Lying as literature seems to be losing some of its prestige, and we can probably thank Oprah for that. When she publicly scolded James Frey for the thousand little lies he’d passed off as truthful memoir, she spoke for every writer who believes words should mean something.
Judy Blunt got off a lot easier for when she wrote a memoir of her life as a Montana rancher’s wife and some of it turned out to be pure fiction. As in her father-in-law taking an ax to her typewriter, when in fact it turned out she had just sort of felt like that was what he was doing, you know, deep in her soul. Good thing she wasn’t on Oprah when that lie was exposed.
Margaret B. Jones wrote about being a half-caste (white and Native American) foster child on the violent gangland streets of South Central Los Angeles. Said she dealt drugs there, but it turns out she’s a privileged woman who made the whole thing up. Then there’s J.T. LeRoy, who wrote of being a transgender HIV-infected, homeless drug addict and male prostitute. LeRoy, though, is actually Laura Albert, a healthy, prosperous middle-aged woman.
There are others, of course. Every few months the papers announce yet another memoir whose publishers are shocked — shocked! — to learn is a big fat lie. Their agents are also shocked. At least they say they are.
Here’s a tip to publishers and literary agents: When an author presents a lurid story in which he or she goes into great detail about past sociopathic behavior, pay attention, because — ta-da! — the writer is frankly telling you that he or she is a sociopath. Sociopaths lie. They cheat. They steal. They deceive. They will gladly go on national TV and lie to the world. If their lies are revealed, they will be very, very sorry to have been found out, but they will not feel shame for lying, nor will they be sorry to have made a gazillion dollars for doing it. If you give them half a chance, they’ll do it again.
Sociopathic writers deceive the world because they’re sociopaths. Publishers or agents who aid and abet them and profit from it are just plain greedy. Both the lying authors and their publishers and agents degrade the profession of writing. Personally, I hope we see more critics take a cue from Oprah and repudiate lies masquerading as memoir.