The Mother of Reinvention

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Did anyone besides me catch the recent Lifetime movie “Write & Wrong,” with Kirstie Alley as a washed-up screenwriter who hires her hunky young nephew to market her work in Hollywood as his own? I liked the premise enough to suffer through two seriously painful hours of television, including commercials for several prescription medications I plan to ask my doctor about. Despite Ms. Alley’s atrocious performance — sadly, she’s not even believable as a pathetic has-been anymore — it played with the provocative notion of what happens when the desperation to succeed overtakes common sense.

If it seemed far-fetched a month ago, it probably seemed slightly less so with the news that a movie company is suing the true-life alter ego of famed, phony novelist JT LeRoy for fraud. A year and a half ago, LeRoy was revealed to be Laura Albert, a San Francisco rocker mom who is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the hustler son of a truck stop prostitute we’d been led to believe. Now, for reasons that defy logical explanation, Antidote International Films feels that since LeRoy isn’t real, then its contract to make a movie of his nonexistent life has been rendered null and void. Antidote wants its measly five-figure advance back and will spend, presumably, far more than that in federal district court to get it.

What could be crazier? Certainly not the notion of creating a fictional stand-in as a means of manipulating the marketplace, a time-honored tradition that goes back centuries. But it’s not the precedent of pseudonymous writers like George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë (as the New York Times incorrectly suggested last Friday) that created the proper environment for LeRoy to flourish; it’s a whole different mentality — one born with the Internet, which has allowed anonymity and deception to run rampant in a world gone mad with media manipulation. Is there anyone online who uses their own name to make their case? For every e-mail address that contains its owner’s real name, I can count a dozen that construct some camouflage to protect the writer’s identity. How many men are pretending to be women on the Internet right now, or women pretending to be men? It’s an epidemic of pretense, and LeRoy is the least of it.

In one recent unmasking episode, a New York journalist named Peter Hyman — hoping to attract attention to an article he’d just published in Radar magazine — was accused by the Gawker Web site of having written an e-mail to Gawker under the female identity of Margo Leitner (and the e-mail address of pushing for an item. “Great piece up today on Radar, from the new issue,” “Margo” wrote of the latest Hyman byline. “One of the better they have done.” Gawker unmasked Mr. Hyman by printing a series of suspiciously promotional emails about his work over a period of months — all from the same address. It was silly, of course, for Mr. Hyman to have hidden behind a phony female persona, and in the end Gawker’s gotcha moment seemed fair punishment. But can Mr. Hyman be blamed for his attempt at a viral marketing campaign for himself? Thirteen million blogs now fight for attention every day on the Internet, and it has never been more commonplace than this moment in history for a writer’s words to disappear without notice.

No one has ever adequately explained why Ms. Albert has declined to milk the LeRoy deception for money or fame. Her former partner, Geoffrey Knoop, who aided in the unmasking (“The jig is up,” he told the Times in February 2006), reportedly wanted a movie or book deal in return for the trouble of tricking editors, agents, and publishers into believing their lies. Didn’t Ms. Albert see that the deception had just as much juice as her phony fiction? These days it’s getting almost as interesting to look at the kind of person who pretends to be interesting. After the James Frey fracas and accusations that David Sedaris has invented parts of his comic persona, we’re already programmed to doubt the claims of memoirists, anyway. Isn’t it more fun to assume the world is increasingly made up of pseudonymous frauds? These ethical transgressions also serve as entertaining acts of creative desperation in a fickle, fast-moving world — which is why the Times turns to them for copy so frequently, and gives them such prominent display. They also offer our culture’s moral compasses an opportunity for outrage; who can forget Oprah’s sputtering indignity over Mr. Frey’s lies?

Don’t misunderstand: This isn’t meant to condone fakery in pursuit of literary success. It’s just an acknowledgment that the bar has been raised (or lowered, depending on how you look at it) by the growing number of writers who see necessity as the mother of reinvention. And rest assured that a vigilant corps of self-appointed media watchdogs will expose the phonies among us — at least the ones who manage to make it to the best-seller list, or who just don’t know how to lie.

The New York Sun

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