The Age of Embellishment

For nearly four years, Panio Gianopoulos, an editor at Bloomsbury USA, worked closely with JT LeRoy, the young author of Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.

LeRoy seemed tailor-made for the contemporary book culture. Raised at truck stops and prostituted, sometimes dressed as a young girl, by his drug-addicted mother, by his early teens, he was a cross-dressing addict/prostitute. But he was also a writer, and although his books were fiction, they possessed a raw authenticity that captivated readers. Legions of fans and literati quickly adopted him.

Gianopoulos and LeRoy spent hours on the phone, talking about writing but also about their lives. “It was pretty personal,” the editor says. “It was a friendship, except that a lot of the facts were missing.”

So were face-to-face encounters. Apparently too emotionally scarred to show up for signings or read from his work, celebrity fans like Dave Eggers would read in his place. Gianopoulos and LeRoy did meet briefly in San Francisco during a publicity tour, but LeRoy had remained in the shadows of a limousine and further distanced himself behind huge sunglasses and a blonde wig.

“I thought I’d met JT,” Gianopoulos says.

As it turns out, the person presenting herself as the small, pale, painfully shy young man known as JT LeRoy was, in fact, Savannah Knoop, the twenty-something sister of former musician Geoffrey Knoop. He and his wife, Laura Albert, had concocted the LeRoy persona and legend. Albert, 40, is believed to have written the books. The Knoops’ yarn began unraveling a year and a half ago, after The New York Times noted inconsistent travel receipts for an article supposedly being written by LeRoy.

The hoax caused an uproar, angering supporters and the general reading public. Soon, however, it would be eclipsed by literary deceptions on a grander scale: James Frey’s putative memoir, A Million Little Pieces, which relied more on imagination than memory; and Kaavya Viswanathan’s How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, which borrowed more than 40 passages from books by Megan McCafferty.

And yet, most writers are influenced by fellow authors, and most get creative when dealing with the facts of their own lives. So why so many cases of literary deception—and why all the fuss—now? Has an industry ravenous for reality entertainment driven authors to extreme behavior? Are writers so greedy for success that they knowingly lie and rob? Has the Internet spawned a literary lynch mob of fact-checkers and whistle-blowers intent on outing authors who may have made innocent mistakes?

In a time of growing skepticism about the integrity of publishing, perhaps only two things are certain: Nothing here is new, and it isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

Copycats and dirty rats

Monks copied manuscripts at will for centuries, but the practice didn’t draw protests until relatively recently.

In 1892, Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism for her story The Frost King, which shared similarities with The Frost Fairies by Margaret T. Canby. Keller remembered experiencing the story as a child and was cleared of the charge, but reportedly she remained paranoid about copying other writers all her life.

Alex Haley, author of the hugely popular 1976 novel Roots, was sued by author Harold Courlander for stealing a passage from Courlander’s novel, The African. Haley settled out of court for $650,000.

More recently and famously, The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown has survived two lawsuits. The first, by Lewis Perdue, accused Brown of plagiarizing Perdue’s 1983 novel, The Da Vinci Legacy. Earlier this year, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh filed a copyright infringement claim against Brown for “appropriating the architecture” of their 1982 work, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Judges dismissed both cases.

Nonfiction writers have fared worse. After a student noticed uncredited similarities to other works, historian Stephen E. Ambrose admitted to melding passages from the works of other authors into many of his books. Another historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, confessed to the same sin after author Lynne McTaggart noticed passages from her book on Kathleen Kennedy reprinted intact in Goodwin’s 1987 The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, and former Washington Post writer Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her series of articles about an 8-year-old heroin dealer named Jimmy, were caught fabricating interviews, events and entire characters.

The dean of literary hoaxes, however, remains Clifford Irving. In 1971, he and fellow writer Richard Suskind claimed to have received permission from reclusive Las Vegas billionaire Howard Hughes to write an authorized biography. McGraw-Hill paid $400,000—an enormous advance at the time—for rights to the book. Irving and Suskind rented a house in Westport, Conn., and began turning in transcripts of interviews with Hughes.

Investigative journalist Christopher Byron was 24 that summer. A Westport native, he was working as a stringer for Time magazine while attending Yale Law School. One evening, a childhood friend who drove a garbage truck called to tell him of an intriguing collection earlier that day. “You know those two guys who are doing the Howard Hughes autobiography and are on television every night?” Byron recalls his friend saying. “Well, I have their garbage!”

Carting the saved trash bags over to Byron’s house, the friend emptied them on the living room floor and began picking through them. There, on page after crumpled page among orange peels and coffee grinds, were outtakes of what were clearly fake interviews with Hughes. Byron—author of the bestselling The Fanciest Dive (about the AOL-Time Warner merger) and Martha Inc.—broke the story nationally a few days later.

“That was the first major scandal for the literary community,” he says. “It was actually a pretty clever idea. Who was in position to say they weren’t Hughes’ words—except for the one person who hadn’t been seen or heard from in years? Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke and the others are amateurish compared to Clifford Irving.”

The new marketplace

Ironically, just as plagiarized books may well be more successful than if they’d been based on pure fact or personal effort—scandals surrounding them can also make for better PR and sales. And no one understands this better than publishers themselves.

“I think `JT LeRoy‘ was quite creative—the more phony and the more strange the author, the more people wanted to read him,” says Charlie Conrad, publisher of Broadway Books. “In the literary world today, you have to have a personality behind any book. I think the people behind LeRoy realized they had just another dysfunctional novel with Sarah, but if it were by a character author, it would be much bigger.

“Every author has to be more than a writer today,” Conrad adds. “They also have to be media stars.”

A number of these elements appeared to come together in the case of Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan, whose first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, brought her a high six-figure advance from Little, Brown. Even before the plagiarism charges, the storytelling was considered sophomoric but also close to Viswanathan’s life saga of overcoming obstacles en route to the Ivy League.

“It didn’t matter that she couldn’t write—it was all about her as the front person for the novel dealing with her real story,” Conrad notes. “Reality TV’s had a big influence on publishing.”

In retrospect, Gianopoulos can see the benefits a troubled persona like LeRoy’s can bring an author, no matter that it was wholly fabricated. “His personal story generated a lot of empathy,” the editor says, “but the celebrity side and social-climbing element turned a lot of people off. You were always thinking that he was hustling everyone, but then you forgave him for the c hildhood he supposedly had.”

Another aspect of the new marketplace, of course, is the Internet. In terms of tracking discrepancies and uncredited use of previously published material, it’s been devastatingly effective. If the Web helps buzz books, it can also help burn them.

In his Link by Link column in The New York Times for May 1, 2006, Tom Zeller Jr., wrote, “In the age of the Internet, literary exegis (whether driven by scandal or not) is no longer undertaken solely by pale critics or plodding lawyers speaking only to each other, but by a global hive, humming everywhere at once and linked to the wiki. One misstep, one mistake, can incite a horde of analysts, each with a global publishing medium in the living room and, it sometimes seems, limitless amounts of time. Frontier justice? Mob rule? Perhaps.”

Memories or memoirs?

The interesting thing about the current run of questionable texts is how little it seems to bother editors. The real issue for them appears to be the nature of the memoir and authors’—and publishers’—right to creative license when negotiating the past.

“The Frey thing has gotten everyone far more focused on the issue,” says Jim Fitzgerald, a former executive editor at St. Martin’s Press who now heads the James Fitzgerald Agency, a literary agency in New York. At a writing conference in Virginia this past spring, Fitzgerald heard someone in the audience announce that she was writing a memoir. “And someone called out, ‘Fiction or nonfiction?’ ” he says. “It’s in the air right now, and people are aware of it.”

“The Frey thing,” of course, is James Frey‘s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, published by Doubleday, which sold more than 4 million copies after Oprah Winfrey selected the title for her book club. When the investigative website thesmokinggun.com, along with fellow addicts from the rehab Frey mentions in the book, reported serious discrepancies between reality and Frey’s version of his past, he was chastised in the press and verbally spanked by Winfrey on national television.

Conrad, whose Broadway Books is part of the Random House empire, places some blame on his organization. “A Million Little Pieces was a publishing mistake,” he says. “That entire debate wouldn’t have happened if they’d put a little disclaimer in the front of that book.”

But Conrad defends Frey and other memoirists who take liberties with their own narratives. “I think there’s a lot of confusion about what memoir means,” he says. “There seems to be a notion out there, which Oprah shares, that memoir should be journalism. But it isn’t; it’s creative nonfiction. Frey being criticized for saying the young woman hung herself when, in fact, she slit her wrists—that isn’t an issue for me.

“This varies from editor to editor,” Conrad says. “But I happen to think that if a memoir isn’t written with a certain amount of creativity, it doesn’t have a lot of value. If you told me what happened event for event, I’d probably be bored. But if you told me on Friday night over a beer and in a more casual storytelling way, it would probably be interesting.”

At Bloomsbury, Gianopoulos remains a fan of the author who deceived him, along with everyone else. “I’m not bitter—I’m more bemused than anything,” he says of the LeRoy incident. “I have to give Albert credit for never pushing to have The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things published as a memoir.”

What happened, he says, “doesn’t change the writing for me. They’re still good stories.”

Truth or consequences

The consequences of literary larceny vary. Irving went to prison. Blair and Cooke were fired from their respective newspapers; Cooke also lost the Pulitzer she’d been awarded.

Within the past several months, Little, Brown pulled copies of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life from bookstore shelves and rescinded Viswanathan’s publishing deal. Doubleday had Frey write a long letter of explanation to introduce a new edition of A Million Little Pieces. The book continues to sell.

So does The Da Vinci Code, although charges of plagiarism against Brown appear far from over. In an article titled “The Da Vinci Clone” in the July 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, Contributing Editor Seth Mnookin alleges that Brown copied the plot from Perdue’s Daughter of God and also a passage verbatim from Mark Elling Rosheim’s Leonardo’s Lost Robots.

One change that’s likely to come out of all this is that editors will be charged with verifying material more than in the past and asking tougher questions of their nonfiction authors. And they’ll need to rely on their own judgment rather than an author’s word. “I think you just have to trust your own vibes about the material,” Conrad says.

Meanwhile, literary agents like Fitzgerald aren’t losing sleep over the issue. “As an agent sitting here looking at things, it hasn’t changed my attitude at all,” he says. “I’m currently doing some big bios and autobiographies. Am I going to check to see if at 9 a.m. on July 4th you were at Howard Beach as you’ve said? I’m not going to ask you that.

“I think in two years it’s all going to blow over and then it’s going to come back again,” Fitzgerald says. “And in two years, Frey will return with a really big book because he’s a really good writer.”

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