Almost simultaneously today, two "nonfiction" authors were unmasked as flamboyant frauds ... and they aren't named Clifford Irving!
After simmering speculation throughout the literary world, the New York Times has unmasked JT Leroy, author of books such as "Harold's End," as not being who he says he is. Who does he say he is? Oh, just a guy who started life as a 12-year-old truck-stop hooker (thanks to his mom) and got AIDS and dreams of getting a sex-change operation to bring out the woman living inside. Well, I'll be damned ... there IS a woman inside and she's a 40-year-old Brooklyn-born, middle-class Bay Area housewife who invented Leroy!
But the wicked Leroy isn't alone in today's fraudulence. A bigger bastard-seller than Leroy is James Frey, whose "A Million Little Pieces" was anointed by Oprah herself. His book? "A nonfiction memoir of his vomit-caked years as an alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal," according to SmokingGun.com, which now accuses Frey of being a far bigger sissy than he portrays himself in print .... 3.5 million copies, to be exact.
Luckily, most of the people who buy the books Oprah tells them to buy don't actually read them, but does anybody really care if a purportedly nonfiction book is, well, fiction? Isn't a good story a good story? And hasn't the Internet made us all fans of factless fiction fancy-dancing as truth? After all, wasn't Capote's "In Cold Blood" a nonfiction novel?
Armistead Maupin, whose own novel "The Night Listener" was based on his personal experience with literary fakery, told the San Francisco Chronicle he was discomfited by Leroy's fraud. "A lot of people argue that such frauds cause no harm and are a great joke played on the literary establishment ... But in fact there's something very callous about using AIDS and an abusive childhood as a way of getting sympathy and support. I'm surprised that people were bamboozled as long as they were."
OK, but face it, novelists are professional liars, right? They are paid to make stuff up. They are illusion-makers. Didn't JT Leroy and James Frey simply take the illusion to its ultimate end? Didn't they merely tell us, "It's true and I swear it"? And we fell for it. Shame on us ... but wasn't it fun?
American literature -- considered an oxymoron in the rest of the world -- has gone downhill fast since New York surrendered America's storytelling standards to Hollywood, where illusion -- EVEN IN TRUE STORIES -- is exactly the point. Today, the "perfect" story is determined by its film-worthiness more than its literary quality. In the name of creating Californicated literature, New York editors have blurred the line until even they don't know what's true. "It's a good story," they'll say, "so who cares if it's an utter and ballsy lie?"
I care. Capote admitted on the bookjacket that "In Cold Blood" was fictionalized in some part. Coleridge's definition of fiction was "the willing suspension of disbelief." What if it's not willing? That's the difference between making love and rape, albeit without either the exhilaration or violence. If you thought you were reading a true story, you were conned. What if we found out next week that the famous Zapruder film was, in fact, a Hollywood dramatization passed off as a hyper-realistic eyewitness home-movie and you shoulda seen the look on your face and, oh, isn't it funny how we fooled you??
This is the literary equivalent of Reality TV. They tell you what you're seeing is real, but it's not real at all. It's simulated reality, edited into convenient 30-minute bytes ... and we eat it up.
In America today, we live with too much fiction posing as fact. Blogs, books, politics, TV, videogaming, movies -- and some would say, even the news -- thrive on it. But it's not art to swear you're telling the truth and then fib. That's just common lying. The artful trick is to tell me you're lying and make me believe every word is true.