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You may have heard about the controversy surrounding author James Frey and the Oprah Book Club-selected memoir “A Million Little Pieces” — which purports to be the record of Frey’s life of crime in pursuit of drugs and alcohol. (According to an extensive investigation by writers at the website www.thesmokinggun.com, Frey’s claims of coke-dealing, crack smoking and prison life are about as fake as a frat boy’s ID).
A current literary scandal you may not have caught wind of, however, hits a little closer to home — the Oxford American. Editor Marc Smirnoff admits the magazine was “snookered” by a hoax, and raised some interesting questions about the art of memoir and who to trust when it comes to publishing.
The scandal in question is the strange case of J.T. LeRoy. In the mid 1990s, the teen-aged LeRoy burst onto the literary scene with his stories of a hard luck childhood. His background seemed a little too tragic to be true in retrospect: He claimed to be an abused, reclusive, heroin-addicted, HIV-infected transvestite former truck-stop hooking Southerner, born to a junkie stripper mother with a penchant for shoplifting and taking it all off to the soundtrack of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” LeRoy, the story went, was saved from his wretched waifdom by a San Francisco social worker. After finding a loving home, he began to develop a prodigious writing talent. By the age of 16, he was being published in all the right places. In 2000, when he was 17, he landed a book deal for his first novel, “Sarah.” As his fame grew, LeRoy — dressed in a bad wig and sunglasses — broke through his “shyness” and began appearing in public. He was soon rubbing elbows with celebrity fans like Marilyn Manson and Sean Penn.
In summer 2005, for its annual Music Issue, the Oxford American published a piece by LeRoy that detailed his mother’s fixation on the film “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and their hard life of theft and depravity on the streets of Nashville. Almost immediately, John Nova Lomax, a music writer for the alt-weekly Houston Press took issue with the piece, questioning the validity of many of LeRoy’s details — notably the fact that though LeRoy talks about stealing liquor from a Publix store, a chain that didn’t open in Tennessee until 2002 and can’t sell liquor there even today under state law.
Lomax contacted OA editor Smirnoff, and received what he saw as the brush off.
“At the end of a testy interview,” Lomax wrote in August in the Houston Press, “after he questioned my credentials [Smirnoff insists he only asked Lomax whether he was a columnist or a reporter], cut me off several times and told me he had only glanced at the e-mails I had sent to him along with LeRoy’s camp, here’s what he had to say about running the piece as an essay: ‘Maybe a newspaper wouldn’t be comfortable running a piece like J.T. LeRoy’s as an essay — I wouldn’t be comfortable with the lack of fact-checking that goes on at a newspaper … This was a literary experiment at a literary magazine, and maybe that’s not something you’re comfortable with.’ ”
Lomax’s intuition was apparently right on the money. Investigations by the New York Times and New York Newsday have since found that J.T. LeRoy — the teen-age hooker who could — was actually a hoax perpetrated by 40-ish San Francisco writer Laura Albert and her friend Jeffery Knoop (Knoop’s sister, Savannah Knoop, apparently played LeRoy in public). Buttressed by his Southern gothic bio and hundreds of phone calls by “LeRoy” to publishers and interviewers, Albert and Knoop were able to ride their fictional cash cow to the top of literary world.
Lomax apparently has no qualms about saying “I told you so.”
“If the ‘magazine of quality Southern writing,’ the Harper’s of Dixie, was gonna stereotype the South so nakedly and badly, then where would the South be safe?” Lomax said in a recent e-mail to the Arkansas Times. “One thing I wish I had made more clear in my original article [is that] I would have hoped that the Oxford American of all magazines would be above printing stories like ‘Coal Miner Mother,’ which read like an R-rated Snuffy Smith.”
The normally unflappable Smirnoff was a little rattled by the LeRoy expose, acknowledging that the magazine was taken in by LeRoy’s handlers (though he defends the quality of LeRoy’s piece in the OA).
“Did we think J.T. LeRoy was a real person? Yes,” Smirnoff said. “Did we think to investigate his identity before we published his piece? No. Did the Arkansas Times think to investigate the identity of David Koon before they published him? … We assumed, mistakenly, LeRoy was who he told us he was. Lesson learned.”
It’s an interesting problem Smirnoff raises: If an author offers a trusting publisher a pack of lies (either in the form of a memoir or — Jayson Blair-style — as news, because what is even the hardest of hard news stories but one reporter’s account of the things she saw and heard?), how can the Oxford American — or the Times, or any publication — know it’s a pack of lies?
An answer doesn’t immediately present itself, and the lack of that answer may finally crack the foundation of trust that anything not physically captured on film now enjoys. For poor saps like me, who sip daily from the font of reader belief, that’s a scary proposition.
J.T. LeRoy for governor!
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