By Ben Arzate
Just a few weeks ago, as of writing this article, the film JT Leroy was released. JT Leroy was allegedly a young transgender woman who came from an abusive household and formerly worked as a prostitute. Leroy released three semi-autobiographical books, but remained reclusive from the 90s, when she first began publishing, until 2001 when she began making public appearances.
The inconsistencies revealed in her interviews began casting doubt on her authenticity. In 2005, it was revealed that JT Leroy was an invention of the author Laura Albert and the person making public appearances was the actor Savannah Knoop. Despite the hoax that Albert and Knoop perpetuated, the books released were, in fact, labeled as fiction and many defended the stunt as performance art.
Probably the most infamous case of literary fraud in the United States was James Frey and his memoir, which turned out to be complete fiction, A Million Little Pieces, released in 2003. The book followed Frey’s supposed time in rehab after drug-related criminal charges.
A Million Little Pieces received mixed reviews, with the harshest review coming from author and critic John Dolan, known for his War Nerd column, who lambasted it as the worst book he ever read, calling it complete fiction. Despite this, it became a best seller and was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 2005. Shortly thereafter, an exposé was published in The Smoking Gun, showing that nothing in the book was true.
One of the most ridiculous cases of literary fraud was the 2008 fake memoir, Love and Consequences by Margaret Seltzer, writing under the name Margaret B. Jones. She claimed to have been a half Native American girl who was an orphan and was involved with the Bloods gang in LA. In interviews, she even talked in Ebonics. Not long after it was released, the publisher had it recalled when Seltzer’s sister exposed it as a complete fraud. She was white, not mixed, and grew up with her biological parents in an upscale suburb.
With Leroy, one could see how people bought into the fraud. The books were fiction and couldn’t be fact checked, and the author kept out of the public eye for a while. Frey and Seltzer, however, were much more obvious cases of fraud.
The characters were overt stereotypes that didn’t ring true and many parts were flat ridiculous. Frey, a curly-haired frat boy, painted himself as a tough guy who did a ton of drugs including sniffing glue, despite coming from a rich family who could afford decent drugs. Jones/Seltzer was obviously a white girl putting on an act. Why did people believe such things?
It’s no secret that people enjoy stories of overcoming adversity, especially personal adversity. The vast majority of books, memoirs especially, are about just that. The rub is what kind of adversity. Frey’s story fit a sexy narrative that drugs will ruin your life and make you a hopeless addict, but you can climb out of it with the help of the benevolent rehabilitation industry.
Seltzer’s fraud was a bit more multi-layered. The obvious aspect is that there is a wide audience of white Americans who have an interest in things perceived as being “black,” but like them even more when they don’t have any actual black people. Not to mention many true narratives about gang life, especially in LA, tend to be very cynical and unsentimental. Seltzer injected her narrative with bathos and sentimentality, as did Frey, which opens it up to a much wider audience.
This may sound like a pretentious thing to say, but it seems that most readers do not want to be challenged. They want their worldview confirmed. I’d argue that nearly everyone is guilty of this at at least one point. It’s no wonder a huckster who has their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist can put together a narrative that will confirm it to rake in money and fame. Much like many of the mostly now-forgotten authors who, in their time, wrote to please the people in power, even if they had to lie.
It’s a noble thing to have convictions, but it isn’t to follow them so blindly. We see this now with many people buying into fake news stories that confirm their bias or putting themselves into social media bubbles where they hear no opposing opinion. Liars and frauds who can string a sentence together will always have a lucrative market, so keep your critical eye open.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go finish my memoir about growing up as a lesbian in a family of undocumented immigrants.