Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gender Studies & Faking It

Day 15 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. (Don't forget to comment on the "why" part, here and in any previous entry!!)

Tom is reading Misfortune, by Wesley Stace, about a boy raised as a girl in the 19th century. A man finds a baby in a trash heap (where, alas, we know babies to be left even today) and brings it home. I say "it" because the baby boy is presented to the world as a baby girl...for as long as that deception can hold.

Turns out the novelist Wesley Stace is actually the musician John Wesley Harding, which is not so much a deception as a pseudonym, something writers are known sometimes to choose. At the above link to an Amazon page, you can listen to 3 of the songs he connects to the book, which winds music into the plot.

Deception and gender-bending identity are, however, crucial to the book Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy by Savannah Knoop. Knoop, a woman, pretended to be JT LeRoy, a transgendered man, enjoying six years of glamor and celebrity as a hip novelist before being exposed. The novels attributed to LeRoy were really written by Laura Albert, Knoop's sister-in-law, and it's not hard to imagine why two people looking for a way to survive as writers in our celebrity-driven fast-food culture might come up with a scam like this one. Sigh... And, indeed, "faking it" doesn't seem to have hurt Knoop too much. She has her own author page at Amazon, where we learn she is now designing clothes in San Francisco.

I learned about JT and company in the current issue of The Common Review, the magazine of the Great Books Foundation, where the Knoop book is reviewed by Krista Eastman, so I know what she's been reading! In the same article she reviewed Fakers, Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders by Paul Maliszewski, and her review mentions Stephen Glass, who fabricated articles for The New Republic and about whom a movie was made, Shattered Glass, a great title, featuring Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, Steve Zahn, Melanie Lynskey, and Hank Azaria.

I actually own this film, and several others about writers, acquired for teaching a course on writers and their lives, and another on famous plagiarism/fabrication cases. I mentioned this plagiarism course in an earlier blog entry about Rick Bragg, whom commenter NobleSavage called "a known fake." I think it is indeed well known that Bragg left the New York Times because he did what he did, which was use the eye-witness reporting of a stringer as if it were his own eye-witnessing, without crediting the stringer. In reading further about that case, I discovered, however icky this is, that it was common practice then at the NYT not to credit interns and stringers for their contributions, and that Bragg wasn't the only one who did this. He was the one who did this and got called on it, so he resigned. After the Jayson Blair scandal, which did involve "faking it," or fabricating his supposed journalism, the New York Times changed its practices. But by then Blair had brought down his higher-ups, and Bragg had brought himself down.

To learn more about the Bragg scandal, check out this article by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post, one of the early reports, and, of course, Wikipedia!

Or, to have more fun than that, read Misfortune or Girl Boy Girl, or another book about "faking it."

But back to gender studies! Like Garrison Keillor in today's Writer's Almanac, I say Happy Birthday to Judith Butler, who writes about gender and identity and, sometimes, the inherent comedy of sexual positions!


Karen said...

On the gender identity front- have you read about this ?

JulieK said...

The Maliszewski book sounds fascinating. Must pick up! I think I've told you that Scott has an ancestor (not direct -- great-great-uncle, I think, although it may need another great) who was a huge con man, running something like The Sting for years until he was put away by a crusading DA not unlike Elliott Ness. I always have been intrigued by cons and con men, and the internet makes Masilewski's kind of fakery so much easier, because you can reinvent yourself any number of times. And change your gender if you feel like it or if it will make you fit in better with whatever group you're trying to cozy up to. It's both frightening and fascinating that there are people who get some kind of kick out of fooling naive people on the internet or bookbuyers or newspaper readers or whoever.