Sunday was a big day for literary scandals: First the New York Times unmasked the public face of former-child-prostitute-turned-novelist J.T. LeRoy and asked whether the writer wasn’t a whole-cloth fabrication of his supposed adopted parents. If you’re unfamiliar with LeRoy’s work, he’s a favorite of celebrities like Tatum O’Neal and Courtney Love, and he’s gotten a leg up from many wonderful writers, like Tobias Wolff. He writes a column in 7X7 magazine, and his work is often read at SF literary events by stand-ins for the “shy” author. I haven’t had any brushes with him, and don’t have anything to add, but even if you’re not on the SF lit scene this is a crazy story, following on the long investigation that ran in New York magazine a few months ago.
Then, just when Oprah thought it was safe to tap contemporary writers again for her book club, The Smoking Gun goes sniffing around “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey. The findings are lengthy, but the bottom line allegations are that he seriously embellished the circumstances of his numerous arrests, and invented a relationship with a girl sadly killed in a train crash.
The core issue of both scandals, of course, is that although Leroy was working in fiction and Frey in memoir, both depended on the authenticity of their tales to shore up the poignancy of their works.
As for the Frey case, we all know that memoir as a genre depends upon a degree of memory reconstruction and that storytelling demands a certain streamlining of events. Even William Zinsser’s collection of interviews with memoir writers is called “Inventing the Truth.” In my book, I stuck to what I knew to be the facts, never willingly inventing incidents, but often conjuring scenes from memory–which obliged me to always be mindful that my memories were strongly influenced by what I wanted to believe. The ethical delicacy of this became a theme of the book.
My brother in-law Dave insists I committed a grave crime of ommission by reducing his wedding toast–a rousing sing-along involving re-tooled lyrics to the tune of Camp Town Races–to the words “the best man spoke.” But apparently, Neal Pollack has more serious liberties to fess up to.
Pollack link via Bookslut.