Friday, October 03, 2008

Your Side of Deceit

I was in the bookstore today looking over the new arrivals - it was the Harvard Co-op, which of course is a B&N college store - and I noticed GirlBoyGirl by Savannah Knoop. The subtitle offers the reveal: "How I Became J. T. Leroy." Yes folks, it's out: the true story of the person who played the part of the mysterious, genderqueer it-author a few years ago - the actor, not the writer - who was found to be a fraud. Now that the fracas has all died down, what of the person behind the sunglasses? Hmmm....

I picked it up to confirm it was what it was, but I must be honest in saying I can't imagine actually reading it. I mean, at this point, who cares? And then I was a bit disappointed to see the logo on the spine. The book is being published by Seven Stories Press, an independent publisher famously run by Dan Simon, a press I have long respected. (I thought the Open Media pamphlet series was very cool, if somewhat impractical.) Then I looked at the acknowledgments page and saw mention of Amy Scholder, who is the current editor in chief of the press. I know Scholder's name because she was the US Editor at Verso, and after she left, I (unsuccessfully) interviewed for that position. She has certainly worked on some very cool books - I'm intrigued by the use of her name in association with David Wojnarowicz's The Waterfront Journals - and she knows how to get attention, start fires, and force discussions of the first amendment and art, which I'm all for. It looks like Verso may have been set to publish Scholder's anthology, Dr. Rice in the House, but they lost her and it to Seven Stories (or gave both, it's not clear). Perhaps they felt it was straying too far from their rather rigid (and dry) approach to politics, which has a more European, old-school feel to it.

So Scholder is more pop and art (worked with Karen Finley et al), and she was clearly the editor of this GirlBoyGirl business. But it hardly seems all that substantive, and in fact seems instead like part of an ongoing genre of confessional - and boring - books. Now a press like Seven Stories needs to have some money makers to keep publishing more risky, less popular books - their fiction, especially first time novelists, are a huge risk. But I'm much more impressed with big sellers like Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country, a model of how an indie press needs to publish, getting a huge name and getting him to do this with you rather than a giant commercial press, and showing booksellers and readers that you can publish something this popular in a way that looks top-rate and is readily available. Derrick Jensen's forthcoming graphic novel on global warming, As the World Burns, also looks great, and very accessible, with definite commercial appeal. So why'd they stoop to this JT Leroy hot mess?

In terms of genre and not indie publishing, holding this new book in my hand also brought to mind Can You Every Forgive Me?, Lee Israel's relatively new book about her years forging author signatures on literary classics. It was celebrated in the Sunday Book Review, much to the frustration of many, and I was curious about the book. Reading a review on a blog later turned me against it. But is this kind of confessional book, by someone we have every right to hate or at least be angry with, interesting in that car-accident kind of way?

It seems the genre, long a mainstay of commercial publishing, got a serious boost from the whole scandal involving James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. I remember my sister getting the book after the truth came out, because she was "just so curious." And that's it, right? We're so curious as to why you'd dress up like this fake author, or sign Noel Coward's signature and sell it, that we actually go out and buy these books, thereby supporting the very people we can't stand!

But morals aside, really, aren't these confessions just articles? Do they really need to be whole books? And this is what worries me: editors are pushing these as books based on an idea and not the content, so they have authors, some of whom may not be particularly skilled at crafting a book-length narrative on most given subjects, expand their story to make it a product they can sell. And they run with it. This is what I felt reading Robert Leleux's The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, which was over and done with in 3 days (thanks, Boston Public Library - here's an early return!). The author wasn't a bad writer, but he had a schtick - gay kid in TX with fabulous mom - and he went on and on for about 200 pages. Book's done!

And we hear about the pressure from publishers to find authors, to find books that are not going to take long to write. I don't know. I suppose most really commercial books are l-i-t-e - it's the nature of this kind of book. But is that seeping into other areas, even into genres we expect to be weightier? And is it lowering standards for even our best independent presses?

I should say that Terri Jentz's book, reviewed here recently, was an example of a book that seemed to have come from a painstaking writing and editing process - in a good way. It may have been very long, but it was also very well done, with polish, and nuance, and consistent style, and intelligence. Let's hope publishers keep producing these books even while they slam lighter fare into their catalogs to get in quick cash.

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