TIFF films tackle big literary lies but how often are publishers actually duped?

TIFF films tackle big literary lies but how often are publishers actually duped?

TORONTO — You can't believe everything you read: that's the message behind several high-profile films at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Take Keira Knightley in "Colette," about the fin de siècle French author whose husband swiped the credit for her popular "Claudine" book series. Or Melissa McCarthy in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" as writer Lee Israel, who turned to selling forged literary letters when she couldn't get work in celebrity journalism.

Sam Taylor-Johnson directs her husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson in an adaptation of James Frey's drug-addiction memoir "A Million Little Pieces," a book that became even more scandalous when it was disclosed the work was partly fictional — a revelation that rocked Oprah's Book Club.

Closing the festival, "Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy" revisits the bizarre story of Laura Albert, who wrote memoirs in character as a young androgynous male prostitute, JT LeRoy.

Though Hollywood has typecast the publishing industry as a hotbed of hoaxes, Canadian editors say these kinds of literary fake-outs are mostly confined to the movies.

"I don't think that it actually happens that often," says Jen Knoch, senior editor at Toronto-based publisher ECW.

It's not that ECW doesn't publish true stories with fictional elements. They just market those books as fiction, such as Eamon McGrath's "Berlin-Warszawa Express," a thinly veiled tour memoir inspired by the writer's own time gigging through Europe.

Autofiction — work that is essentially autobiographical with some fictional distance — has been increasingly embraced by literary readers. Writer Jordan Tannahill describes his debut novel "Liminal," featuring a protagonist named Jordan who shares much in common with the author, as autofiction.

"I think 'A Million Little Pieces,' if it was contextualized as autofiction, there wouldn't have been that hue and cry," he says of the scandal. "But then it wouldn't have been an Oprah's Book Club book.

"The idea of it being a memoir does catalyze something in the public imagination in a way that the vagaries of autofiction don't. Which is why I think sometimes autofiction can be relegated to a more literary genre."

Though Frey apologists will argue that a good book is a good book, sometimes a story's power comes from its factuality. Knoch says she recently turned down a memoir, about a girl growing up in an abusive household, because the allegations against the author's parents posed too great of a legal and ethical risk. The option to fictionalize it was never even discussed.

"Part of what made it really compelling was the outrageous things that happened to her," Knoch says. "In a novel you might be like, 'Mmm. Not sure that happened.' But in memoir it was kind of astonishing. Part of what made it special were these larger-than-life real experiences that she had."

Elaine McCluskey, non-fiction editor for Halifax-based Nimbus Publishing, the largest Canadian publisher east of Toronto, thinks it would be hard to orchestrate a hoax in Canada as brazen as the one Laura Albert pulled. Albert disguised her sister-in-law Savannah as LeRoy to make public appearances.

"Our authors actually come in to sign their contracts, they come in and meet with us during the process, most of them are on social media," she says. "We develop a personal relationship with our authors."

She's also careful about signing an author who writes under a pseudonym. "I had a book last year that was called a memoir by a woman writing about her affair with a fairly well-known maritime political figure," she says.

"We weren't willing to publish that because we felt (writing under a pseudonym) weakened the book too much. If you're not willing to put your name behind the story, how committed are you to the story? How are you going to promote the book? And is it fair to the other person in the book, the one you're naming?"

Besides, a pseudonym only cloaks so much of a writer's identity. "Colette" illustrates how deeply the French author's Claudine novels, about a country schoolgirl's coming-of-age and sexual awakening, resonated with young women in France, despite her husband Henry 'Willy' Gauthier-Villars' claim to be the sole author.

"It's the diary of a country school girl," director Wash Westmoreland laughs. "The voice is so clearly female."

In this case, the authenticity of Colette's voice could not be silenced. "I think when you read anything you are essentially entering somebody else's brain," Westmoreland says.

"When you read a great writer you feel the power of their intellect and their world view through the words they choose. If you are feeling that is coming from an authentic voice, that will inevitably affect your relationship with a book."

 

— Ryan Porter is a freelance pop-culture writer based in Toronto.

Ryan Porter, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version of this story quoted Jordan Tannahill in paragraph 10 saying "catalogue" when in fact he said "catalyze."