Last week, David Sedaris’ new book of stories, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, was released amid mild controversy about whether his humorous “nonfiction” tales were marred by truth-bending exaggeration. Last April, Jack Shafer examined the question of fictitious elements in Sedaris’ writing and said he was skeptical ofthe justifications used by many of the humorist’s supporters. The article is reprinted below.
When Alex Heard tenderly busted David Sedaris in the New Republic last month for adulterating his nonfiction with many imagined settings, scenes, and dialogue, I expected journalists and others to rebuke the best-selling humorist. As for Sedaris, I expected him to acknowledge that he had erred by making up stuff, but those days were behind him.
I was wrong.
Instead, Sedaris found many allies in the press. The Washington Post’sPeter Carlson called the New Republic piece “truly ridiculous,” and suggested that Heard launch similar investigations into the works of James Thurber, Mark Twain, and Bill Cosby. “Exaggeration and embellishment are what allow humor to suggest larger truths,” wrote J. Peder Zane in the Raleigh News & Observer. Columnist Jon Carroll agreed in the San Francisco Chronicle: “A humorist has lots of latitude because funny things don’t usually write funny.” Writing in his Webzine, RU Sirius, who mistakenly identified Tad Friend as the author of the Sedaris piece, warned against “judging creative, funny storytellers by the strict standards we should apply to politicians.”
Sedaris, for one, exhibited no regrets in his discussion with a Newsdayreporter at the end of March. “I still stand by what I wrote,” he said. He dismisses Heard without disputing so much as one of the article’s findings, saying, “I’m probably lucky the person who wrote it is so incompetent.”
Sedaris and company want to erect a penumbra that shields humorists from criticism when they blend fiction into their nonfiction but still insist on calling it nonfiction. The logic behind this is difficult to follow. If writing fiction is the license Sedaris and other nonfiction humorists need to get at “larger truths,” why limit this exemption to humorists? Let reporters covering city hall, war, and business to embellish and exaggerate so they can capture “larger truths,” too. I’m sure that Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Christopher Newton, and Slate’s “monkeyfishing guy” would back this idea, especially if applied retroactively.
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.
In one of the most sensible pieces yet published about the Sedaris affair, San Francisco Chroniclebook editor Oscar Villalon offered that Steve Martin and Woody Allen find a way to be funny while working under the fiction label. He seemed to be implying that if Sedaris wants to use his full-blown imagination on making people laugh, he should go ahead and do it.
So, why has Sedaris added fiction to so much of his nonfiction? Villalon asserts that 1) nonfiction sells better than fiction and 2) believable fiction—never mind funny fiction—is incredibly difficult to pull off. The easiest way out for a writer is to spice his nonfiction with just a little fiction to sharpen the story and make it more entertaining. This appears to be Sedaris’ method. As Heard’s piece explains—some of Sedaris’ pieces aren’t funny unless leavened with fiction, notably “Giant Dream, Midget Abilities” and “Go Carolina” from Me Talk Pretty One Day. Writes Heard, “Indeed, if Sedaris hadn’t made up significant events and dialogue in these pieces, he wouldn’t have had ‘nonfiction’ stories to tell.”
I took seriously Peter Carlson’s sarcastic suggestion that Heard next investigate the work of Thurber, Twain, and Cosby for evidence that they made up stuff by looking into Thurber’s work. After a little puttering around in Nexis, I confirmed that members of his family objected to the treatment they received in the nonfiction pieces he wrote about them for The New Yorker in the early 1950s. Oblivious to the “latitude” humorists require or the “larger truths” they hunt, Thurber’s kin protested. Before the pieces were incorporated into 1952’s The Thurber Album, the humorist pacified his family with changes, writes Robert Gottlieb in a Sept. 8, 2003, New Yorker essay.
Sedaris has long insisted that his nonfiction stories are both true and exaggerated, which when you think about it is impossible. But you’ve got to give him credit for choosing the word “exaggerated”—it gives a writer all the indemnification he needs against charges that he’s fabricated. Made-up dialogue? It’s an exaggeration. A made-up scene? It’s just an embellishment. An altered setting? Hyperbole!
Sedaris may be leading in the war of words today, but his real test has yet to come. Most of the pieces cited by Heard come from an earlier part of Sedaris’ career, before he was such a regular contributor to The New Yorker, which fact-checks even conjunctions, articles, and prepositions. If “exaggerating” is as innocent as he makes it out to be, he’ll eventually revert to the practice because, as he avers, there’s nothing wrong with it. But if all of his future pieces are 100 percent verifiable, we’ll know where he really stands.