by JIM KNIPFEL
July 15, 2007
Back in Philadelphia around 1988 or so, I wrote a little column about my first night on the locked psych ward in Minneapolis. It seemed an innocuous enough story (and one I would tell over and over again through the years), but it sure pissed one lady off. By that time I was already quite used to receiving angry letters from readers, usually in response to a story I had carefully calculated to piss people off—but this letter confused me. Not simply because I thought the story was pretty inoffensive (though some people seem to spend their days trying to be offended by stupid things)—but for what she said.
“You’re a fake mental patient,” she wrote, “and a fake writer.”
As to the first charge, I’d heard similar things before, and tend to dismiss people who accuse me of that as being “merely stupid.” If she had been interested in taking a look, I have all the paperwork and doctors’ reports to prove I was indeed a mental patient. It was that second charge, though, that confounded me. I’d heard other writers—much better writers than myself, actually—called “fakes” before, and I never got it. I mean, what does that mean? It’s not just a matter of passing off fiction as truth—that’s always been with us in books, in movies, in newspapers, in the art world—I’ve heard novelists called “fake writers” too. Does it mean they aren’t piecing those sentences together themselves? That they aren’t putting those words on the page? Or that they (like Jerzy Kosinski or Don Pendleton) have a crew of English students at their disposal, writing their novels for them?
Nope, never did get that, except in the case of Kosinski and Pendleton (and possibly Shakespeare, Homer, and the Apostles).
This whole question of fake writers has been coming to mind quite often over the past few years, especially when considering the cases of James Frey and J.T. Leroy. (I realize they’re both old news by modern standards, but I keep coming across references to them.)
I was especially bothered by the Frey case. See, there’s a dirty little secret in the publishing industry that might help explain things, but no one has brought it up.
Mr. Frey, as you may recall, was publicly pilloried when it was revealed that a number of the scenes in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, didn’t exactly happen the way he says they did (or at all).
Well here’s the little secret: there isn’t a memoir on the market today—and there hasn’t been one for quite some years now—that’s one-hundred percent true and accurate. And you know why? Libel lawyers.
A manuscript goes through many, many stages before being published as a book. First it goes through the editor, who makes his changes and suggestions. Sometimes there are several editorial passes between the author and the editor. Then it goes to the copy editor, whose effect on the manuscript can be just as dramatic as the editor’s. Then it goes to the proofreader, who may well make a few more changes along the way. In the case of fiction (most fiction, anyway), at that point the manuscript is finished, and ready to be printed. In the case of a non-fiction book, however—especially memoirs—the publisher, always wary of lawsuits, brings in the libel lawyer.
We are living in absurdly litigious times, so on the one hand it’s understandable. But from the author’s point of view, the libel lawyer is far worse than an incompetent editor or a censor. What the libel lawyer will do, see, is go through the finished manuscript, peering at each word with his beady, paranoid eyes, trying to imagine a reason to sue. Then he makes a list of changes—not just character names, but descriptions, locations, even events. And believe you me, if the author refuses to make those changes, the book will never see the light of day.
Here’s a silly example. In my first book, Slackjaw, the lawyer was concerned that the location of one scene might be identifiable. If the location could be identified, he said, the other person in the scene could sue. So what did I have to do? Not just make the location utterly vague, but at the end of the scene instead of walking back to my apartment (as I had in real life), he had me get on a bus and ride around Minneapolis for awhile. It made no sense whatsoever as far as the story went, but that didn’t matter.
In another book, the lawyer was worried that my description of a professor could be construed as negative (it wasn’t) and thus grounds for legal action. So not only did I need to change his physical description—I needed to change his occupation completely. Changing his occupation ruined a whole bunch of jokes, but since the book had already been edited, copy edited and proofread by this time, I couldn’t go back and change them, as it would throw off the page count. (Fortunately no one ever mentioned that the jokes in that scene made no sense.)
Point being, in this day and age all memoirs are novels—which is why I felt so bad for Mr. Frey. As Morgan pointed out many years ago (and as my own experience has proven true)—fiction is much more honest than non fiction.
I’ve tried to explain this to people in the past, but the funny thing is they don’t seem very interested. Our illusions can be much more comforting, I guess. To be honest, I don’t know Mr. Frey and never saw his original manuscript, so I’m not sure what sort of effect the libel lawyers did or didn’t have on the published book. But to single out his book for being partly fictitious still strikes me as awfully unjustified. It might be worth pointing out here that a few years before his death, Hunter Thompson admitted that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was mostly fiction—but that doesn’t seem to have dimmed the enthusiasm of disaffected twenty-two year-olds across America.
(Perhaps I should make it clear here that in these columns, I have no lawyers to deal with. As a result, they are as honest and true as my sometimes spotty memory will allow.)
J.T. Leroy—whose earliest stories appeared in the New York Press while he was still writing under the name “Terminator”—was quite a different case. If you need any reminding, he was the youngster whose mother had forced him into a life of a cross-dressing truck stop whoredom and heroin addiction. After he began publishing his stories, dull-witted celebrities like Gus Van Sant and Winona Ryder flocked to him the same way they’d flock to an exhibit of six-legged goats. He was an authentic hipster freak, and it earned him big-money book contracts and movie deals up the wazoo. Then it was revealed that he was a hoax, a fabrication, the product of three charlatans just out to make a quick buck. It was a scheme that worked pretty well for them for almost ten years.
It’s hardly the first time such a thing has happened.
I’ve always admired charlatans, from Barnum to Orson Welles to Anton LaVey. And as Morgan pointed out, the people who invented Leroy did a damn good job of it, fooling all the right people. What’s more, the writing “Leroy” produced was pretty decent—and that should be the true final gauge.
Still, though, in this case I felt more than a little schadenfreude when the legend crashed and burned. The reason, I believe, is a simple one—I had to deal with “him” on the phone when I worked at the Press. And hoax or not, he was still an asshole.
(I still remember the glee I felt the day he called the paper and demanded to be paid ten times as much as any other writer there. Then-editor Jeff Koyen laughed and laughed and laughed, then told him to fuck off and hung up on him. Other editors bought into the hype, but not Koyen, God bless him.)
Oh, but it’s such an old phenomenon. The twentieth century was awash in fakery of all kinds. In his 1955 novel The Recognitions William Gaddis tried to reveal the overwhelming fraudulence of this culture of artificiality, but gave up when he saw there was simply too much to grasp. Orson Welles’ documentary F for Fake explores the world of high-stakes forgers and frauds (and human gullibility) as brilliantly as anything I’ve seen. Now, in the twenty-first century, fraudulence has simply become a way of life (consider all those very popular and very carefully constructed “reality television” shows), It makes you wonder why anyone gave a good goddamn about the likes of Frey and Leroy.
IRRELEVANT AUTHOR’S NOTE: For what it’s worth, this week marks the 20th Anniversary of “Slackjaw.” Imagine that.
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