Thursday, January 12, 2006

Comment: Writers, Writing, and Last Laughs

So if you're the sort of person who keeps up with news in the book world (or even if you're not), you may have heard about the twin scandals of the past week: J.T. LeRoy (author of the cultishly embraced SARAH and THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS, fictionalized, fantasized memoirs of his youth as a truck stop prostitute in the South) does not exist, and James Frey (author of Oprah pick and massive bestseller A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, a memoir of his struggle up from drug addiction and crime) made it up. Details are still coming out, but it seems fairly clear that LeRoy was a creation of Laura Albert (who wrote the books) and Savannah Knoop (who played LeRoy in public). And Frey has now admitted that he exaggerated or invented many aspects of his life for his book, including his jail time and other dramatic elements.

Frey's story seems to be getting a lot more press -- Larry King, Oprah, and the publisher are all weighing in, and readers are expressing a wide range of reactions. (You can Google his name and find comment more insightful than I can muster, not having read the book in question.) But it's the LeRoy story I find more interesting. Part of me appreciates the outlandish large-scale con game these women (and the other family members and friends) managed to pull off for years, fooling publishers, editors, and LeRoy's many celebrity buddies. It was dishonest and surely wrong (especially the unecessary and exploitative announcement that LeRoy had AIDS), but on the whole it's sort of charming. And it's egg on the face of many a pretentious literati who name-dropped this exotic outsider author, and a story that seems like it came out of the child's-eye Southern magic realism of the strange little stories published under LeRoy's name.

And that's the real crux of the matter: when you take away the writer, does the writing still exist? Or more literally, without the cachet of a literary author's coolness -- often a coolness arising from the dark background of a gritty biography -- does the writing itself still seem as good to the reader as it does with that background? Many of Frey's readers, including Oprah, seem to be saying yes (in a complicated way); even if some details are exaggerated or invented, they still find the story itself inspiring. (Whether they mean the story of Frey's life, or the written version in the book, or a combination that picks and chooses from both, I doubt anyone is completely sure.) And while I haven't read much reaction yet to LeRoy's unmasking, I imagine once the shock wears off readers will decide that whoever wrote those stories of truck stop life, they're worth reading -- and perhaps even more impressive, since they don't come from personal experience but completely from Albert's imagination.

At least once, I've heard a song on the radio and not even noticed it. But when the announcer mentioned that the song was by the Beatles, I quickly "realized" it was a truly great song. My previous impression that the Beatles are great influenced my experience of the song -- the song was great because the artists were great, not vice versa. And it's easy to do the same sort of semi-dishonest thing with books -- the aura of the author affects the way we read the book. It's not a clinically dispassionate way to read, but it's human. We're people, and we're interested in people -- if there's a personality behind the words, we find it even more interesting.

These developments also brought me back to an article I read in the online edition of n+1, the new hipster literary magazine on the block (brought to you by Benjamin Kunkel, author of INDECISION). The article takes issue, as many have, with the idea that America is in a "reading crisis" with fewer readers than ever, and then goes on to scoff at the efforts writers take to find readers, from appeals to Oprah to neverending book tours to performative bells and whistles. The article seems to be condemning a culture of literary personalities over literary content, and chastising writers who long for instant celebrity rather than the approbation of history. While a little disingenous coming from Kunkel's crew, whom I suspect want to be the next McSweeney's (Dave Eggers is briefly trashed here), they do have something of a point. Without writing that is powerful enough to stand up without its author, the literary world becomes just a watered-down version of tabloid Hollywood.

But aside from objecting to their snarky tone, I think the authors of the article are wrong to condemn the extra-book aspects of contemporary literary culture. If authors, presses and bookstores find that making their works into public events helps them to gain readers, they also creates a common literary culture that is a welcome addition to (hopefully not a substitution for) the quiet time spent reading alone. We may produce some outsized celebrities, and we may put our worship in the wrong place. But a culture that cares about authors, that is interested in talking about books and book people, can also be one in which good writing has more of a chance to flourish than ever. Bloomsbury produced only one Virginia Woolf, one E.M. Forster, and a lot of others we don't remember, but the wealth of writing and attention to writing that that celebrity milieu produced made the really great ones possible.

This all may sound a little confused -- it's been a confusing week. But I guess my point is that I think it's good that people are talking about books, even if they're talking about book scandals. With luck, it all comes back to the writing.