Literary Paper Lions

Book packagers, drunken exaggerations, hoaxes: Why do we still expect authenticity from bestsellers?

Kaavya Viswanathan was riding high in April, shot down in May. The Harvard sophomore's debut novel—How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, for which she had received a $500,000 advance at the age of 17—was moving up the bestseller lists. The chick-lit book detailed the struggles of an Indian-American high-school girl trying to maintain a social life and get into the Ivy League. Opal Mehta’s apparently autobiographical story—celebrated in The New York Times, USA Today, and many other venues—was making Viswanathan a media sensation, a model of the kind of deranged precocity that Harvard increasingly demands of its students. Then in late April The Harvard Crimson revealed that Viswanathan had plagiarized more than a dozen passages from two young adult books by Megan McCafferty.

Within a day, the story was national news. Within two days, Viswanathan was brought onto the Today show for a deft public dressing down by Katie Couric. A creepy new wrinkle appeared: Viswanathan had probably not written the book in any traditional sense. Instead she had “conceptualized” it in partnership with the “book packager” Alloy Entertainment. Before the week was out, publisher Little, Brown had pulped Opal Mehta, and Viswanathan’s literary career was effectively over. (It has since emerged that Opal Mehta may have also borrowed phrases and devices from several other successful authors.)

Viswanathan’s plagiarism, though it is the most serious charge against her, is only part of what made her radioactive. It was the careful packaging of both book and author by an army of experts, and the public exposure of the mechanics of that process, that put her into a recent rogues gallery that so far includes a defense industry CEO who stole from an old book, a putative memoirist who was just making stuff up, and, most amusing of all, an author who doesn’t even exist.

To recap: Raytheon CEO William H. Swanson was revealed to have cribbed about half the aphorisms in his 2005 booklet Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management from a 1944 book by the late W.J. King. James Frey, whose best-selling drug addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces had been an Oprah’s Book Club selection, turned out to have invented substantial portions of the book (at the behest, says Frey, of publisher Nan Talese, who saw more market potential in a memoir than in the novel Frey had originally conceived; Talese denies this).

And young JT LeRoy, an author of autobiographical stories of childhood abuse and a youth spent in the hustler demimonde of San Francisco’s Polk Street, captured the attention and affection of, among others, poet Sharon Olds, star memoirists Mary Karr and Dave Eggers, novelist Mary Gaitskill, and actress/director Asia Argento, whose film adaptation of LeRoy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things hit theaters in March—just after it was discovered that “JT LeRoy” is an invention of the writer and musician Laura Albert. Albert penned the works of LeRoy, invented his harrowing back story, and engaged her boyfriend’s half-sister to play the author, in a wig and dark glasses, at public appearances. In a less publicized variant on this story, the Native American author “Nasdijj,” whose own rage-filled memoir of childhood abuse The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping was praised as “achingly honest” by The Miami Herald, now appears to be an invention of the non-Indian writer Tim Barrus, whose previous specialty was gay erotica.

Excuse me if I conclude that all these unravelings are good news, and not only because they reveal the publishing industry to be every bit as corrupt as the movie and television industry. (More so, in fact, because nobody pretends Hollywood is full of virtuous or high-minded people.) The real fruit of these scandals is the attention they’ve brought to the packaging of authors and the absurd investment readers make in that package. Viswanathan—an avatar of striving Asian-American youth for whom Harvard, that empty vessel of American hopes, is a life-or-death goal—was ideally suited to an aspirational readership of teenage girls. Frey’s tall tales of substance abuse, alcoholism, and redemption fit Oprah Winfrey’s audience to a woozy T, while JT LeRoy was perfectly crafted to capture the imaginations of hipsters like Eggers and Gaitskill.

In all these cases, big-name publishers and consultants worked hard to build the bankability of the writers. In Viswanathan’s case, the consultants may even have done the writing. The only living people clearly hurt in all this were the victims of Viswanathan’s plagiarism—though sales of McCafferty’s books spiked as a result of the controversy. Yet to listen to the stage howls of betrayal and hurt, you’d think Frey had stolen Oprah’s car, or LeRoy had broken into Gaitskill’s house.

That writers rely on their personal brands is not new. Ernest Hemingway and Lord Byron come to mind as great authors valued as much for their outsized personae as for their writing skills. What is new is the emergence of mutually exclusive trends: a complex industry designed to maximize authors’ public images and a cult of authenticity that increasingly demands writers be what they claim to be. Taken together, this year’s scandals may end the lamentable idea that a memoir is more valuable than a work of fiction, and remind us that the importance of artistry in writing has been downgraded for some time. If JT LeRoy was impressive as a young male prostitute writing about being a young male prostitute, isn’t the feat even greater when JT LeRoy is a 40-year-old woman pretending to be a young male prostitute?

If nothing else, a little more honesty about how the celebrity author market works might increase our enjoyment of the game, and lessen the shock when writers turn out to be phonies. Months after Frey’s downfall, a friend called to recommend A Million Little Pieces. I asked if he’d heard about the book’s fabrications. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I heard all about it. I don’t know how anybody thought it was true in the first place, because it sounds like something you’d hear from some drunk bragging in a bar. It’s all ‘Oh, I got all fucked up and kicked some guy’s ass, then the cops were beating the shit out of me.’ It’s a totally entertaining book.”

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