Monday, January 09, 2006

I sell the things you need to be

So if I write about a story that I think we shouldn't care about, and that the media - especially the New York literati - is blowing out of proportion, does that mean I'm actually caring about it and contributing to the overreaction? Just checking. I didn't think it made sense, either.

Anyway, are you familiar with the JT LeRoy story? I haven't read any of his books, but have read a few essays and feature articles. And Mis Hooz informed me that he'll be writing for Deadwood, a perennial contender for Fried Rice Favorite TV Show. (Note to self: call cable company to renew subscription to HBO before March.)

If you're not familiar with LeRoy (yet are intrigued enough to keep reading this), his alleged backstory might be more interesting than his work. Here's an excerpt from an article in yesterday's New York Times:

Mr. Leroy's tale was harrowing in its details and uplifting in its arc. He was a young truck-stop prostitute who had escaped rural West Virginia for the dismal life of a homeless San Francisco drug addict. Rescued as a young teenager by a couple named Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop and treated by a psychologist, he was able to turn his terrible youth into a thriving career as a writer. JT Leroy has published three critically acclaimed works of fiction noted for their stark portrayal of child prostitution and drug use.

But here's the thing with LeRoy: He is apparently not a "he." We're not talking about a Glen or Glenda or Transamerica situation here. It's more like a pseudonym/secret identity thing. For example, publishers paid people other than LeRoy for services rendered, sometimes to a company called Underdogs, Inc.

In response to questions of whether or not LeRoy truly wrote the stories and essays with his name on them, and if the person making appearances in public - with a wig and sunglasses - as LeRoy was, in fact, LeRoy, New York magazine "outed" him last October as Laura Albert, a former singer living in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the NY Times reported that the person appearing as LeRoy was Savannah Knoop, a part-time model.

Scandalous, right? Well, I suppose. Unless you don't give a $#!+. If you didn't know who JT LeRoy was, this story certainly doesn't matter to you. As someone who's read some of LeRoy's work, it doesn't matter to me. Mis Hooz was more familiar with his/her stuff, and I think she was momentarily perplexed. But this doesn't change what she thinks about the writing. (I hear, however, that she's highly suspicious of this "Ian Casselberry" that's been sprinkling his words around the internet.)

And that's what makes me a little crazy about all this. If you've read any of LeRoy's work and you enjoyed and/or admired it, should that change in light of this revelation? Someone wrote those short stories, essays, and articles, right? Shouldn't the quality of that work be judged, rather than the true identity of the writer?

A year or two ago, there was a comic book writer (whose name I won't mention because he shouldn't get any publicity) who worked on a series about some team of super para-military operatives. He said many of the stories were based on his own experiences as an Army Ranger, and in interviews, talked about how much this series meant to him. Well, it turned out he never even served in the military. I'm not sure what he's doing right now, but he ain't writing comic books. At least not under his real name.

I'm not saying you should just disregard any deceit or fabrication that may have taken place, but this isn't a Jayson Blair situation, where supposedly factual work is actually fiction. If LeRoy curried favors (financial or otherwise) from anyone because of his backstory (for example, saying he was infected with H.I.V.), that's deplorable. And I understand why people would be upset about that. But if it was the writing that was admired originally, should LeRoy's true identity be of any real concern?

And that brings me to why I think the media - again, especially the literati - is so outraged by this. They were caught falling in love with a story and a persona, rather than the author's actual work. They ate it all right up. And now that it turns out some, if not all, of that backstory might be phony, they feel foolish for having believed it and are going after LeRoy with fangs and claws fully bared.

You should care about this! This is an outrage! See how he/she lied to us?

Never mind that if those same writers and reporters hadn't been seduced by the cult of personality, and done some homework, rather than just eat what they were spoonfed, this wouldn't be a story at all.