Coal Miner Mother of a Mess

In which we call bullshit on J.T. LeRoy's "essay" in the Oxford American's music issue

Wait a minute, I suddenly thought. What the hell is a Publix store? Like I said, I lived in Nashville before, during and after that period, and I had never heard of such an animal. I guessed that it was a supermarket, and I knew that to this day, liquor was unobtainable at Tennessee grocery stores. Turns out Publix is a grocery store chain -- but until 1990 it was confined to Florida. (According to a Publix spokesperson, the chain opened its first Tennessee store in late 2002.) It was a telling misstep -- while he never specified the names of any of the bars Sarah sang in, the stripper dives she pole-danced in, the motels they stayed at, or where the shotgun-toting record store clerks were, LeRoy did manage to screw up one of the only specific places he mentioned.

A few days later, via e-mail, I confronted LeRoy and Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff with my doubts. How could such a preposterous, uncorroboratable tale, wherein one of the only two businesses mentioned by name did not check out, be passed off as "an essay" and not fiction? Within hours, I was ladled the following e-mailed dollop of mushy condescension from LeRoy's camp.

Hi John,

J.T.'s in LA right now and away from his computer. This is his assistant, Nancy. Having worked with J.T. for 4 years, I am confident that I can speak for him regarding your questions.

If you were to look at J.T.'s works, you would find that all of them are published as fiction, even those pieces that are very close to his actual experiences. This is because J.T. doesn't really believe in the concept of true fact and true fiction. The way he sees it, any event that occurs is subject to interpretation from the person involved with it. Two people may be in the exact same situation but take entirely different memories away from it, depending on what they bring to the table and their own personality. Likewise, a writer always weaves parts of his/her life experiences, opinions, thoughts, small noted details, in short, everything that they are and have been, into their writing. It would be unnatural not to do that.

So, you see? No true fact or fiction.

J.T. has, surprisingly, been asked this kind of question about his book, Sarah, which, like all his work, has a foot in reality. He has replied to these folks that yes, much of the folklore is true and he was a lot lizard in West Virginia and that ramps are a celebrated food there but he never really walked on water. It's the genre called "magical realism."

J.T. is a story teller. In my opinion, his works do everything that good writing should: they captivate, move me to tears and laughter, uplift me and fill me with wonder. I am always the better for having read and digested his words. I, of course, am not alone here. In fact, J.T. is guest editor of this year's Da Capo's Best Music Writing of 2005. Paul Bresnick, the editor of many books in this series, upon receiving his copy of the Oxford American, replied:

"BTW, I really liked your piece in the music issue of the Oxford American. It'll definitely make the first cut for next year's BEST MUSIC WRITING."

I've always felt that the main measure of a piece of writing is how much a reader enjoys it, is made to think and to feel. However, if your reliance on the facts precludes your appreciation of J.T.'s Loretta Lynn piece, I guess there's not too much we can do about that.

Please send us a copy of your story. I know J.T. would find it interesting reading.

Warm regards,
Nancy Murdock
J.T.'s assistant

Wow, a total cave-in. I replied to it thusly:

Seen Rashomon, have we?

I'm familiar with the whole concept of subjective reality and all that. And when LeRoy engages in magic realism and flights of fancy in his memoiristic fiction, that's fine, so long as it's labeled as fiction. I don't care if J.T. lived every line of his novels and short stories or not.

But when it's labeled as "an essay" in a magazine that is entirely given over to nonfiction articles (with the exception of a comic strip or two and some poetry)…That's another matter. It just seems like lying to me. But then again I am a facts-bound music writer and thus, evidently, unlikely ever to be included in any Da Capo anthologies.

And yet to a certain degree, I could see Murdock's (or LeRoy's, or whoever it was who sent that e-mail) point. By a broad definition of "essay" -- say, this one: "a short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author," which I got off -- "Coal Miner Mother" would pass muster. It certainly would in LeRoy's worldview, where words have no meanings save for those we apply to them individually. But still, most of us lowly, uncreative types -- those of us who are yet bound to the surly bonds of facts and can't quite touch the face of God -- would agree that this story surely should have been labeled "fiction." (Or better yet, to my eye, anyway, "a parody of Southern Gothic fiction.")

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