J.T. LeRoy, James Frey, Nasdijj, Ben Domenech, Kaavya Viswanathan, O.J. Simpson.
Remember those names? Each of those writers was associated with a literary scandal in the year 2006. In fact, 2006 experienced one literary scandal after another. As a writer and a person who likes to seek order in chaos, I found myself wondering if these six had more in common than writing and scandal.
If you do a "search" on this blog or on Wikipedia for the following names, you'll find detailed accounts of the scandals. Below is a thumbnail sketch of each:
J.T. Leroy is the pseudonym of writer Laura Albert. Since 1999, Albert has published four books under the name Leroy. She claimed to be a victim of child abuse, a former prostitute who had once been homeless. She also claimed to be HIV positive and transgendered. Her boyfriend's half sister pretended to be J.T. Leroy in public, but beginning in the fall of 2005, rumors surfaced that Leroy was a fictional invention by Albert. It's probably no coincidence that Leroy's first novel, Sarah, was the story of a 12-year-old boy whose ambition in life was to become a girl lot lizard, or truck stop prostitute. Leroy's phony bio certainly boosted her credibility to write such a novel.
James Frey is the writer who wrote the "memoir" A Million Little Pieces, supposedly chronicling his experiences as a drug and alcohol addict. The book, which was first published in 2003 by Doubleday, became a best-seller after Oprah named it one of her bookclub picks in the fall of 2005. Then The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey had fabricated the more lurid portions of his "memoir," including his arrest and incarceration. In a dramatic television moment, Oprah confronted Frey on air, demanding the truth. He acknowledged that he had greatly exaggerated certain parts of the book.
Nasdijj was the pseudonym of Timothy Barrus who claimed to be a Navajo writer. Between 2000 and 2004, he published three books that he claimed were non-fiction, describing his life as a Native American, including his childhood with abusive parents and his past as a migrant worker. The title of his last book was Geronimo's Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me. In January of this year, the LA Weekly wrote an expose revealing that Nasdijj was really Barrus, who had formerly written gay sado-maschism fiction.
Ben Domenech is a 25-year-old conservative blogger who co-founded the blog RedState. In March, 2006, Washington-
Post.com hired him to write a blog for them. However, he was forced to resign less than a week later when allegations of his plagiarism during college surfaced. His college newspaper uncovered an article which had been plagiarized from a book by humorist P.J. O'Rourke as well as movie reviews taken from Salon.com.
Kaavya Viswanathan is a 19-year-old Harvard student who received a $500,000 advance from publisher Little, Brown (division of Random House) in a two-book deal. Her first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, was published in April, 2006. A sharp-eyed fan quickly contacted author Megan McCafferty to point out that large portions of the novel appeared to be taken from two of McCafferty's books. Little, Brown was forced to recall the book while Kaavya made weak excuses, saying she "internalized Ms. McCafferty's words. I am a huge fan of her work and can honestly say that any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious."
O.J. Simpson was scheduled in November, 2006 to release a non-fiction book titled If I Did It about the murders of his ex-wife and her friend. The public outcry over the book and the television special promoting it was so great that News Corporation cancelled both. Subsequently, Judith Regan, the publisher, was fired by News Corporation.
In looking at the six scandals, we have three writers who faked either their own past or their "memoirs." We have another two who were plagiarists and, finally, we have a man who was willing to capitalize on his ex-wife's death, a death that the public blames on him.
I believe the one thing that connects all six stories is the willingness of the writers involved to lie, cheat or exploit in order to make money--in other words, their greed.
When I was a small child, my mother assured me that, if I lied, those lies would always catch up with me. Any short-term benefit I derived from lying would be quickly followed by major consequences. I accepted Mom at her word and have never regretted it. All writers need to take that advice to heart.
Let's hope that 2007 will see fewer cases of scandal and unethical behavior on the part of writers.