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Court rules that authorial persona was fraud

A jury has decided that author Laura Albert’s use of the alter ego/pseudonym JT LeRoy constitutes fraud, The New York Times reports.

Albert published her novel Sarah in 2000 under the assumed name of JT LeRoy, who was purported to be the son of a truck-stop prostitute; Albert even paid a friend to appear as LeRoy. Antidote International Films bought the rights for the book in 2003, but after discovering that LeRoy did not exist, sued to get back its option money plus damages. Last week, the court ordered Albert to pay the company $116,500 (U.S.).

The trial did, however, bring up some interesting questions of art and commerce that a separate article in The Times pointed out were “perhaps better suited to The Paris Review than the federal courts.”

Antidote’s chief lawyer, Gregory Curtner, argued in court: “We bought the identity of the book’s author.” And the Times article says that Curtner “meant JT LeRoy’s identity, which, with its alluring elements of poverty and prostitution, was perhaps more valuable than the book itself.”

Defence lawyers have countered that for Albert, who has a history of psychopathology and sexual abuse, “JT LeRoy was not an ordinary nom de plume in the Mark Twain-Samuel Clemens mold but a fictional necessity, a sort of imaginary survival apparatus that allowed her both to write and to breathe.”

But there may be hope for a happy ending yet:

It is within reason to assume that the commercial value of “Sarah” will rise on the force of the publicity the book has received at trial. There is, however, another situation that might inflate its value even more.

Steven Shainberg, the proposed director of the film, testified that when he learned who had truly written “Sarah” an inspiration came to him to make a “meta-film,” a triple-layered movie that would blend the novel with the lives of its real and purported authors in a project he took to calling “Sarah Plus.”

If the meta-film works, it could be a win-win situation. Author and filmmakers will at get their film, and viewers get to see something Charlie Kaufmanesque instead of a movie of the week. In the meanwhile, Albert has a hefty fine to pay.