered” and discredited repeatedly since his death. The most famous and pernicious literary fraud of the 20th century is undoubtedly the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, supposedly the record of a meeting of Jewish financiers in which they detail a plot to take over the world — still a bestseller in Iran. More recently, Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, Clifford Irving’s “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes, and the Hitler diaries have all been uncovered as fakes. In all of these cases, the fallacy involves the question of authorship; the alleged writer either doesn’t exist or has nothing to do with the text. By this token, one might say that the most influential work of literature in Western culture is itself the oldest and most enduring literary hoax: namely, the Bible.
JT LeRoy follows in this tradition. His/her works are a hoax because the author is a constructed fabrication. The works still stand as literature — they are, after all, novels — but the figure of the author is as fictitious as the stories. There is no question as to whether James Frey authored his “memoir.” In fact, there is nothing particularly constructed or invented about A Million Little Pieces. Most of the disputed material in the book has a basis in fact, but is embellished to give credence to Frey’s bad-ass persona: a few hours in jail become months in prison, a routine root canal becomes an excruciating procedure sans Novocaine, an open container violation becomes a hit-and-run, slugfest with the cops. Perhaps the most despicable fabrication in A Million Little Pieces is a story Frey tells about being blamed for the death of two girls from his high school whose car was wrecked by a speeding train. Like the others, this event actually did happen, but Frey had nothing to do with it. Frey’s embellishment of this story, in which he becomes its central figure, betrays both a blunt egotism and a dearth of imagination. It lacks the creativity of a full-fledged literary hoax; at most it’s a pedestrian lie, mere plagiarism of real life.
While it’s easy to blame Frey and his publisher for this feeble perjury, some of the responsibility must be shared by the institution that allows a charlatan like Frey to rise to the top of the literary heap. That institution, of course, is Oprah. The establishment of Winfrey’s book club as daytime TV entertainment, its popularization of Faulkner and Tolstoy notwithstanding, has conflated literature with the spheres of cultural expression it does best: celebrity, weight loss, self-help. Hence the need for writers to appear on the show presenting cheesy autobiographical segments, and hence the appeal of James Frey, a celebrity author for whom art is personal coping, for whom literature is a mechanism of self-help.
The best literary hoaxes expose and mock the dumber elements of our relationship to literature: our obsession with celebrity, our reliance on experts to separate high art from pulp, our need for writing to be an act of personal transformation. Without question, Oprah Winfrey’s book club is unparalleled in its influence on book sales, and by making these elements its keystones, she may have pulled off the biggest hoax of all.