June 23, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

A Taste for Scandal

Though the fevered coverage has died down, the JT LeRoy (aka Laura Albert) scandal staggers on. Albert, as you may recall, published a great deal of fiction as JT LeRoy, which was, it seems, more than a pseudonym: a psychological coping mechanism for Albert, an instance of fraud for many, including Antidote International Films, which had secured rights to produce LeRoy’s Sarah as a film. Albert had her day in court but it was cold comfort, losing in a decisive ruling. The revelations, months ago, that LeRoy was not LeRoy sparked a controversy only surpassed (perhaps) by the James Frey scandal. Have ever literary scandals been so thoroughly focused on the least interesting aspects of these incidents? The problem was never veracity. The problem was the exploitation of addiction and abuse narratives to feed a national hunger we assiduously excuse or deny.

The outrage, that LeRoy was a persona–not, in fact, a former boy truckstop prostitute but rather a middle-aged woman–was palpable and perhaps not incorrect. (For another take on the trial see this opinion piece.) However, throughout the Frey and LeRoy scandals I couldn’t help wondering about the source of that outrage. That the fury was about the un-reality of the central events makes more sense for Frey, who sold as memoir an addiction-recovery narrative that was at best somewhat liberal with the truth or, at worst, a big pack of lies. If the fury is that fiction is sold as truth, so be it. In LeRoy’s case, the work was fiction, but it seemed to have been marketed as fiction based on the real life suffering of a prostitute/prodigy. I’ve read some of LeRoy’s work and despite the favorable reviews and blurbs by luminaries such as John Waters, David Eggers, and others, this fiction has always seemed to me poorly written and painfully obvious sensationalist trash keen to cash in on the macabre mixture of voyeurism and sentimentality that so typifies American cultural tastes. Trash can be fascinating, not to mention instructive: take John Waters or Andy Warhol, just for instance. LeRoy is little more than needy kitsch hungry for equally desperate readers.

What I’ve been wondering, for months, is why no one seems to have discussed (did I just miss it?) the fact that the larger problem is clearly not the tenuous border between fiction and reality (a problem since Plato, at least) but rather the public taste for abuse-filled, trauma-laden narratives, which make books fly off the shelves like so many startled birds. On the one hand, many people turn to books–fiction or non-fiction–for solace. The desire for comfort and affirmation is as understandable as it is, it seems, deadly for good fiction and memoir. Indeed, there are whole sections of stores dedicated to counseling, therapy, and self-help: perfectly valid (not to mention helpful for many) but distinct in function from literary prose. In the wake of this recent ruling against LeRoy (I mean, Laura Albert), one wonders if we can let the question of the “reality” of these literary scandals fade. An equally old query might return us to the question of what function and pleasure tragedy (however debased) provides. A more honest conversation would be about the damaging pleasure to be had in narratives of gruesome sex and addiction spliced with fantasies of recovery that we hope won’t leave us feeling dirty the morning after.