“Something about ‘Mark Twain’ has also attracted pyschobiographical analysis the way deep water attracts a dowsing rod. Justin Kaplan has pointed out that twinship was one of Twain’s favorite subjects, and proposed that Sam took refuge in the ‘Mark Twain’ persona as a conduit to literary independence — it helped free him from his temptations toward bourgeois respectability and blandness — and, as bereavements piled up in his life, as a means of protecting his sanity.”
— Ron Powers, ‘Mark Twain: A Life’
I can’t figure out how this works. Lee Siegel, an Ivy League-educated critic who has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times and the New Republic, was caught impersonating an enthusiastic Lee Siegel fan on the New Republic website. His punishment? He was temporarily suspended from the New Republic and mocked on a few blogs, but has otherwise returned to respectability. His latest book got a generous review from Janet Maslin last week in the New York Times.
James Frey wrote a “memoir” about his addiction recovery, A Million Little Pieces, which earned several million little dollars, and then it turned out that he had sold a fictionalized story as truth. Two years later, he has returned to respectability, and his new book was signed by Harper Collins, in a very, very good deal, for publication this summer.
Both of these writers lied to their readers, and so did Laura Albert when she created a persona called J. T. LeRoy to publish a novel called Sarah and a book of stories called The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. But when the truth came out in 2005 that J. T. LeRoy was not a 25 year old man but a 40 year old woman, the author faced a barrage of anger and criticism that seemed to me disproportionate to the crime. Siegel and Frey also faced similar barrages, of course, but J. T. LeRoy had always been a fiction writer while Siegel and Frey billed themselves as non-fiction writers. The idea that a fiction writer cannot employ a pseudonymous identity without facing legal nightmares should concern anybody who cares about literature.
I’ve also noticed that criticism of Laura Albert tends to take on a strangely emotional and personal pitch. I read many articles at the time of the exposure and had several conversations with literary-minded friends about it and was constantly surprised to find that so many people hoped or believed that J. T. LeRoy/Laura Albert was now forever destroyed. Destroyed? A fiction writer? What’s that about?
And yet there is an overriding belief within the publishing community that Laura Albert should be treated as a pariah, despite the fact that she wrote books many of them once cared about. As the review quotes on the paperback copies of Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things reveal, many publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Bookforum, the New York Times Book Review and the Village Voice gave these books positive reviews when they were published.
But here’s the strange thing about the J. T. LeRoy scandal: the character was never believable from the beginning. I knew J. T. LeRoy was a fake persona from day one, and so did many others. How many people do you know with names like “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy”? How many young writers do you know who don’t want to be photographed? (Answer: zero.)
I recognized much of the persona of “J. T. LeRoy” as loosely inspired by Warhol Factory denizen drag queen Candy Darling (real name: James Francis Slattery), a fabulously trashy and tragic 60’s transvestite who has been immortalized in not one but two great Lou Reed songs, “Candy Says” and “Walk on the Wild Side”. Because I know my Andy Warhol and I know my Velvet Underground, I always sensed that “J. T. LeRoy” was some kind of updated homage to Warhol/Factory subculture, and I also figured the name “Jeremiah” was inspired by Candy Darling’s best friend Jeremiah Newton (I also figured that whoever was creating this J. T. LeRoy character must be a big fan of the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, in which Jeremiah Newton and Candy Darling are two of the main characters, and that this person might have seen the film one too many times.)
But you don’t have to be into Andy Warhol to appreciate the wider literary tradition of fake identities. How easily we forget that Bob Dylan tried very hard to make people believe he was a drifting hobo from the prairies until journalists exposed a well-educated Jewish kid from Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman. George Eliot, George Sand, the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen all used pseudonyms, and in all cases their careers would not have been possible without the use of pseudonyms. Certainly these facts are Literature 101.
So why the utter outrage? Why can Lee Siegel and James Frey be published again if Laura Albert cannot? Lee Siegel never intended for his deception to be exposed; his IP address betrayed him (and it’s no wonder that he’s now writing books about the evils of internet culture). James Frey also intended to keep his deceptions secret, and I think this points to a more insidious kind of dishonesty. So why are they allowed back in, and Laura Albert not?
I have some theories. I think that a large percentage of the publishing community always hated this trashy and over-hyped underground upstart, and many of those who never liked J. T. LeRoy are now engaging in a bit of triumphalism in declaring Laura Albert an utter outcast.
There may be some ageism involved in the outrage directed at the woman who shaved 15 years off her lifespan without a care in the world. Also, comically, there’s a mistaken impression that Laura Albert “got rich” by being J. T. LeRoy (anybody who believes this must think that underground fiction sells a whole lot better than it does), and this adds to the backlash.
In fact, speaking of money, Laura Albert lost a very harsh legal judgement last year to a film production company, and is now facing the very common American problem known as financial ruin. And this probably adds to her current unpopularity; everybody hates a loser.
I’ve argued elsewhere that her legal team badly bungled the defense at this trial, and I hope Laura will earn an appeal (she and her representatives are trying). I spoke to Laura on the phone last week, and found myself interacting with a warm and vulnerable person, a down-to-earth mother of a ten year old boy, an intellectual whose favorite recent book is Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander and who cites Mary Gaitskill, James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor as influences.
Here’s what I told her: Laura, please find a way to get back in the game. You are a writer, and a writer must write. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
Can Laura Albert ever be forgiven? I daresay she’s not the only fiction writer who ever told a lie. That’s why they call them fiction writers.
The photo at the top of this page is by Trevor Traynor.