Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Pseudonym Hoax

First off, I should probably define what I think a "hoax" is so people don't get confused and think I'm talking about a "prank" or a "con" - terms that are a little murky. I define a "prank" as a practical joke someone plays on another person for fun and quickly reveals it as a joke. Often times there are prank wars in which people go back and forth playing practical jokes on each other until one gives up because they are either not creative enough or the joke is taken too far and it's no longer funny. A "con" is the next level up from a hoax in the sense that the goal is to gain something, either monetarily or trick people into giving the con artist something. This is a criminal offense and con artists, when they are caught, go to prison A "hoax" is sort of the level in between a prank and a con and it's when the person creating the hoax hides within it and doesn't reveal it as false, someone else has to point it out. This is the case with the JT LeRoy hoax in which the creator, Laura Albert, wrote under a pseudonym of JT LeRoy. In fact, the focus of her stories were this JT LeRoy that she made up and convinced her sister-in-law to pretend to be when in public situations and for interviews. It wasn't until Laura's husband told New York Times that she was really JT and the character never really existed that her identity was revealed to the public. Until then, everyone thought that Laura's sister-in-law really was JT and that he was a real person.

With that in mind, I found this amusing prank about a columnist for Newsday in 1969 who wrote the worst bestselling book in his time. The man's name is Mike McGrady and he wrote under the pseudonym Penelope Ashe, a bored housewife with a rather dirty mind that she apparently needed to share with the public in the form of a fictional smutty book Naked Came the Stranger. McGrady used the help of some of his fellow peers at the paper, having each one wright a chapter for the book with an extreme focus on sex. He then went back through once the manuscript was written and purposely edited it to make it even worse. The book was released in '69 and the role of Penelope Ashe was played by McGrady's sister-in-law who appeared on TV shows, interviews, and at book signings (hint: similar to Laura Albert and JT LeRoy).

Now, the point of this whole production was to show society "the lurid state of the modern bestseller" (think of Fifty Shades of Grey but in the '60's). Instead of just bitching about his disgust to his peers and writing a column about it in Newsday, McGrady wrote the book as an mock example of the trashy reading people were so in to. Unfortunately for McGrady Naked Came the Stranger became insanely popular, selling 20,000 in the first few months. McGrady gave himself up and revealed his point to readers. However, that only seemed to make matters worse for him because the book sold over 100,000 copies by the end of the year and was on the New York Times bestseller list for 13 months. As of 2012 the book had sold over 400,000 copies, mostly to people who were in on the prank and found it entertaining. Also, an x-rated movie was made about the movie, something I'm sure McGrady didn't intend to happen:

The disturbing thing about this prank is that those first 20,000 people who bought the book and didn't know about the joke actually thought it was worth reading and enjoyed it. That first batch of people proved McGrady's point about the deterioration of the great novel into literary pornography. The fact that 400,000 people  have bought the book since it's printing and McGrady's prank was revealed speaks to how people react to pranks. Generally they are pretty funny and can prod at someone's stupidity for falling for them - in this case society was being made fun of. This was pretty harmless fun because who really takes smutty books seriously, anyway? The readers of this genre don't care who wrote them as long as the steamy bits are erotic and there's lots of it. For this exact reason, McGrady wasn't crucified, as Laura Albert was, for his pseudonym and for having someone pretend to be Ashe. That's where Albert went wrong: she played out her hoax for too long and she made huge profit off of it under her guise. People felt betrayed when her identity was finally revealed and her books no longer rang with the truth of real non-fiction.

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