Friday, June 15, 2007

Pay No Attention to the Woman Behind the Man

By Mike Gillis

A story in the New York Times today chronicles the curious trial involving Brooklyn Heights novelist Laura Albert and a film company looking to reclaim a cash advance. Albert writes under the pen name J.T. LeRoy, who for some time was thought to be a real man with a troubled and prurient past, and played by Albert's half sister, Savannah Knoop, during public appearances. At one point, NPR even interviewed LeRoy, passing him off as real. And LeRoy boasted friends in Hollywood's high places, including Winona Ryder, Gus Van Sant and Madonna.

LeRoy's novel, "Sarah," about a 12-year-old boy who travels with his prostituting mother and was said to be closer to autobiography, was optioned by Antidote International Films in 2003. Antidote, however, wants its money back -- about $45,000 -- because J.T. LeRoy is a fake.

I can't say whether Albert's work is any good. I haven't read a stitch. It spans the spectrum of popular depravity -- kinky sex, prostitution, drug use and assorted fetishes -- so there's no doubt it reached a wide audience, including Hollywood.

But it's the showdown in court winning the attention now. The case seems "complicated" by Albert's own confused identity and difficult past.

The trial and intricate history Albert invented for her pseudonym may remind people of James Frey, whose "A Million Little Pieces" detailed a life of misadventures with drugs and run-ins with the law, but was later exposed as a creative smudging of the truth. Other works of nonfiction have been challenged in recent years, including by authors who enjoy some of the most respect, such as Stephen Ambrose.

But Albert's work is fiction. Numerous authors before Albert have turned to pen names, either while trying their hand at genre fiction that could sink their standing among the literati, or because they're too prolific and don't want to flood the market. The great crime writer Donald Westlake pens his grimmer work under the name Richard Stark. Everyone from Charlotte Brontë to Stephen King are in this company. So what's wrong with it? Anything?

Fiction, of course, is always grounded in some scrap of reality. It's most often the embellishment of the writer's personal experiences or observations. Even though Stephen King famously killed off his best know pseudonym, Richard Bachman, I'm not sure he ever went to the same elaborate lengths as Albert. More importantly, King was also writing under his own name. Albert seems to have had no desire to do so and would have likely been content to work behind the curtain indefinitely.

We turn to fiction for escape. But I'm baffled and intrigued by an author who works as hard at maintaining a fictional existence as she does her fiction. And why the story of a man whose mother was a traveling prostitute, a man who, as a child, watched her turn tricks, and who, as an adult, queried publishers from rest stops and hotels?

I wonder if Albert thought her own life was not interesting enough, although it sounds like ample fodder. I wonder if she was simply too scared to share her story. And, of course, I wonder if she simply enjoyed the game until outed.

But I also wonder why there is such an appetite for celebrity authors like LeRoy. Why is there such a hunger for authors whose misfortune is as bad or worse than what they write about? We have long been drawn to the secret lives of others, for sure. Perhaps that's all it is. In a time when secrets are so easily revealed on the web, when privacy is as fleeting as the click of cell phone camera, maybe there is a need to hide behind thick layers of fiction.

Don't we run the risk, though, of eventually losing the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction? Do we run the risk of not caring anymore?