When the facts get in the way of a good tale

June 23, 2008

David Sedaris is a hugely successful humorist who has been pushed into a revealing literary mini-scandal after The New Republic ran a long article that concluded that his best-selling books, which he characterizes as factual, make notable use of fabrication.

The make-believe varied. The music teacher Sedaris recalls as a homophobic midget probably wasn’t. His summer job at a state mental hospital could not have been the harrowing ordeal he described. His siblings, the article suggests, don’t recognize some of the loony anecdotage in which they figure. And so forth.
“Most of his crimes are petty, making him a nonfiction juvenile delinquent rather than a frogwalk-worthy felon,” the article’s author, Alex Heard, wrote. “Still, his work is marketed as nonfiction, and there’s a simple rule associated with that: Don’t make things up.”

For those of you who haven’t read his work, it’s worth pointing out that Sedaris isn’t just some gag-writer. He’ll make you laugh, sure, but he’s also a poignant and sensitive stylist, and can reconstruct situations and depict people with a deft touch and what I had thought was sharp observational power. His best work is funny but is haunted by loss too; it leaves you aching, and that’s because the stories he tells, you believe, are true.

The reaction to Heard’s disclosures has been illuminating because, as Slate media writer Jack Shafer noted ruefully, journalists seem almost universally forgiving – even angry that Sedaris was so roundly assaulted. (Granted, the New Republic’s title, “This American Lie,” was over the top.) His supporters defend his right to embellish, claiming humorists traditionally are given license to play fast and loose with facts in pursuit of laughs and, in a more troubling assertion, what the Raleigh News & Observer’s J. Peder Zane called “larger truths.”

In some respects, as a fan of Sedaris’ I wouldn’t want it any other way. His genius resides in the dark and fanciful reworkings he performs on his coming of age in North Carolina, his jobs, schooling and dependencies, his frustrations as an émigré in France, the people he has encountered and lived among. Those realities are his palette, and he works with them to create tales of his obsessions, longings and terrors in a way that’s often painful and often hilarious.

That’s all great, but what it isn’t is nonfiction, whatever Sedaris and his defenders insist. Call it semi-autobiographical, call it humor, but don’t call it the same name we give accounts that claim to rely uncompromisingly on fact, rendered as faithfully as recall and verification allow.

Sedaris hasn’t so much lied as he has cheated. His inventions, in my view, go well beyond satirical exaggeration, plainly recognizable as such. If the whole comic premise of his story about a grade-school speech therapy class turns on the idea that it was used to weed out and correct the lisps of budding young gay men, and if that is a total fabrication presented as basically true, the story is a fraud.

When entire tales rely, for their humor and comedic power, on foundational facts that are made up, they are essentially fictions. When Sedaris reimagines his summer job as a teen doing light chores among mental patients into a tale of helping wrestle a demented old woman into restraints – and getting bitten in the process – he’s way outside the bounds of fact-based memoir. He’s not misremembering, he’s not burnishing, he’s inventing.

Fine, but when he pretends otherwise he’s cheating. He’s cheating because he’s stealing the sovereign authority that we as readers attach to facts to give his tales a narrative force they wouldn’t otherwise have — while refusing to accept the burdens of real fiction-writing.

The reason fiction is so hard is that the coherence of the plot, its imaginative reach, the believability of the characters are the sole responsibility of the writer. The nonfiction chronicler can take refuge in reality: “Doesn’t hang together? Hey, don’t blame me, that’s the way it was.” The fiction-writer has nobody else to blame. But Sedaris wants it both ways: the sanctuary of fact and the license to invent.

But my greater concern is how widely his cavalier approach to fact has been defended. Facts aren’t just setups for humorists, any more than they are mere props for polemicists. Journalists are supposed to know that.

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