Behind the safety of anonymity and pseudonyms, hundreds of authors have written things that they could otherwise have not said. Most authors during the 18th, 19th and the 20th centuries resorted to using pseudonyms when dealing with issues that were considered morally reprehensible. This included topics such as homosexuality, prostitution and even witchcraft!
Many of these authors who chose to use anonymity were women, and that was quite understandable during those days when it was almost blasphemous for a woman to speak out her mind. Many authors have continued to write under names that do not belong to them, even today, mostly because they choose to remain anonymous. While anonymity is always valued by many, it suddenly becomes problem to critics and readers themselves when the author that they assumed to exist, is simply fictitious too, just like the books they read.
Many of these so called scams happen under the close scrutiny of the publisher and also due to the careful hiding of identity by the writers themselves. In a world where anonymity and privacy is valued more than economic well being, it should be rather surprising to learn that most literary critics and readers are either disappointed or confused when they realize that a writer is not who they thought he or she was, but someone else writing behind the screen. Thus, pseudonyms have become a dirty word today. The disgust, hate and scorn in the literary world towards those who use pseudonyms was most evident in the case of JT Leroy, who was later found out to be Laura Albert.
JT Leroy was a male writer, who wrote short stories and novels about male child sex abuse, male prostitution, drug addiction among hustlers and stories that reveal the unpleasant side of being born a boy. Most assumed that JT Leroy was himself abused as a child and the stories he wrote were projections of his childhood experiences, and thus were greatly valued and admired for their authenticity. However, it should be remembered that the author never claimed these stories to be personal accounts, and that they were fictitious.
“Sarah” tells the story of a 12 year old boy who wishes to become the “biggest lot lizard” just like his mother, and begins to dress like a girl. He runs away from the relative safety of the pimp he works with, and goes to the rival pimp who finds the gender of Cherry Vanilla aka Jeremiah to be a boy, and violates him for a year. The boy finally comes back to the relative safety of the previous pimp, only to find out that his mother has left. Most of the stories that JT Leroy narrates have a Dickensian feel to them, and bring to surface issues about the bitter experiences that many boys face, and experiences which are not spoken about, because “such things do not happen to boys”.
These stories were however admired until it was found out that JT Leroy did not exist, and it was Laura Albert who wrote under a male name. She was deemed to be a hoax, a poseur and someone who should not even be taken seriously. Laura maintained that it was a “veil” rather than a “hoax” as most critics put it. She was able to tell the stories of boys and the downtrodden, in an authentic manner which may perhaps not have sounded authentic if she used her own name. Moreover, she could not tell many of the stories she wrote, if she used her real name!
JT Leroy has been greatly admired by most litterateurs, even after being found out. Laura Albert had signed legal papers in the name of JT Leroy, and that landed her into legal complications and was convicted of fraud. She paid reparations and gained a lot of negative publicity. While it is “OK” for people in other fields to maintain anonymity, it becomes an issue when writers choose to do so for their own reasons.
It is perhaps a great crime among the critics and the readers, who take contextual reading a tad more seriously than it should be.
An Interview with Laura Albert aka JT Leroy