Friday, October 28, 2005

A JT Leroy riff

Eddie Beverage asked an interesting and difficult question about whether a writer's identity can be distinguished from his or her writing. In most cases, I think it's possible, even when it's a persona-heavy writer like Rimbaud or Hemingway or Burroughs or Acker, as long as the writing is strong and sufficiently complete in and of itself that the biography of person who wrote it is an optional pleasure or additional source of information. In the cases I mentioned, I think that's true. With JT Leroy, I think it's a different situation. JT Leroy's work has always been completely attached to the presentation of the author as a teenaged boy whose difficult life occasioned the subjects of his work. The work was fiction, but its legitimacy came through the understanding that his stories' subject matter resembled the content of his real life, and JT Leroy forced this reading from the very moment 'he' appeared. 'He' originally seduced me and a number of other writers with his misery and horror filled autobiography and his seemingly remarkable ability to not only have survived that life but to have such a bright future ahead of 'him' due to 'his' inexplicable talent as a writer and the courage 'he' showed in using art as a weapon to face down all that abuse. All writers who believe writing is important want a reason to believe, because there aren't many reasons out there these days, and JT Leroy was a reason, a real flesh and blood, authentic reason to believe writing remained a very important medium. It seemed like writing might just be the way to save this poor kid's life. Writing had created common ground between cultured us and this ultimate outsider. 'He' asked us to save him with this wonderful thing we did called writing, and so we did. We bought the whole thing and helped 'him' sell it to magazines and book publishers, and thanks in part to our vouching for it, they bought JT Leroy and resold it to the public. The fact that his books had serious weaknesses -- rampant sentimentality, cliched characters and storylines, uneven writing, etc. -- was forgiven due to 'his' youth, the fact that 'he' supposedly had never attended school in 'his' life, 'his' emotional problems, 'his' precarious health, and so on. The JT Leroy books and the JT Leroy persona were inseparable. The books were always in some way inspirational souveniers of that boy's awful life. They were its happy ending. Every time a copy of 'Sarah' was purchased or recommended to a friend or positively reviewed, the ending became even happier. The JT Leroy phenomenon was a big, sweet collaboration between artist and consumer while it lasted. So now it becomes increasingly obvious that there is no JT Leroy as we knew 'him.' That life 'he' talked about so convincingly in so many phone conversations and interviews never happened. 'Sarah' and 'The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things' and 'Harold's End' don't have that legitimacy anymore. Some people seem to be hoping Laura/Speedie was abused so that some trace of the old JT Leroy story will cling to the books, but whatever the real story is behind whoever wrote JT Leroy's texts, the fact is they're almost on their own now. At the moment, and until the mystery of who wrote them is solved, they have no writer's identity attached to them. This is actually one of those very rare occasions when writing not only can but must be considered apart from its author's identity. My opinion about the books is evolving, but at the moment I think that if you drain them of their authenticity and also do your best to forget the fact that were involved in a massive and fascinating and ugly scam, there's not a lot left in them that's of much interest. But I'm not the best judge. Too much baggage. You guys are probably better judges of the post-JT Leroy 'JT Leroy' oeuvre. So what do you think?


Blogger marc vallee said...

I was at the London JT Leroy reading this year and "he" was asked about "his" writings being "just" autobiographical and has/will the work move on in time. I think all artists owe history and life can be very important tool with being able to put things into context; I know it’s something I like doing, yes work can stand alone but …. Who did this? Why? Etc is important. Dennis the way you put it that we will have to see JT's books standing alone from the back story is valued point. Maybe in a few years I will read one of the books again and get a new understanding, but a lot of that will come from what comes out in the future on who and why wrote it.

6:00 AM  
Blogger Jax said...

Yeah, it's scary just how much one's expectations of any work of art is prejudiced by what one knows - or thinks one knows - of the artist.

I'd never heard of JT Leroy before he / she was mentioned in this blog, and cos the general subject matter seemed similar to to Dennis's, I bought all three (great covers, I have to say!) I also checked out Leroy's (rave) reviews on Amazon, which just served to further fuel my eagerness to read 'em.

'Sarah' I found very disappointing - to the extent I started thinking 'Okay, I must be missing something here.' 'Harold's End' - one review commented on the 'shocking' treatment served up to Harold by the trick - made me think 'Okay, I am REALLY missing something here', cos enema??? THIS is the worst that can happen to a rent boy who goes home with a guy???

'The Heart etc etc' I have to admit I don't have the heart to even start.

There's the odd glimmer of insight, in the novels - mainly on abandonment issues - but in general they're trite and unconvincing. And I'm not a hard reader to please, usually, cos I WANT to buy into the world a writer creates.

What irritates me most - and what should have been the warning signs - are those rave reviews on Amazon. 'Difficult' writing is exactly that - difficult. And shocking. I donlt mean this in any elitist way, but by definition it shouldn't gardner rave reviews in the quantity Leroy's did.

Having said that, I will now try go back to my old way of reading. It's fiction. It's a creative leap - it doesn't matter who or what the writer is, the creation is all.

And I will never EVER trust hype again:)

6:56 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

Due to Dennis' public support of JT's work, I tried to get into it a few years ago. I borrowed Sarah -- I think, but it might have been The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things -- from the library, but found it not very interesting or memorable, for the reasons that Dennis mentions in his post.

JT's blog, which I visited just now, is filled with messages of belief in and support for him and anger about inaccuracies in the recent article, many from people (some of them well-known writers) who insist that they know for sure that he is who he has claimed to be all along.

I have no idea what to think, and now feel ickily voyeuristic on top of that. All I know or really even care about, from my remote vantage point, is that Dennis' work is far more interesting and beautiful to me.

7:09 AM  
Blogger alex said...

in a couple of years the whole thing will have faded away, 'sarah' was ok,'the heart..' kinda poor,'harolds..' just more of the same,

so dennis,
on a similar note of gender confusion, can you tell me if jarrod,(you posted a picture in sept), is a guy or girl?

im gonna look a right fool at work on monday morning if my friends are right, yikes!

8:58 AM  
Blogger tony said...

First off, I think that was beautifully said, Dennis.

I already spoke a little (perhaps too cynically) about this subject earlier. I suppose a good summation of my feelings for the whole JT phenomenon is one of anger. As a writer and (more importantly) reader, I'm angry someone exploited AIDS, drug abuse, sexual deviancy/molestation, queer/fringe culture, and almost every literary/artistic taboo out there in order to sell books and (perhaps more aptly) create a new literary scene; one surrounding this extraoridinarily young and good-looking star. Because, really, this smells of nothing but fame mongering. The saga reminds me of bad reality programming. Furthermore, I think it's absolutely fucking disrespectful to authors like yourself, Dennis, Burroughs, Home, Acker, and all the other authors who in the past fifty or so years have done so much to really push literature in new directions, fight ignorance and cultural blindness, and (most importantly) just create good art. JT has done none of this. He has created books that are merely borrowings of other books and used themes he knew we're "fringe" enough to make him some kind of literary Kurt Cobain. And I think it's bullshit. There's the criticial excuse that the JT saga merely exposed the vulnerabilities of so-called experimental or fringe writing, the de-qualifiying of it via fame, recognition, and money; how "bad" becomes "cool" and undoes itself. Then there's also the excuse (I'm sure there are tons that will be presented by the publihser and agent) of the problems with "authorship" and whatnot. But the JT Leroy scam was none of these things: to me it looks like parasitism, plain and simple. And it's infuriating.

That wasn't much less cynical. Sorry.

Happy Halloween, guys.

9:30 AM  
Blogger willfabro said...

i always thought that "sarah" wouldn't have received its critical/emotional response had it not been for the backstory associated and inextricably connected with the actual product. i picked up "sarah" due to the raves of writers i admired, read the book, and came away thinking "that was okay. but really? that's what people are talking about?" i expected more from the actual writing. that's what i cared about, nothing else. and it was an odd schism to be aware of of his audience's outpouring of affection and yet also be unimpressed on the whole with the writing. when "heart is deceitful" came out i gave it a chance but it just seemed like "sarah redux" (i did enjoy the final story in it). i didn't finish "harold's end."

if i really loved the work, i'd be up in arms. but ultimately the outrage/controversy surrounding leroy at this point matters little to me aside from bewildered amusement, as i never really cared for the writing in the first place, and was always bothered by, and mildly circumspect of, the persona/hype/backstory which completely overshadowed any discussion of craft and talent. for me that's more unfortunate than any other aspect of this saga. of course, i never had the attachment and therefore don't feel burned by the ruse.

9:48 AM  
Blogger rachel said...

I was never that smitten with Sarah, but I do find it really, really fascinating that JT/Speedy could be so intricate and such a strapping individual to pull off such a far-reaching productive hoax. Of course, at the same time, I want to knock his/her block off because anyone who lies to Dennis, exploits Dennis' good heartedness, or even isn't that friendly to Dennis when finally meeting him in person after spending hours on the phone with him daily for years, is fundamentally... a disappointment. If not a jerk. He/she also sounds like such a star-fucker!

12:37 PM  
Blogger helenforsdale said...

Very interesting and well thought out entry, I believe. many, many valid points are made. It's also especially moving that you would comment on something that was so personal, yet public at the same time.

if "jt's" work doesn't hold up without the fake persona created for the presentation of "his" writing...then what was the appeal in the first place? Shouldn't art be able to stand on it's own two legs, without the support of it's creator?
Or were people just gravitating to 'his' work because of 'his' past 'experiences' ? i don't know - it just doesn't seem to be enough to me to warrant celebrity.

you'll have to pardon me, as i'm aware i'm commenting on a profound and unpleasent experience - but hearing these stories reaffirms my belief that "good" art should stand on it's own merits; that once released into the world, it shouldn't need the support of it's creator to warrant or define its existence. and i suppose i find the whole "jt" story to just be really...souring. leaves one disenchanted with the honesty of the contemporary art world. however, like i said, to comment on such a personal event doesn't quite sit well with me, but i guess i was hoping this might be a gesture i don't know.


1:26 PM  
Blogger Eddie B said...


your thoughts on the matter are exceedingly fair and surprisingly objective for someone who was close to jt. that's a credit to you as a person and it's shame such friendship went wasted on someone who doesn't deserve it.

i think you're right. in the end it does come down to the writer's intentions. jt is clearly an opportunist and his motives for making his past known were monetary gain and notoriety. he made a conscious decision to fuse art and artist with only impure intentions.

part of me wishes there was a point to all of it. the most sickening part is that he hasn't taken this opportunity to take off the mask and make an important statement about art and celebrity. i once read somewhere that right before tupac died he was about to drop the act and expose the whole gangster mentality as a total sham. my less cynical side would like to believe that, what a powerful statement he could've made!, but in the end he seemed nothing more than a caricature of that lifestyle. it upsets me that people who have an opportunity to totally flip the script on perception never do so. they just fade into their lies.

1:43 PM  
Blogger garrison said...

I must say that I am very disenchanted by "JT's" work now... even though I must admit that the ending of Harold's End is still something I feel to be very special and affecting.

Doesn't matter though. The whole situation leaves a bad taste in my mouth and I'm through with him/her's work. What an excellent film this true story could make in a few years, though, after it's all cooled down and the facts are out.

Genuine or not, "JT's" made some literary history. Take from it what you will.

- garrison

1:51 PM  
Blogger Paul America said...

I've only tried to re-read one story since I read the NY piece. "Smack Filled Balloons", a short story published in BLACK BOOK a couple years ago, just about the time (JT) was makin the transition tween underground phenom and overground star-fucker - one of my absolute favorites from an author who's every word I devoured. I got through the first paragraph and decided that i'm totally done thinking about this. It only took one paragraph for me to come to the decison that I NEVER wanted to go back there, knowing what I know now. I totally agree that, in this case, you can't separate the author from the work. There's no way I can read THE HEART IS DECEITFULL and force myself to concentrate on it's literary merits. Because that's not what I was concentrating on the first time i read it.
There's a buttload of kids out there who aren't gonna be able to chuck this up to Warholian whatever and laugh this shit off. I wasn't shocked when I found this out, I was hurt. JT LEROY produced a very specific feeling in my mind, one that I was conscious of while reading every word he wrote. I'm sure I speak for many when I say that I wish I could just erase this from my brain and hold onto what I believed to be (at least for me) something very meaningfull.

But I can't. I also can't re-hash and intellectualize everything.

I can walk away from this feeling at least some satisfaction, though. After reading SARAH when I was an 18 yr old - horribly fucked up - Oxycontin junky... I followed the Leroy breadcrumb trail to you.

For this, I will be eternally greatfull.

It's like kids who got into Sonic Youth through Nirvana, right?

2:09 AM  
Blogger Nigel Symon said...

Yes like Paul one of the great things to come out of all this is discovering your great work Dennis.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Kai said...

Unfortunately Mr. Beachy didn't choose to live interview anyone who actually knows JT. Everything in the NYTimes Mag article was word of mouth or second hand.

I've known JT for 5 years. I can vouch that he is real. The real deal.

As a person who has had a similar experience, though not as awful, I can understand JT's reticence. Sometimes you just have to get past the demons any way you can.

What I see in the sock puppet reviews on is a concerted effort by friends of either Cooper, Beachy or Heim to destroy the livelihood of JT. For what reason? Jealousy? Because JT gets better reviews than Cooper, Beachy or Heim?

And what I see on this site is a lot of kiddie porn.
Is it any wonder that Cooper has fled the country to France?

If you have a problem with this post, please feel free to email me.


11:10 AM  
Blogger jcschlim said...

dear dennis,
i'm not using internet a lot, but let me please say a couple of things when i have to read so much non sensense like everybody knowing everything. what i know: 1/ you're among my favorite writers 2/ france is a beautiful country 3/ i "worked" this year with jt on a rewrite of my screenplay and i suffered a lot with (for my experience, maybe because i'm not a star) a manipulative & mean person - i'm kind of relieved to hear that it's a hoax, but i cannot laugh like others about for instance exploiting aids (my movie is about aids) - i feel "soiled"... can we somehow discuss in a more private way? jcschlim (luxembourg)

4:38 PM  
Blogger charlie q said...


I am curious if you are aware of the similarities between this JT Leroy saga and the themes you deal with in "The Sluts." When I read the paperback version a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't help but draw some parallels between that book and its concern with the identity of all the various writers and also this same concern with Leroy's identity that was picking up renewed steam with that New York magazine article.

At first, I thought this was your way of conciously addressing this since your name was bandied about for a while as possibly the real Leroy by some people, but then I read that you had been working on the book for ten years on and off and then I also found out that it was that woman via that article, and then nixed all those theories.

But your book shares so many of the same concerns everyone is now vocalizing about this Leroy thing - about who really wrote this, about who is the real Leroy, or in your book's case, the real Brad, how as readers we are all too willing to privilege texts that we somehow deem "authentic." It's funny to watch how the questioning of Leroy's authenticity has thrown previous readings of him into flux. Maybe not funny, but at least interesting.

7:04 PM  
Blogger benjamin russack said...

I feel like the JT debacle exposes some of the dark underbelly of the literary world, how eager so many of us are for fame, to be part of the "super hip" super elite crowed. It seems like the celebs like Madonna were able to yank themselves just a little higher on the "too hip for you" ladder by being pals with the infamous and illusive wonderboy JT LeRoy. On another note I always did feel a little outdone by this 20something who made it big in writing. I know that's my own stupid ego talking. Then again, will my ego let me sleep at night when it hears I was actually outdone by a 39 year old has-been-meglomaniac from Broklin? Or was it Baltimore?

1:20 AM  
Blogger Dynomoose said...

I loved The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things and found Sarah entertaining. The fact that JT Leroy does not actually exist does not change my feelings about 'his' work.
The funny thing is; the Leroy books were recommended to me because I'd mentioned how much I loved YOUR work. When I read them, I was surprised that my friend connected his style and subject matter with yours.

2:58 AM  
Blogger JolieNoir said...

Hi Dennis,
Your words on this subject ring true to me.
I am sad and pissed off. What will happen to new writers after this and the James Frey thing?

I happen to be a 40 year old woman who could identify with parts of Sarah.
I wrote to JT and told him that I was a mother at fifteen, and am just beginning to learn the craft of writing. I finished the eighth grade but went no further with formal education. I said that wherever his Sarah was, I'm sure she was proud of him. Because of who he is, I told him, maybe I can tell a story that somebody will want to read.
He wrote back saying that my admiration was medicine for him. I'll bet it was.

These deceptions are sure to make established writers wary of people who contact them. It's really a shame.

I'm sorry this happened to you, Dennis. It stinks.

6:50 AM  
Blogger daniel said...

Interesting comment above about what this spells out for other writers. When querying for my second novel, I don't think anyone believes me when I tell them I was 1999's most popular New York hustler (debatable, but I quote then Honcho editor Doug McClemont). Do I really have to give literary agents my nom de plume so they can Google it? Great blog, Dennis, and thanks for all the eye scenes in Guide.


8:21 PM  

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