Sedaris Gets “Realish”

May 17, 2012 § 12 Comments

Back when Mike Daisey’s stretching of the truth on “This American Life” was all over the blogs and airwaves, more than a few of us raised our eyebrows and asked, “What about Sedaris?”  Even without investigation, it seemed obvious that David Sedaris stretches his truth regularly, not to deceive so much as to amuse. This is what humorists have done, of course, as far back as Twain, and no doubt further.

But if “This American Life” is “journalism,” then how does humor writing fit?  The New Yorker manages to make the distinction nicely enough.  Is it just another question of “truth in labeling.”

Here’s an excerpt from the recent Washington Post article on the subject:

The immediate question is whether Sedaris’s stories are, strictly speaking, true — an important consideration for journalistic organizations such as NPR and programs such as “This American Life.” A secondary consideration is what, if any, kind of disclosure such programs owe their listeners when broadcasting Sedaris’s brand of humor.

Then there’s this: Does it matter whether a humorous writer, working on a news or nonfiction program, makes stuff up?

Unlike a stand-up comedian or a comic literary stylist such as James Thurber, who engaged in obviously implausible situations, Sedaris’s stories fall into a gray area. They are rooted in real events and populated by presumably real people, with their humor derived from Sedaris’s comic “voice.” These exaggerations and comic interjections are evident to a listener or reader, and Sedaris has attested that they are essentially autobiographical. His best-selling books, such as “Naked” and “Barrel Fever,” have been sold as nonfiction.

Except it’s not that simple.

In a lengthy investigative article for New Republic magazine in 2007, writer Alex Heard fact-checked Sedaris’s output and found that he had invented characters and concocted important scenes in some pieces. In one story, for example, Sedaris described working as an orderly in a mental hospital with a co-worker named Clarence. Although Sedaris had once volunteered in the hospital, he told Heard that he hadn’t been an orderly and that Clarence was imaginary. The magazine titled Heard’s article “This American Lie.”

According to Heard, Sedaris also invented parts of a story called “SantaLand Diaries,” about his Christmastime experiences working at Macy’s. The story has become one of NPR’s most requested features and has been replayed on the daily “Morning Edition” program every year around Christmas since 2004.

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§ 12 Responses to Sedaris Gets “Realish”

  • Bob Cowser says:

    Sedaris just isn’t an essayist. Funny as Hades, richer than Midas, yes. But not an essayist.

  • Max says:

    Once again this is a complicated issue, hard to parse in sound bites. I wouldn’t want to cramp anyone’s style in order to verify all the little parts of a piece. At a certain point, I just don’t care about the labeling. I care about what is good and will last. Now Sedaris isn’t always good by a long shot, but his work will last long past all the fact finders. I don’t want exaggeration and humor and wild creation to fall out of the large and inclusive category we call essay. I like the performative elements of Sedaris and other essayists. There’s a place for that too. He probably didn’t lick all those door knobs on his way to and from school. Got it.

  • With great respect to Bob, I’d argue that if “Sedaris just isn’t an essayist” because he makes stuff up, then we’d have to disown a whole slew of past essayists who were also tall-tale-tellers, starting with Charles Lamb and including James Thurber. I can only read this sentence–“Unlike a stand-up comedian or a comic literary stylist such as James Thurber, who engaged in obviously implausible situations, Sedaris’s stories fall into a gray area.”–as the sloppy work of a journalist who can’t be bothered to actually name the distinctions between Thurber and Sedaris. I’m no Thurber scholar, but I’ve read my share, and he was doing the exact same kind of truth-fiddling that Sedaris does. Now, Bob, if Sedaris isn’t an essayist because he mostly tells stories instead of essaying ideas, then I mostly agree. But I’m glad he accepts the term “essayist,” because then people aren’t so afraid of it.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Manufactured outrage — all of it. This constant harping and fine-tune criticizing, parsing out of what it means to be non-fiction, fiction, made up, not made up is enervating at best and completely ridiculous at worst. David Sedaris writes and makes most of the world laugh until the souls are purged clean — I personally don’t give a damn whether he’s made it up or not.

  • Personally I give humorists wide latitude. This issue is important to monitor, but we can strain at gnats. Readers surely know Sedaris exaggerates—how could he not; and the work informs them so—life just isn’t that funny. What Daisey did was to offer his work as journalism, and investigative journalism at that. Journalism often goes after people and corporations and government; it must be beyond factual reproach to be fair, and because its targets then go after it. If a journalist gets even a minor fact wrong, his authority is weakened and that will be used against the piece, even if it is accurate overall and in the larger sense.

  • angela says:

    I’m now wracking my brain trying to remember where we catalogue Sedaris in the library….essay or humor. Santaland Diaries and TAL seem of the same bent…framed in truth, but the facade certainly has been shaped to garner a certain curb appel. Since it IS NPR, it seems there should be some type of disclaimer…though, it does air on the weekend, ergo, mentally I’ve tagged it as humor with the other weekend shtick~

    • cmmp says:

      I think you’re right… and no one is having to wring the Truth out of Sedaris which, if he didn’t offer it up, would change the experience of his work.

  • Julie Reiser says:

    Personally, I love Sedaris and Burroughs and all those others who hover, however juicily and problematically, above this awkward line. Maybe we just need to invent a new category that fits this kind of writing rather than trying to beat it up for not fitting some old, crusty label. “Semi-fiction,” anyone?

    • Max says:

      New categories is a possibility, though speaking for myself I’d prefer to think of the essay as fluid and large enough to contain the kinds of essays Sedaris and others have historically written. So i suppose I’m aligning myself with Patrick Madden’s earlier comment. And that’s good sense.

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  • Swarlos says:

    I think I have to agree that the writing of Sedaris is never really presented as fact on This American Life. If you listen to what Sedaris is saying it becomes pretty clear to any reasonable listener/reader that what he is saying is at least an inflated version of the truth…such is the way of humorists of his ilk. There just isn’t enough funny things happening in a person’s life to be able to make it a living as Sedaris and others have. I agree with the earlier commenter that maybe there should be a new genre created called semi-non-fiction or some other variant of the name there of. The issue that arose out of the Daisy story is that it was presented as truth. I think that this is the normal case with This American Life. When they are reporting, they seem to very clearly put the reporter hat on, and it can be understood by the average listener. When Sedaris and other contributors provide pieces that are clearly only meant to entertain rather than inform, again, this hat is put on very plainly if not out right stated. Looking at these sort of issues with a popular literary source such as This American Life is important, but going too far with this analysis won’t help anyone either.

  • says:

    As a person that is interested in getting into the field of CNF, this BLOG is confusing to me. I can appreciate the humor of Sadaris and have thought that writing in this style would be of interest to me. What would Moore prefer this type of essay to be categorized under? Life is full of horrific events, but in order to work our way through them humor is valuable to some of us. I’m being taught that in memoirs most of the topic is falsified memories as others that may have experienced the same event have a different perspective. Exaggeration of the truth may “represent our individual emotional truths” (Kim Barnes). Sadaris has his own unique voice and his own unique emotional truths, in reading his essays I for one appreciate the exaggeration from his perspective and would hope for nothing less from him. Creative nonfiction is the essence of his pieces with humor added. Please don’t try to take that away from other writers that would like to fashion themselves after such an ingenious writer.

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