Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Gotcha! The Book Version

In the spirit of April Fool's Day, here are a few recent (ie--the last fifty years or so) literary hoaxes.

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
Supposedly a diary written by an anonymous teen drug addict, Go Ask Alice was actually written by 'editor' Beatrice Sparks, who also 'found and edited' other, similar books. Alice wasn't just controversial because of the authorship question. (Far from it.) When it was published in the 70s, parents didn't want their kids reading about a teen who gets addicted to drugs. Of course, Alice also ends with the narrator overdosing, so it's really an anti-drug after-school special. Even so, it's still on middle school reading lists.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
This is the big 'what is truth' question in nonfiction. Frankly, I don't have a problem with authors making things up. Obviously, you don't remember the specifics of every conversation you have, so you do the best you can to recreate them. And maybe events could be shifted around a little. But when you claim to have been "wanted in three states" and that's not true, it's called fiction. I know memoirs sell better, but go the 'inspired by' novel route and you'll still sell a ton of books. And you won't awaken the wrath of Oprah.

Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca
Oh the fake Holocaust book. Seriously, people? I know Holocaust survival stories are really emotional and amazing, but leave them to people who actually lived the experience. Don't pretend you survived by joining a pack of wolves. (Who are you, Julie?) When she was found out, Defonseca claimed the book "'is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving.'" (Her parents were actually Catholic and part of the Belgin Resistance.) Okay, that must have been a tough childhood nonetheless. But you write up your imaginings as fiction.

Angel at the Fence: the True Story of a Love that Survived by Herman Rosenblat
Another fake-ish Holocaust story. (Seriously, guys?) In this one, Rosenblat claims he met his wife when they were kids. He was in a concentration camp and she passed him food through the fence. Then, years later they met again and got married. Except in real life, there is no way a little girl could do that. (Hello, Nazi guards.) Rosenblat still clings to his story, but has since admitted he met his wife after the Holocaust. What bothers me most here is that he pulled his wife into the story for years. She had to pretend this is how it happened. Not exactly a healthy relationship.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things by JT Leroy
Or rather, the author is deceitful above all things. JT Leroy, abused ex-child prostitute, was a literary smash, talking about his childhood abuse. Except JT Leroy was actually Laura Alpert, who was born in 1965 and raised in Brooklyn. She even got her sister-in-law to dress up as Leroy for public appearances. Alpert claims Leroy was a 'veil' through which she could write controversial stories. But I think I'd be more on board with this if she had just come out with her story to begin with.

Really, I think all these hoaxes boil down to money and attention. It's not an artistic choice. People make those all the time. (For example, the Tim O'Brien from his stories are not always the real-life Tim O'Brien.) But when you cling to your fake story until it's absolutely impossible to deny the truth, it's not because you had some neat, artistic idea. It's because you love getting the checks from your publishing company. And if you want to base something loosely on your life but use more extreme situations, call it fiction. For real. It's the way to lie without getting in trouble.

Standing up for fiction since 1984.


jasmin said...

You wrote: "And if you want to base something loosely on your life but use more extreme situations, call it fiction."

All of Laura Albert/JT LeRoy's work are labeled fiction. In addition to that, the work includes fantasy elements that are clearly fictional.

annie said...

But why invent Leroy as the author? Why couldn't Albert just publish the exact same books under her own name?