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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