JT LeRoy and Hoaxes


Actually, I’m not going to talk about the JT LeRoy thing per se (I work for a company that published one of his books, so I don’t think it’d be appropriate). Read the articles in the Times or the Chron if you want the details.

But the JT LeRoy thing is making me think about the whole subject of artistic hoaxes, a subject I find both fascinating and baffling.

There’s something about them that I fundamentally don’t understand: Why would anybody even *want* to pass off their work as someone else’s, or as something other than what it really is? To me, the whole point of artistic endeavor (if I may make a gross oversimplification) is a feeling of connection with the world: a sense that you’ve dredged something out of yourself and put it out in the world, and that other people are taking that something into themselves and letting it have an effect on them. To pass your work off as something it isn’t… it essentially severs that connection, rendering the entire exercise pointless.

Sure, it’s nice to get fame and admiration. But what’s the point of fame and admiration if the person being admired isn’t really you? Wouldn’t that good glowy feeling you get when your work is recognized just feel like it was missing the mark?

Sure, it’s nice to hobnob with celebrities. I guess. It seems a little weird to me, actually, but then I’ve never hobnobbed, so what do I know. But what’s the point if the person these celebrities are admiring doesn’t even exist? Wouldn’t any sense of coolness you got from hanging out with them feel meaningless, since it wasn’t really you they were hanging out with?

I suppose you could say it’s done for money. And it’s true, money buys the same amount of stuff whether you got it fraudulently or honestly. But… well, there must be easier ways to make money than a literary hoax. There must be easier ways to make money than a literary *anything*.

Now, I’m not talking here about hoaxes for the sake of hoaxing: the ones done for the sheer fun of pulling people’s legs, or to make some point about the laziness and gullibility of the media/academia/the human race/etc. Those, I get. But the kind of hoaxes I’m talking about are different. I’m talking about the kind of artistic hoaxes that are meant to stay hoaxed: the ones that are really meant to deceive, truly and permanently.

It’s not that I don’t understand why people lie to each other and try to fool each other. I get that. People lie to gain advantage, to protect themselves, to make themselves seem more attractive, etc. etc. And there’s obviously a sense of power people get from fooling other people. I get that, too. I get why people bluff in poker games, make stuff up on their resumes, lie to people they’re hitting on in bars, and so on.

But making a lie out of years of creative work — that’s a different animal. If you don’t actually care about the artistic endeavor and are just doing it for fame and money and power … well, that’s an awful lot of trouble to go to, for what seems like not that much payoff in the fame and money and power department. And if you do care about the artistic endeavor, then it seems like an enormous amount of trouble to go to for absolutely no payoff at all.

It reminds me a little of the Bible verse (stay with me here, people): “What will it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?” For a long time I thought that verse was just another bit of generic Biblical soul-spouting. But now I think it’s actually very astute — and not just in a religious sense. I think it means that there’s no point in losing who you are in order to get wealth and power and stuff — because there won’t be anybody there to enjoy it once you get it. If you lose your soul, your self, in order to get stuff, you won’t have any self left to feel good about all the stuff you got.

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