Books + Comics

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Literary Hoaxes

Fool me once. No, seriously, go ahead.

Illustration by Kelly

I love autobiographies. There’s something captivating and awesome about people mythologizing themselves, unspooling their histories as only they know them and then giving their lives over to the world in the form of art. To me, it’s the perfect combination of narcissism and romance and self-styled history.

Some favorite memoirs of mine are the badass astrophysicist/Rookie hero Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Sky Is Not the Limit, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and My First Five Husbands…, the literary masterpiece penned by Rue McClanahan (better known as Blanche Devereaux on The Golden Girls). But how would I feel if I found out that Tyson had made up his endlessly engrossing stories about growing up in the Bronx, or that Bechdel’s family never owned a funeral home, or that, God forbid, McClanahan had had not five but FOUR spouses over the course of her life? Would I have a right to feel angry or cheated that these people had forged their own stories? Or would I have to understand that all personal narratives are a matter of perspective and sometimes writers do something they call “embellishing,” which most people would define as “lying like a rug in order to make something more interesting than it actually is”?

There are different interpretations of what constitutes a literary hoax, but to me, it’s when writers plagiarize or fabricate their work, try to pass it off as true and very much their own, and aren’t caught right away. These fakers have existed for as long as people have been ambitious–take the “Donation of Constantine,” a text that was supposedly written by Constantine the Great and first surfaced between the years 750 and 850. It details parts of Constantine’s life, like his magical recovery from leprosy after being baptized by Pope Sylvester I. That sounds totally credible, huh? No. The text is a forgery, written by some trickster Greek or Roman looking to shake up the theological world. THOSE ANCIENT GREEKS AND ROMANS, ALWAYS YANKING THE OL’ CHAIN, AM I RIGHT?

This grand tradition of mucking up the truth has been carried on by many others to this day. Just last month, there were reports of a New Yorker writer who, in his book Imagine, straight-up invented things that Bob Dylan was supposed to have said, but didn’t. Accordingly, he was torn apart by the very serious literary community. In this case, I agree with those who denounced him. Bending the truth of people’s lives to suit your own project is a lazy, unethical, and horrid thing to do. But what happens when a writer doesn’t plagiarize anyone or fictionalize real people, when they’re telling their own “true” false story? Should we care? Who gets hurt? The feelings that result when we find out a beloved book ain’t exactly what it seems to be are so fascinating to me. Take the outrage of everyone from Oprah to your uncle when James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces turned out to be significantly fabricated. Many readers who had invested themselves in the story felt duped and betrayed. While I understand that it’s painful to identify with something only to discover that it’s a lie, let me play devil’s advocate: does it really matter, if it enlarged even one reader’s world, or made them feel less alone? Those are very real things.

One of my favorite literary hoaxes, which was also one of the longest and most memorable, began in 1994 and lasted for more than 10 years. After faxing letters to writers and publishers, a young teenage writer named JT LeRoy burst onto the highly insular New York literary scene. His writing was the antithesis of the polish and intellectualism typically associated with established authors–he was an underage, transgendered, drug-addled prostitute who wrote graphic but beautiful fiction that borrowed from his own life experiences. The originality of his personality and prose grabbed the attention of respected living writers like Mary Karr and Dennis Cooper–both of whom he built extensive and trusting relationships with over the phone and through letters. Cooper helped put him on the map, and by the age of 16, LeRoy was publishing essays and stories in all kinds of magazines, journals, and newspapers, most of which culled from his rough history of sex work, abuse, and drugs, drugs, drugs. By 17, he had his first book deal, which resulted in a novel called Sarah. It was published in 2000 and tells the story of a 12-year-old boy who dreams of becoming the world’s most famous truck-stop hooker. The grittiness of his tales were amplified by LeRoy’s own highly-publicized past–he had lived these truths, or so everyone thought.

The book BLEW UP EVERYWHERE and cemented LeRoy as a bona fide literary superstar, albeit one that, after six years of growing notoriety, no one had actually ever met in the flesh. Despite his escalating fame, he had refused to appear in person to anyone, not even his famous mentors. He cited crippling social anxiety and privacy issues as the reason for this, which is like RED FLAG NUMBER ONE, YOU GUYS, HELLO? You would think somebody would say, “Um, hold up a second here,” which in hindsight seems like the natural reaction to a mysterious teen vagrant holding the publishing world in his transgressive little palm without ever making a public appearance. Instead, everyone said, “OK!”

Eventually, however, some suspicious folks began to ask questions about his tumultuous past and reluctance to show his face. In response to these skeptics, LeRoy began to sporadically appear at readings and other events, but always while wearing a blonde wig, gobs of lipstick, and huge sunglasses, which is RED FLAG NUMBER TWO. I’m beyond mystified and totally delighted by how that comically shoddy disguise pacified people for another few years. I mean, a wig, makeup, and sunglasses? It sounds like a costume that Bugs Bunny would wear to fool Elmer Fudd into thinking he was a beautiful woman! But in real life, it worked. That makes my heart explode with joy and wonder. What an outlaw, you know?

I’m less thrilled with the ethics of the real person behind LeRoy’s work, which also included a novel titled The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (COUGH), which was turned into a movie. After years of growing suspicion and chatter that LeRoy didn’t exist, New York published a story in 2005 that confirmed the misgivings. It revealed that JT LeRoy was the invention of Laura Albert, who was not a transgender bit o’ rough from West Virginia. Rather, she was a Brooklyn-born writer who was a good 15 years older than LeRoy claimed to be. She had written all of LeRoy’s works and enlisted her sister-in-law, among a few others, to appear in public as the author throughout his literary stardom. Cue gasping and outrage from the masses, and lots of conflicting feelings from me. While I do like the idea of a hustler completely screwing with the publishing elite, I’m not cool with appropriating and capitalizing on oppressed or disenfranchised communities. It could be argued that Laura Albert brought LGBTQ issues like youth homelessness and HIV awareness to the fore, but honestly? Fuck that. I feel like readers were dazzled by the otherness of LeRoy’s biography, and “he” was in part successful because WHAT A NOVELTY IT WAS that someone with LeRoy’s lack of pedigree could be part of the oh-so-sophisticated world of LITTRA-TURE. Laura Albert used a marginalized identity to serve herself. That part makes me ill.

BUT! But. I’m so glad all of this happened, because it takes a question that I think everyone who reads autobiographies, or even fiction that scans as autobiographical, considers from time to time, which is “How much of this really happened?” and explodes it into something even bigger: does it matter? Literary hoaxes cause us to wonder: if something wasn’t really real, do the real ways in which it affected us still have any worth? We have to then wonder about what constitutes real here. Does demanding authenticity mean that the work had to be written by a person whose name matches the one on the book jacket, or simply that it makes us feel and think in ways we didn’t before? In the New York article, Mary Gaitskill, a revered author and one of LeRoy’s confidantes, said, “It’s occurred to me that the whole thing with [JT] is a hoax, but I felt that even if it turned out to be a hoax, it’s a very enjoyable one. And a hoax that exposes things about people, the confusion between love and art and publicity. A hoax that would be delightful and if people are made fools of, it would be OK—in fact, it would be useful.”

Even if I had been aware of LeRoy at the time and totally fallen for the ruse, I think I could accept that analysis. I guess I believe that, in these cases, the beauty and helpfulness and everything else that goes along with reading something fantastic can hold up, even when the author has misrepresented the truth behind their work. But of course I would say that—because, Rookie readers, I’m not who you think I am. My real name is Reggie Kunkle, and I’m a 38-year-old man living in Missouri. Sorry, Tavi! ♦

29 Comments

  • Hunter September 5th, 2012 11:13 PM

    I love “J.T. Leroy” so much. I’m glad this was posted.

  • Skatapus September 5th, 2012 11:16 PM

    I read The Princess Bride several times when I was younger before realizing that the autobiographical sections weren’t really that autobiographical and that there was no S. Morgenstern. I’m also a big fan of authors who make up their own quotes for their epigraphs and then attribute them to fictional authors, a la Scott Fitzgerald and John Green. :D

    • marineo September 6th, 2012 1:04 AM

      Same here! I read The Princess Bride for the first time in fourth grade, and read it a few more times the next year. Then in sixth grade my teacher told me that it wasn’t real.
      I’m pretty sure I cried in front of the whole class. D:
      But really, I was devastated to a hilariously ridiculous degree.

  • Julianne September 5th, 2012 11:21 PM

    Ooooh I effing love this. I took a badass lit seminar last semester called “Passing” that dealt with people passing themselves off in different ways in 20th century literature, and we did a whole unit on literary hoaxes. I actually really enjoyed reading “Sarah” by J.T. Leroy…it’s the inspiration for “Cherry Lips” by Garbage. I just love that we live in a world where something as ridiculous as this can take place.

    If you’re interested in J.T. Leroy you should check out Margaret Seltzer. She wrote this book called Love and Consequences which details this totally harrowing story of bouncing from foster home to foster home and growing up in the ghetto surrounded by gang life…and it’s all fake. She actually grew up in a rich family and went to Episcopalian boarding school. But before she got caught, the New York Times was ready to have her babies and fawning all over her.

  • Marie September 5th, 2012 11:24 PM

    I was so into JT Leroy!! When that whole thing came out I was like WHAAAAT IN TARNASHIONZZZZ!?! I want to read the book the girl who PLAYED JT Leroy wrote! http://www.amazon.com/Girl-Boy-How-Became-Leroy/dp/B005IUX28Y/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1346901807

    • Sugar paper September 6th, 2012 6:32 AM

      I too was sooo into JT, and I recently read that book, it’s aaaaaaaawful! self indulgent, whiney, and kind made me angry about the whole thing. Plus there’s only so much ‘I think I love Asia Argento, but she is an awful person’ kiss and tell blah blah you can read in one book!!

  • Abby September 5th, 2012 11:31 PM

    I don’t know why, but I can’t help thinking about Santa Claus…. Sorry, ANYWAYS, really good article.

  • Abby September 5th, 2012 11:36 PM

    Oh, and ALSO, this makes me think about how Dean Koontz always quotes “The Book of Counted Sorrows” in his books… and it doesn’t exist. He made it up, basically just so he could put in quotes that magically are pertinent to EVERY SINGLE TOPIC HE WRITES ON, and attribute them to something that sounded cool. Sounds like kind of a cop-out, but I think it’s kind of genius, no? I mean, he had people fooled into thinking that this epic-ly amazing book actually existed for YEARS, and in the meantime, he could just sound really smart and amazing without actually having to find other people’s quotes to put in his books. SMART.

  • Tavi September 5th, 2012 11:45 PM

    AMY ROSE I TRUSTED YOU

    • Amy Rose September 5th, 2012 11:55 PM

      Let’s dispense with the formalities; you can call me REG now

  • jenaimarley September 6th, 2012 12:21 AM

    Ha!
    This is great! :)
    But literary hoaxes do bring to mind other sorts of public lies (ahem some certain politicians). And I feel like the general public is so ignorant in some ways that people blindly believe scarily-crafted words and that can be quite dangerous to certain marginalized and misrepresented groups.
    But it is definitely a different thing…

  • radiofireworks September 6th, 2012 6:29 AM

    This is such a fun, interesting article! I loved JT Leroy’s books when I was younger (Christ, I need to stop making myself sound like a grandma on here, I’m only 23) and I didn’t really know how to feel when it came out that it was all a hoax.

    I kind of agree with your ambivalent reading of the situation – part of me was like, “heh, that’s really cool that she managed to fool all those people, what a ~maverick” – but then the whole impersonating-and-benefiting-from-disadvantaged-minorities thing kicked in and I didn’t know how to feel anymore.

    HMMMM so many feelings!

  • wissycosh September 6th, 2012 8:47 AM

    UM, ISN’T THIS CALLED FICTION THOUGH!!!! THOSE irrevocable BASTARDS, claiming autobiographical pieces.

    On an Autobiographical note, at what point is it actually ethical to ‘tell’ the accounts of someone else’s life in your story? Who are we hurting? And isn’t it ‘ours’ to tell, so they should just DEAL. So interesting, goes far beyond moral standards. My Poetry teacher told me that at the recent Melbourne Writer’s Festival, she witnessed 2 punch up’s and numerous accounts of fighting, ALL of whom were used in the stories, written about OR had parts of their private lives revealed, exposed and publicly shown for the success and strength of someone else’s story.

  • sully-bean September 6th, 2012 11:11 AM

    Wow, this is so interesting! I would be so angry to find out one of my favourite author’s story was fake if I thought it was real, though. This article reminded me of the a beginning of Lady Gaga’s Marry the Night video. She says “When I look back on my life, it’s not that I don’t want to see things exactly as they happened, it’s just that I prefer to remember them in an artistic way. And truthfully, the lie of it all is much more honest because I invented it.” And I think that is true, but the mystery is better than just lying. Imagine how cool it would be if to this day no one knew who JT Leroy really was, if he was like an elusive Banksy-esque author that you could sit next to on the bus and not know who they were. That would be cool.

  • soretudaaa September 6th, 2012 12:08 PM

    I think no article about literary hoax is complete without a slight nod to Don Quixote: there was this Allende guy who wrote a second part to El Quixote (before Cervantes did) and EEEEVERYONE thought it was the real deal but then Cervantes wrote the second part and ended it so that nobody would ever continue the story. I MEAN GUYSSS ISN’T IT REALLY WEIRD THAT THE GREATEST PIECE OF LITERATURE EVER HAPPENED DUE TO SOMEONE TRYING TO AVOID TROLLING??? (furthermore, in Don Quixote’s 2nd part Cervantes briefly mentions this when they’re in Hell…) ANYWAY I’M TOO PASSIONATE ABOUT THIS SORRY :)

  • Ben September 6th, 2012 1:16 PM

    Once some people including David Bowie made a biography about an artist named Nat Tate who destroyed most of his work and jumped into a river never to be found and people believed it but they just made it up! Also these two girls made these paper fairies and took pictures with them outside and people believed they where real for a long time until like one had died and the other finally admitted they weren’t real. And they did it all to convince their mom they where playing with fairys and that’s why they where late for dinner or something. it’ called the cottingly fairies! I love hoaxes and stuff like this!

  • bjrjacquesbrel September 6th, 2012 2:12 PM

    oh wow

  • magpie librarian September 6th, 2012 4:36 PM

    I’m glad someone is finally talking about how rad Rue MacClanahan’s autobiography is. The time is now.

  • Pocket Cow September 6th, 2012 4:54 PM

    Wait, how has no one mentioned “Go Ask Alice”? Maybe that was just in Canada. Anyways (I never read it, so this is just what I’m told) it was a supposedly real diary of a girl who becomes addicted to drugs and basically goes downhill and maybe dies. And so it was published, and it was actually studied in school health classes and stuff, until it came out that some government health official or something wrote it as propaganda.

    Also, those fairy chicks. They are so cool! I own the movie they made about them.

    • Pashupati September 6th, 2012 8:42 PM

      I read it. I remember it not clearly but being good, but didn’t feel true, not because it was an hoax but because the girl wasn’t like me… not enough to relate. Then it seemed a bit stereotyped in the way she related to people… but I really have never been addicted to anything, so I wouldn’t know.
      Then I learned it’s an hoax searching for others’ reviews of it, so it got me thinking about whether it is truthful or just stereotypes that could be dangerous?
      Then I know that I and things I lived fit some stereotypes, so it’s not that bad things never happens, but rather people think they happen only in one way and when you tell them “hey, way #1 is a stereotype in most cases it isn’t like that!” they think “oh, right, so it never happens like in way #1!” like I somehow did after learning Go Ask Alice was an hoax.
      By fairy chicks you mean the teenage girls who faked pictures of fairies before the invention of Photoshop?

      • Pashupati September 6th, 2012 8:44 PM

        Ah, sorry, just read the other comment about them! I never read comments from the top.

  • Charlotte September 6th, 2012 5:29 PM

    WAIT HOW IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE I HAVE THE EXACT SAME OBSESSION AHHHHHH

  • AnaRuiz September 6th, 2012 6:01 PM

    I’d never thought of this! Horray for Rookie, making me smarter every day.

  • ladyjenna September 6th, 2012 7:48 PM

    THE PRINCESS BRIDE MADE ME VERY HAPPY THEN VERY VERY SAAAAAD.

  • Pashupati September 6th, 2012 8:33 PM

    One thing that bothers me is that, often, when there has been an hoax taking form of someone from a marginalized group, people will often “cancel out” non-hoax, real individuals speaking about the same stuffs or just doing stuffs and being good at it, insisting they are hoaxes because there was once one person saying they were from the same group was an hoax, lied.
    So for some, it’s sufficient proof that no one from this marginalised group can write, etc. and that it’s obviously someone from the privileged group trying to attact attention.
    Even though people lied saying they were from privileged groups to get their work published before, for example, and you don’t hear anybody saying “Do you remember X? They said they were a white man, and weren’t, and it’s exactly like this case! I’m sure Y isn’t a white man, but a pure hoax… no white man can writes like that, anyway!”
    Why are they talking only about this one hoax to invalidate who they believe is an hoax, and not about the dozens and billions of folks in the same marginalized groups who contributed to culture and did great stuffs in other ways?

  • Pashupati September 6th, 2012 8:53 PM

    I just got remembered of Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years by Misha Defonseca, now I might just stop flooding the comments.

  • 3LL3NH September 6th, 2012 9:46 PM

    This gets me thinking; Whenever I read, I become convinced of the worlds and the characters and do actually in all honesty believe they are real. And I do often cry maniacally over the fact that the world they inhabit is false. But at the same time, I realize that the people writing those worlds have them inside themselves, and that even if they haven’t experienced anything they pen, the fact that I am feeling it means it is real enough.

    Also, “Life of Pi” anyone? That’s the one thing that messes me up, because I so want to believe the main story is legitimate, even if it is a sort of fairytale. It’s my fairytale, and I am adamant about it’s existence and the magical things within that.

    The other thing is that on deviantART and Twitter, I purposely don’t reveal much of anything about myself (esp. that I’m 16), and therefore seem far older and more experienced than I actually am, and there are people who pay attention to me who I am sure believe I’m something else. I guess I get it? It is a strange place to be, guilty but just trying to be something, I suppose…

  • Rushmore September 12th, 2012 11:21 PM

    If you want to hear Laura Albert’s side of the story here’s her show at the moth. She basically says that she lived for a time in a girl’s group home with girls like JT Leroy and wanted to tell their story. She also says she found it easier to write in a boy’s voice and thought people would be more likely to accept her.Also, all of her books are also labelled as fiction, not memoir.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxAHHXE0HOw

  • elizab October 1st, 2012 2:26 AM

    I read Imagine a month ago and loved it. The Bob Dylan part wasn’t my favorite, but it was fake? Agg!
    At least I have verification on the tuba-playing in a MRI machine part. There were articles about it in more than just Imagine.