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Thursday, April 5, 2007 1:56 pm
News Flash: Sedaris a Poor Journalist
Posted by: Keir Graff

In The New Republic, Alex Heard rakes the hot coals under our favorite elf (“This American Lie“):

Over the years, as I watched other nonfiction writers go down in flames–Frey, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, the “monkeyfishing” guy at Slate–I wondered why no one had checked on America’s favorite nonfiction imp. So I decided to do it myself. The trail was long and fascinating, and it led me to a larger question: whether “nonfiction” means anything when you’re talking about humor writers who admit to flubberizing the truth for comic effect.

A: No. 

I admit to sharing Heard’s concern that too many memoirs are made-up these days, but I’m flabbergasted to find David Sedaris in the same paragraph as Frey, Glass, and Blair. The distinction is that key word in the third sentence: humor. Yes, allowing people to make stuff up under the rubric of nonfiction when they’re making us laugh — but not when they’re making us cry – may lead to a sort of ”I know it when I see it” legal distinction, but it works for me. James Frey’s tawdry tale relied on the “true story” tag to hold our interest. Worse, Glass and Blair made stuff up and called it news. But if anyone’s using Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim as primary source material for school papers, they’ve got bigger problems than the author’s I’ll-call-you-sometime relationship with the truth.

What’s really startling is that Heard was surprised to learn that Sedaris’ exaggerations went beyond emphasis and dialog. Did he actually think that Sedaris’ real life is as crazy as a cartoon?

Of course it isn’t. Then why call it nonfiction? The nature of Sedaris’ humor relies on his ability to write in the first-person and to use his own life as the springboard — calling it fiction, even though we know it’s mostly made-up — just feels wrong.

(One could argue that making James Frey use a “novel” designator on his books would have robbed them of the urgency that made people want to read them, and one would be right: we don’t need them as novels or memoirs.)

In the San Francisco Chronicle (“Public’s taste for nonfiction has publishers playing fast and loose with labels“), Oscar Villalon writes that “there’s no excuse for calling a work containing chunks of fiction nonfiction.” Again, I think context makes a big difference, but I do agree with his conclusion:

All this legerdemain over categorizing books implies that there’s something second-rate about writing and reading fiction. It’s one thing if the public believes that, but it’s entirely another when publishers, agents and writers say as much through their actions. They need to acknowledge that’s the lie their “truth” is pushing.

I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, I only read nonfiction” — or words to that effect — as if saying, “Novels are nice if you’re the kind of person who likes fairies and dragons, but I prefer to educate myself.”

These people deserve a nonfictional punch in the nose. Clearly they haven’t read works like What Is the WhatThe Echo Maker, and Acts of Faith — all novels that are more challenging and thought-provoking than they are avenues of escape. (Not that there’s anything wrong with reading for escape, either.) Moreover, given the constant march of made-up memoirs, maybe theses nonfiction snobs should question their assumption that what they’re reading is factual.

If I hadn’t gone on so long already, I’d make a grand, sweeping statement about how the public’s appetite for nonfiction is tied to the reality-TV phenomenon, which is the result of a sucking emptiness at the center of many people’s lives and is expressed in the desperate desire to make connections with other people, any people, who are somehow perceived as more “real” than we are — but it’s late, so I won’t.

There’s room on my shelf for fiction and nonfiction, and if someone’s trying to make me laugh instead of trying to put one over on me, I don’t really care what they call it.



7 Responses to “News Flash: Sedaris a Poor Journalist”
  1. Dawn Says:

    Gee, you don’t think Dave Barry is telling lies either do you? Or that Erma Bombeck’s house was actually clean? Golly, my assumptions about the truth behind humorous personal essays now lay in tatters! /sarcasm mode off

  2. Keir Says:

    If Dave Barry can’t be trusted, then I just don’t know what to think anymore. What kind of a world is it when a humorist has to make stuff up in order to make us laugh? Just look around and there’s plenty of factual stuff to work with: global warming, terrorism, over-zealous magazine journalists….

  3. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » Sedaris Speaks Says:

    [...] Last night at the Chicago Theater, David Sedaris showed his awareness of the fact-or-fiction controversy by beginning his performance with a disclaimer. He noted that, indeed, not all of the details in the work he would be reading were true–one name had been changed to avoid confusing listeners, and a line of dialog had been rephrased for emphasis. Other than that, he said, everything else was factual. [...]

  4. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » You know what else is funny? A guy getting hit in the nuts. Says:

    [...] On Slate (”Defenders“), Jack Shafer defends Alex Heard against all those people who are defending David Sedaris. Shafer especially takes issue with the notion that sometimes fiction makes facts funnier: Jon Carroll thinks humorists require “latitude” to make things funny, a notion I find bogus. I find stories that are absolutely true—like the time one of my neighbors, dressed up to party on Saturday night, fell into a 55-gallon drum filled with human excrement and urine—the funniest. [...]

  5. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Fiction vs. Nonfiction Factionalism Says:

    [...] This is all to say nothing of the real-versus-fake issue facing memoir, about which enough has been said already to last us until 2009. [...]

  6. Kit Barber Says:

    I know some of Sedaris’ family. Having heard their version of events, and the damage he has done to them in a variety of ways, I will never again find anything Sedaris writes to be humorous. These are real people with real lives and the same last name as David, but he shares nothing else with them–especially the money he made from their lives. It is NOT non-fiction.

  7. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » 2008 » March » 03 Says:

    [...] Is it more depressing when fake memoirs deal with the heavy subjects than trivial matters? Certainly. Though there are exceptions, most people aren’t as angry at an author when they learn his wacky family wasn’t quite as wacky as depicted as they are when they learn that his empathy-earning tale of woe was manufactured. [...]

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