Friday, April 13, 2007

Where do you stand on the David Sedaris controversy?

Who's asking: Bill Walsh, Washington, DC

The March 19 issue of The New Republic included an article called "This American Lie," by Alex Heard (the article's restricted to subscribers, but the first page is free content, and that will give you the gist). Heard, a fan of David Sedaris's essays, had gone through each of Sedaris's books and fact-checked them -- and found that not only had Sedaris exaggerated, on several occasions he just made stuff up.

The problem with this is that Sedaris presents his work as autobiographical essays, and his publisher sells the books as nonfiction. Should Sedaris, then, be subject to the same kind of public criticism and publishing retractions that James Frey endured?

My knee-jerk reaction is "Of course not, don't be silly," but it's interesting to look at the broader questions Heard's article raises.

Memoirs are tricky. Translating a series of events into a narrative assigns causation and motive where they may not have existed, and gives the narrator a central role not only in his or her own life, but also in the lives of others -- who might not even have been paying attention to the narrator at the time. We're all the stars of our own life stories, of course, but that turns the people around us into supporting characters, and that always makes me uncomfortable.

David Sedaris walks this line almost as well as anyone could. He's a storyteller and humorist who never tells a story without a point, even if the point is just a punch line. His essays are funny, sad, angry, bitter, and compassionate, sometimes all in the same paragraph. He's mellowed in his tolerance for his own shortcomings, as well as others', but he's still just as hard on himself as he is on anyone else he writes about.

It never occurred to me that Sedaris's essays were the literal truth. I've always assumed that he exaggerates for effect, and riffs on the humdrum to emphasize the absurd. The David Sedaris character in his essays is just that, a character, and I don't have any idea of how closely that character resembles the real man.

So should his books be sold as non-fiction? I assume they wound up there because they're written as essays, rather than as short stories. Essays get filed under non-fiction. Maybe they ought to be classified as poetry, since they serve a similar purpose -- shaping reality to suit the aims of a larger truth.

How is this different from James Frey's transgressions? That's harder to say. I'm afraid my own truth here is that I like David Sedaris's writing, and detest James Frey's; also, David Sedaris seems like someone I'd want to know, while James Frey seems like a few people I have known whose acquaintance I've regretted.

Rationalizations aside, though, it's a matter of degree and a matter of self-presentation. David Sedaris doesn't pretend to have found any answers; his haplessness is his primary subject matter. He doesn't set himself up as a role model, and I've never heard anyone say that a David Sedaris book changed their life. He never made the claims James Frey made, and therefore it matters less that these essays aren't the literal truth.

It worries me a little that I'm so much more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to people I like -- or whose work I like -- but don't we all? This is the nature of our American culture, for better or worse. If we tried to enforce rigid rules about it, we might as well be living in a theocracy.

What I Read This Week

Gregg Hurwitz, The Crime Writer. Hurwitz (who's a friend of mine) takes big risks with this standalone, the story of crime novelist and convicted murderer Andrew Danner. Danner was found guilty but insane in the murder of his ex-fiancee; police caught him standing over her stabbed corpse, having a seizure caused by a brain tumor. Danner has no memory of that night, and feels a desperate need to find out what really happened -- especially when another woman is killed in a similar way, and trace evidence puts Danner at the scene of that crime, too. The Crime Writer does not flinch from uncomfortable questions about cannibalizing one's own life and manipulating characters to create a story. It's a fascinating look at the writing process as well as a compelling thriller, and a major step forward for Gregg, who was doing pretty well already. I read an advance copy; the book comes out in July.

3 comments: said...

I’m with you on the Sedaris of it all – I always assumed he massively exaggerated. And I don't care. However, I cut Frey more slack. I think the real culprit there is the American public (and publicity machine) which is so desperate for nonfiction, or at least based-on-a-true-story-ness. Who cares? The book either worked or it didn’t. It didn’t un-change people’s lives when they discovered that Frey spent 2 days in jail instead of 30. It makes me wonder re: books like Night or The Painted Bird, the events in which may well be blurred by memory, trauma, and creative license (not that Frey is on par here, but I'm sayin'). I think everyone should give The Things They Carried a good read for all the ways fiction isn't and true stories aren't. Fiction is sometimes more honest and real. And non-fiction is written by those with pub contracts...In any event, thanks for another delightful post -- and for your kind words on The Crime Writer.

AnswerGirl said...

Yes, THE PAINTED BIRD is a good example of how fuzzy this gets: a book published as a novel, assumed to be memoir, which seems to have been based on several different people's experiences, or perhaps just imagined -- but is nevertheless one of the most horrifying, powerful, truthful indictments of human nature ever written.

As an Irish Catholic, I've always been comfortable with the idea that some things are true even if they never really happened.

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

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