Bad Reputation

There’s only so much sympathy I can work up for Laura Albert, who spent a few years writing critically acclaimed fiction as JT Leroy. Albert is no Janet Cooke, but she was a fraud all the same, going beyond concocting a pen name and engineering a persona of a young male cross-dresser, dragging a whole lot of media folk into the fakery and duping a whole lot of readers along the way. (Jack Boulware wrote an excellent feature on the whole foofaraw back in 2006.)

So I take Albert’s pleas for understanding in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle with a grain of salt, but the interview is worth reading, circling as it does around the question of whether her written fiction is diminished because of her public fiction. She tells the Daily Eagle interviewer:

It’s all worth it. It’s wonderful to use all the artistic gestures available within the playground of fiction to create a dialogue about the topics on which our culture has maintained a silence — to create new archetypes, so some of us can recognize our stories being told.

David Milch said something that helped me understand my own work better: “You know, people say that my writing is dark. And for me it’s quite the opposite. It sees light in darkness and it doesn’t try to distort darkness. The essential thing is that the seeing itself is joyful.”

For me, doing it in my own voice was too painful. JT LeRoy was asbestos gloves to handle material that I otherwise couldn’t stand to touch. I wrote about what I knew, the topics that I was familiar with.

The wilds of Brooklyn Heights in the ’70s became the wilds of West Virginia. Believe me, they translate.

I admired Albert/Leroy’s Sarah when it came out in 2000, but back then I was also living in San Francisco, where the JT Leroy hype was thick. Maybe it deserves a reread, but scanning through it again, I’m surprised at how flat-footed the prose seems now—some provocative glimpses of truck-stop types, described either plainly or, if Albert’s working herself into a froth, faux-holy roller patter. A sample:

The rain never came that night. The sky boomed, flashed, and squeezed out a few fat droplets, but no more than that. That miracle was clearly the jurisdiction of a saint triumphing over the sorcery of a black snake. Some whispered about the ash trees that burnt up in flashes of lightning, just the sort of conniving sign of a black snake. But Stella said there is always plenty of heretical jealous folks around to spread nasty rumors.

Setting aside whatever plot points I may have forgotten, drab, hokey bits like that are rampant in Sarah—textured affectations that look like they’re saying something because they have a whiff of the Old Testament about them, but are ultimately stuffed with hot air. (Even as evidence of the narrator’s confused state of mind, it doesn’t do much.) Once the hoax came to light, I passed on catching up with the equally acclaimed collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Seems like I dodged a bullet. Jerry Stahl praised Sarah by saying Leroy writes “like Flannery O’Connor tied to the bed and plied with angel dust.” Why did we ever want that?

Let’s Make a Canon

At the Reading Experience, Dan Green is hoping to launch a regular feature dedicated to critical appreciations of American fiction since 1980. This excites me for all the obvious reasons—it could supplant the generally fine but intermittent “In Retrospect” series dedicated to older works, and might even prompt me to start doing more long-form criticism, now that newspaper reviewing doesn’t offer much in the way of that. (When I started doing it a few years back, the standard word count was still around 1,200 words; these days it’s closer to 400.)

I think you and I can both agree on the usual suspects that such a new canon might include—Green’s first choice, Russell BanksAffliction, being one of them. (Wouldn’t Continental Drift be better, though? Anyway.) The list of ten books below is a hasty attempt to propose a few ideas that go beyond the typical choices. In general, they’re all books of relatively recent vintage that I admire but haven’t seen much sustained critical thought about; I’ve clanged a bell for most of them before, here or elsewhere, and I’d be excited to see a smart, precocious critic tackle any one of them.

Laird Hunt, Indiana, Indiana
Daniel Alarcon, Lost City Radio
Nathaniel Rich, The Mayor’s Tongue
Ward Just, Echo House
Sue Miller, The World Below
Adam Langer, Crossing California
JT Leroy, Sarah
Ben Fountain, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara
Carter Scholz, Radiance
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

Not a very diverse list at first glance, I confess. But as I mentioned, it goes without saying that, say, Marilynne Robinson and Edward P. Jones would be on any longlist. Who else?