Coal Miner Mother of a Mess

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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.")

At which point we turn to Smirnoff, the Oxford American's editor. At the end of a testy interview, after he questioned my credentials, cut me off several times and told me he had only glanced at the e-mails I had sent to him along with LeRoy's camp, here's what he had to say about running the piece as an essay: "Maybe a newspaper wouldn't be comfortable running a piece like J.T. LeRoy's as an essay -- I wouldn't be comfortable with the lack of fact-checking that goes on at a newspaper," he said. (Thus ignoring that it was a messed-up fact that made me call bullshit on "Coal Miner Mother.") "We have different practices. And this was a literary experiment at a literary magazine, and maybe that's not something you're comfortable with. More power to you. A literary experiment in a literary magazine…That would be my final position on it. But I'm also comfortable with you saying that it should have been a story, or an essay. I think it could have gone either way in a literary magazine. We are not a newspaper."

But we are. And the meaning of words still matters to me, and to pass this off as an essay in an issue of a magazine, literary or not, that was otherwise (save for a couple of poems and a comic strip) given over to nonfiction profiles and true-to-life, plausible essays, smacks of a bad decision at best. At worst, it could be interpreted as a fabrication, a hoax.

What you think of it depends on where you stand on the issue of "true fact" vs. "true fiction."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax