NOW that J T Leroy and James Frey have been busted for duping the public in order to sell second-rate books, the monstrous question of what's fair and foul in fiction and nonfiction has reared its much-bashed head. Asked to referee the ethical contest between the two writers, I'd call J T Leroy a fine little prankster and Mr. Frey a skunk.
Distinguishing between fiction and non- isn't nearly the taxing endeavor some would have us believe. Sexing a chicken is way harder. The nitty-gritty is that the novelist creates events for truthful interpretation, whereas the memoirist tries to honestly interpret events plagiarized from reality. And here's how readers know the difference: the label slapped on the jacket of the book.
J T Leroy's work was packaged as fiction, though alluded to as fact. If readers bought the Leroy novel "Sarah" - which tells the story of a young boy whose hooker mom dressed him as a girl and sold him to truckers - because it was allegedly autobiographical, well, they still got what they ponied up for. It's a melodramatic gallop through the psychic landscape of someone blurring the boundaries of gender and identity.
Some years back, Mr. Leroy weaseled me into taking a call by dropping Mary Gaitskill's name. But he dropped the literary pretext right off. He didn't read the books I suggested, and instead asked advice about his addictions or the kid he claimed to be raising with a couple who had "adopted" him. He bragged a lot about meeting celebrities like Gus Van Sant and Diane Keaton. He was flattering and coquettish and pathologically indirect.
But while Mr. Leroy was besotted with the news media, he was skittish about scrutiny, and initially, refused to be photographed or give readings. The only time I saw him, at a reading in a packed Soho gallery, he shyly mounted the stage for a few minutes, then let the likes of Nancy Sinatra and Lou Reed do the reading he was "too timid" too undertake (this from somebody wearing a platinum wig the average drag queen would dust furniture with and a flamenco-esque hat like the one Michael Jackson flaunted in his "Black or White" video).
In the end, Mr. Leroy's whole enterprise was predicated on the tenets of drag - lots of veils and subterfuge. It also played on the desire of readers to confuse author with character, a fallacy that permits fans of J. D. Salinger, for example, to believe that he really is Holden Caulfield. So it's fitting somehow that "J T Leroy" turned out to be a mirage.
In nonfiction, though, there's a different contract with the reader: you don't make stuff up. That's the cardinal rule James Frey broke when he embellished his criminal history in his memoir "A Million Little Pieces." (One example: three months in the joint, reporters found, was actually a few unchained hours in an Ohio police station.)
Now, Mr. Frey wants us to believe that the forms of fiction and nonfiction are so intertwined we can't distinguish between them.
In an interview last week, Larry King asked Mr. Frey why he shopped "A Million Little Pieces" around as a novel, but published it as a memoir. Instead of answering directly, Mr. Frey asserted that his book was in the American literary tradition of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Bukowski and Kerouac.
When Mr. King noted they all wrote fiction, Mr. Frey countered: "At the time of their books being published, the genre of memoir didn't exist." Forget St. Augustine and the intervening 16 centuries of autobiography.
In fact, Mr. Frey seems never to have read a memoir, or at least not one he found worthy of mention. "Memoirs don't generally come under the type of scrutiny that mine has," Mr. Frey whined during the interview.
But memoirs should always come under scrutiny: by their authors, as the books are being written.
I fell in love with memoir when I read Helen Keller's in fourth grade; had it turned out she was merely nearsighted, not deaf, blind and mute, my bubble might have popped.
And now, writing my own memoirs, I know God is in the truth. Only by studying actual events and questioning your own motives will the complex inner truths ever emerge from the darkness. I tell aspiring memoirists, if you're the kind of person who can't apologize, who digs in, trusts only the first impulse, then this won't be your form. The convenient sound bites into which I store my sense of self are rarely accurate - whose are? They have to be unpacked and pecked at - warily, with unalloyed suspicion. You must testify and recant, type and delete.
Mary Karr, a professor of literature at Syracuse University, is the author of "The Liars' Club," a memoir, and the forthcoming "Sinners Welcome."