Liars, Hoaxsters or Just Writers?

ByROSE PALAZZOLO

Jan. 20, 2006 — -- James Frey and JT Leroy lied.

"I assumed the publishing industry would be embarrassed," writer Armistead Maupin said of his reaction to hearing the news about Frey's memoir and the questions of JT Leroy's actual existence. "But the problem is that the publishing industry salivates a little too hard over the Jerry Springeresque stories."

The fracas over Frey's invented history in "A Million Little Pieces" and the JT Leroy controversy have writers, publishers and the book industry itself debating the meaning of memoir.

Rather than being a 25-year-old, HIV-positive former male teen hustler, JT Leroy, reported The New York Times and the New Yorker magazine, is a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert. The person who appeared in public as LeRoy, disguised wearing a blond wig and dark sunglasses, is Albert's sister-in-law Savannah Knoop, according to the Times.

"I have always distrusted memoir," Maupin said. "I tend to write my memoirs through my fiction. It's easier to get to the truth by not claiming that you are speaking it. Some things can be said in fiction that can never be said in memoir."

Maupin had a run-in with a hoax after becoming embroiled with Tony Johnson, reputed author of "A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story." But there are serious questions about Johnson's very existence. A subsequent story about Johnson in the New Yorker by Tad Friend concluded that Johnson did not exist but was in fact the product of the imagination of the woman who claims to be his adoptive mother, "Vicki Johnson" (real name Vicki Fraginals or Vicki Fraginals Zackheim).

In The Night Listener , a fictionalized account of the case of the Johnson case, Maupin asked to be put in touch with Tony and began a long telephone friendship. Like LeRoy, Johnson built a network of writers and celebrities, created a Web site, and touched the hearts of an adoring public.

"Memoir is a personal history whose aim is to illuminate, by way of example, events and issues of broader social consequence," said a statement issued by Doubleday and Anchor Books, the divisions of Random House Inc. that published the book in hardcover and paperback, respectively. "By definition, it is highly personal. In the case of Mr. Frey, we decided 'A Million Little Pieces' was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of events was true to his recollections.

"Recent accusations against him notwithstanding, the power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring and redemptive story for millions of readers."

This response highlights the criticism book publishers have received lately by the rest of the media. But it's not the first time readers have been duped and probably won't be the last. Faked memoirs and identities date back to at least 1769 when Thomas Chatterton took advantage of the era's desire for medieval literature and penned a collection of poems he said was the work of a 15th century monk named Thomas Rowly. When questions were raised about its legitimacy, Chatterton took his life but was later praised as a major talent.

"What I have always believed in 40 years of experience in the book publishing industry is that you can do what you want as a writer as long as you tell the reader what you are doing," said Peter Osnos, founder and editor at large of Public Affairs. "Art is about honesty. My objection is not the use of memoir as literature it certainly can be. My objection is to the lack of honesty."

The popularity of memoir is distinct from history and biography, Osnos added. And readers need to remember they are coming from a different universe.

"I don't think you would dispute that if I asked you to describe what you were wearing it would be a different description from mine," Osnos said. "So it strikes me as not a big deal that memoir is subjective. It's that it has to be honest in its retelling of facts or tell you that it's not."

In an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Wednesday, Frey admitted embellishing some details of the book, but insisted that was part of the memoir-writing business. He also said that "the emotional truth is there."

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