It's pathetic, really. JT Leroy, it turns out, is a 40-year-old woman, not a 25-year-old male prostitute. JT allegedly was the brilliant author of some books supposedly inspired by his life on the street as a teen prostitute and drug addict. If this sounds strikingly familiar, it's because James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) was recently exposed as a fraud for claiming his fiction was the truth. Plus he pissed off Oprah.
As the article states, there seems to be something of an epidemic of fraud in the world of literary greatness, including Nasdijj, the Navajo writer who appears to actually be a white boy named Tim.
It turns out JT was really a woman who couldn't figure out any other way to get her work noticed and so decided to create living fiction in the form of a Cinderella boy and his glass book of slippers. Because people are oh so willing to believe Cinderella stories like this and A Million Little Pieces. Life is brutal, ugly and short, and everyone wants to believe in second chances and miracles.
But if the actions of these writers are disgusting, it is no less disgusting than the industry that created them. Apparently, Laura Albert wasn't good enough to tell her stories, but tragic, young JT was. Good enough, in fact, for The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (there's irony for ya) to get a movie deal and for JT to be invited to write an episode of Deadwood. I doubt, especially now, whether Laura will be invited to take JT's place. But the truth is, she probably wouldn't have been invited in the first place were it not for JT. It wasn't her stories that sold, it was JT's story that sold her stories.
The publishing industry is often accused of being more interested in style than substance. It is difficult to sell a book, but easy to sell an author if that author has an interesting backstory, something Romantic with a capital R to capture the interest of the celebrity-addled public. Who would you rather read - the guy who spent 5 years living on the street writing his life story on the back of grocery bags while turning tricks to feed his heroin habit, or the guy who graduated from the University of Iowa with a masters in creative writing? Never mind that you can hardly find paper grocery bags anymore - that should ring your alarm bell right away, but hell, it sounds good, especially if he is 24 and looks good on the back of the dust cover in a forest somewhere staring boldly at what lies ahead.
So while I blame the authors for selling their souls, I can't really blame them entirely. I must also blame the industry that allowed and encouraged this to happen and rewarded those who got away with it. I have a feeling that it happens far more often than anyone is willing to admit. Anytime you hear a backstory that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A long time ago, a literature teacher asked us not to read the author bio before reading the stories - she warned that it can unduly influence your opinion of the author's work.
She was right. And although I don't expect it to ever happen in the publishing industry, I wish that every novel and story would have to pass a blind reading before being accepted or rejected. That would go a long way to improving the quality of what is published every year.
But like I said, it's not gonna happen.