Why Writers Lie: Literary Hoaxes that Trashed Creative Honesty to Win

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JT LeRoy is going to lie to you, and some secret part of you will love him even more when you find out that he doesn’t exist—even if you publicly pretend to be totally disgusted at his ploy. Why? Creative honesty doesn’t always win the race. Some writers lie simply because they need to lie, they want to lie, and because they know we secretly love writers who get away with it. Authors will often choose a juicy ruse in lieu of the boring truth, burying it inside the shell of something real to give it just enough street cred to pass muster in memoir. Others may purposefully push their hoax to achieve an agenda, knowing that the pros far outweigh the cons of being caught.

Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy suffered. Hard. His stories of survival and pain in the West Virginia prostitution rings at truck stops in the 1990s, basement meth labs, shooting up heroin, and fundamentalist child abuse electrified a growing fandom whose fascination with his sordid tales propelled this young, brave author into the spotlight. There was a slight catch: no one knew what he looked like. JT was never seen.

JT LeRoy was a literary hoax born from one writer’s desperation to avoid suicide and heal. She needed the lie to survive. In 1996, 31-year-old writer Laura Albert invented what she called an “avatar” named JT LeRoy, the author of Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things and Harold’s End. She maintained the identity in essays and written correspondence, launching a manufactured literary career and an increasingly elaborate cover story to hide the truth. Albert claimed that it enabled her to write things she could have never said herself. She would call suicide hotlines and pose as a boy to get help in her teens because she found them more sympathetic to her sexual abuse and degradation issues than if she called as a female. When JT started to appear in public, “he” became known for his wigs and sunglasses. He was noticeably silent compared to the sensual, seductive quality he portrayed in phones calls to publishers and press. JT Leroy had captured the attention and fascination of the literary world.

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Before any discussion of creative honesty can be launched, we must consider Laura Albert as an individual and consider the truthful, historical facts of her story that can now be verified. The consequence of ignoring Albert’s historical context while discussing her deception and literary hoaxes puts any editorial exploration of creative honesty in a simplistic black-and-white moral argument of right and wrong.

Albert’s writing was born out of a necessity to heal, which helped her justify the deceit to publishers, press and her audience. The end result of her literary hoax was positive for all stakeholders, as it established Albert (aka LeRoy) as an acclaimed writer, allowed Albert to create numerous literary works that captured the fascination of a large audience, and exponentially elevated the story-within-the-story of JT LeRoy. To oversimplify, ignore or misrepresent the context of Laura Albert’s “story” would be to disregard her healing and pain.

James Frey knew that his lies would sell more books than his truths. 5 million more, to be exact. Hated and adored by writers of memoir, James Frey catapulted to fame for writing A Million Little Pieces, a jaw-dropping survivor’s tale of addiction and recovery. I remember the day I finally bought his book—a decade after it had been exposed one of the biggest literary hoaxes of all time.

The weather had dipped into the lower 20s and I wanted coffee more than a book, so I stomped through the snow and ducked into Barnes & Noble after teaching a class at the Union Square campus. I hopped on the alternating escalators to the 4th floor café, forced to walk a bit of each floor, thawing on my way up. The folding table of sale books caught my eye and I remember noticing the cover of A Million Little Pieces because it looked like rainbow sprinkles on a cake donut—which would be perfect right now with caffeine. I snagged it, got my coffee and locked down in a corner table overlooking the park, happy to be warm again while I watched miserably wet New Yorkers below. I began to sniff out the book when it all started to connect. James Frey. This was that guy on Oprah who lied to her and her entire book club. “I remember this [insert expletive]. He made most of this crap up and made a fortune,” I thought to myself. I was 20 pages in before I realized I was late to my next appointment. I was irritated. And I was hooked.

It was fast and loose and scrappy and disjointed and…and…fierce. It was fierce. He was fierce. I had to sit there and admit that the dude that punked Oprah was fierce. I bought the book and tossed it into my L.L. Bean backpack and finished the “was-a-memoir-but-now-is-a-novel” in less than two days, quietly growing more and more fond of Frey and his messy tale. He lied to everyone, got caught and still won. He also got clean. He made a shit ton of money. His “bad press” was terrific press. Here I was struggling to pay rent after the better part of twenty years in NYC, working on numerous creative writing projects for stage and screen. I had spent thousands of hours of my creative life force researching every detail, being a devote dramaturg, pining over my integrity as a writer. And this nervy idiot lied to Oprah Winfrey.

I couldn’t help but like him a little. He was everything we weren’t supposed to be as writers. He also wasn’t struggling to pay his rent. He was producing and writing movies—and Oprah had made sure everyone knew his name. Penelope Ash wanted to prove a point, so she lied to do it. Ironically, she is the amalgam of 25 different Newsday authors who wanted to write a terribly written, terribly explicit novel full of sex with no literary value whatsoever to prove how America was sex-obsessed and awful in the 1960s. Oh, if they could see us now. Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ash was a bestselling literacy hoax written by snobby journalists who had to ferociously rework their first drafts because they were too well-written. When they finally felt it had devolved to an appropriate level of garbage, they published it and sold almost 100,000 copies. McGrath and his colleagues revealed their hoax on national television, which boosted the book to spend 13 weeks on the New York Times Best-Seller List, proving their original intent from every angle. Literary hoaxes are a game of chance. You can love them or hate them, but you [secretly] will have to respect them, if just a bit. They represent audacity. They are written by authors that live on the edge of a creative life or death strategy. We know why some writers lie. They lie because we live in a world that celebrates the lie as much as the win.

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