Monday, April 10, 2006

Write What You Know

There's a cache to the "based on true events" moniker that ad execs slap on the trailers to certain movies.  Most recently, Wolf Creek, which is based on two horrific stories out of Australia, the "Back Packer" killer Ivan Milat and the Snowtown bank vault bodies.  For one reason or another, the idea that a story actually happened has more gravitas than those stories which writers imagine out of whole cloth.  As we all know, truth is stranger than fiction, and if some author had written the central facts of the O.J. Simpson case, for example, or Gianni Versace's murder, such would have been labelled "unbelievable." 

Audiences, including readers, are constantly on guard for fraud.  If a tv show or movie is so convincing as to make an audience member wonder if it actually happened, this is a reaction that equates with success. 

Thus we come to the publishing industry crisis of 2005-2006: memoirs that aren't.  James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and JT LeRoy's The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.  In the first instance, the author neglected to give full disclosure of his amplification of certain events from his experience.  This kind of tall tale telling or yarn spinning is fine as long as the audience is clued in.  But when one purports to have the high seriousness of absolute honesty, then accusations of hypocrisy or worse, downright lying, will attach.  These are chickens that come home to roost.  And they're so easy to avoid, so the author is at once disingenuous and stupid.  Doltish, even.  Then there's The Heart is Deceitful... which was marketed as a semi-autobiographical novel.  Fair enough, as long as the author, JT LeRoy's experience informed the circumstances in the novel.  Since it was about a youngster who grew up in sadistic surroundings and became a male prostitute as JT LeRoy was himself purported to have done, the novel achieved a certain gravitas. 

The problem was, JT LeRoy didn't exist.  He was the creation of a middle-aged female novelist from Brooklyn.  The fraud was further perpetrated by the author, who had her husband and sister pose as LeRoy for publicity purposes.  It is one thing to read about teenage and pre-teen sexuality from the point of view of a victim of sexual abuse.  It is wholly another to read it from the point of view of a fevered, middle-aged imagination.  The readership, confronted with evidence of their own hypocrisy, reacted with outrage. 

So, this brings me to my point.  Where are the boundaries between fiction, non-fiction, narrative non-fiction and memoir?  Impossible to tell as they are obviously subjective and mutable.  Full disclosure on the part of creative artists can do much to mitigate public outrage.  Readers will forgive you if they disagree with you.  But you can't lie.

1 comment:

xxxxdollydxxxx said...

very good commentary! I felt the jt leroy pain first hand. it's my own fault though, the books were clearly labled fiction, but it's to much temptation to believe that an underdog could make it in the real world.