Funny ha-ha or funny-stupid

Alex Heard at The New Republic (subscription required) has accused David Sedaris of being -- an exaggerating humorist. He points to several incidents recounted in Mr. Sedaris' writings that others say didn't happen -- or they didn't remember them the way Mr. Sedaris remembered them. Or the people weren't really like Mr. Sedaris' characerization. It seems Mr. Sedaris tends to see homophobia where it wasn't intended. Funny how that works. When confronted with these charges by Mr. Heard, Mr. Sedaris unhappily 'fessed up and said, yes, some things were invented or stretched.

J. Peder Zane, the book critic of the Raleigh News & Observer (which has one of the balkiest newspaper websites I've encountered -- and that's saying something), accuses Mr. Heard of being, more or less, a humorless, self-important twit. He ignores the times Mr. Sedaris has already said he exaggerates for comic effect, and he inflates the significance of others' testimony over Mr. Sedaris' as well.

Mr, Heard, quivering with outrage at being mocked, has replied in the letters section of Romenesko that Mr. Zane and Peter Carlson in The Washington Post simply don't understand the seriousness of the issues involved -- thus, it would seem, proving Mr. Zane's charge of Mr. Heard's self-importance.

But one can't simply give a humorist a free pass for dealing with real incidents, real people, Mr. Heard argues, just because he makes us laugh by, well, the winking outlandishness of his stories. Individuals were offended by Mr. Sedaris' treatment of them. One suspects James Thurber's and Garrison Keillor's wives haven't been happy with their portrayals over the years, either, despite Mr. Heard's ringing distinction between their "humorous fiction" and Mr. Sedaris' work.

In particular, Mr. Heard points to Mr. Sedaris' portrayal of a state mental hospital as being "out of control." Nowhere does he indicate how Mr. Sedaris' humor affected, say, oversight of the hospital. Did anyone launch an investigation into its care and security? These are all very important issues, far more important -- if we're going to play this pointless game -- than whether people's feelings were hurt. Let's look at it this way: Did enough people actually take Mr. Sedaris' portrayal of the hospital as seriously as Mr. Heard obviously did and, say, propose legislation to correct its lapses?

Mr. Heard does, however, note a reason Mr. Zane might be quick to defend Mr. Sedaris: Mr. Zane unquestioningly accepted Mr. Sedaris' characterization of a local Raleigh person in a previous article. For a journalist, Mr. Heard writes, this was a "pathetic mistake."

But several other journalists have written into Romenesko, indicating that Mr. Sedaris told them, too, that he exaggerated stuff or that, in writing humorous pieces themselves, they've stretched things. Criminal charges do not seem to be pending.

I sent in the following:

Years ago, I interviewed David Sedaris about his collection, Naked. I pointed out to him that, if only one or two extraneous pieces were removed from the book, it could actually be considered a memoir of his mother and her death from cancer, a funny but also very moving memoir.

He was embarrassed, said that the suggestion had been made by someone at his publishing house and he turned it down flatly. That was taking his writing far too seriously, he said. [He added, "A memoir? You have to be kidding."] What would later cause all of the Oprah uproar over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces wasn't the fabrications; it's that he agreed to label his book a "memoir" -- the better for marketing -- although later he confessed he'd always considered it fiction. [I might add here that the "memoir" label is also what got Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors a lot of raised eyebrows -- and a lawsuit demanding, among other things, that the "memoir" label be replaced with one declaring the book "fiction."]

Given the chance, however, Mr. Sedaris refused the "memoir" label.

March 29, 2007 8:54 AM | | Comments (8)



The question is when Sedaris' work appears in a newspaper, do our expectations change?

I don't see why it should. Sedaris' pieces frequently appear in The New Yorker, a magazine whose truth in reporting I value as much as I do the New York Times. However, I never mistake Sedaris' pieces for anything than what they are: humorist pieces on likely but improbable situations that may or may not have happened to the author. I agree with Jeff H; I don't see that any of it matters unless you're a character in one of his essays who's offended by Sedaris' portrayal. Most other people don't care. There's a reason why people who purchased Sedaris' books aren't flocking to the bookstores en masse demanding their money back. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why not.

Yes, but Robert,
Don't you like to pick up your daily paper or tune in the 6 o'clock news with the reasonable expectation that the folks aren't just making these things up?
The point of this debate is context: You bring one set expectations to David Sedaris, another to, say, Scientific American or the New York Times. The question is when Sedaris' work appears in a newspaper, do our expectations change?

Historically this is a debate that occurs at least once per generation. The charges that non-fiction is fiction and vice versa are as old as the hills ... and as boring!

Ever read the Bible? Some say truth, some say fiction. Doesn't take away from the fact that it's a good story of the human drama.

If one does not profess to be a journalist, truth is arbitrary and interpreted.

Let there be ambiguity!

Much ado about nothing. I am attracted to David's material for the very reason that it sounds and feels like a life experience anyone could have and David probably did have. There is much entertainment value in anticipating his next twisted comment as he relates in third party observer style what would otherwise be a non-event in most peoples' lives. David has a particular outlook, a knack for isolating fertile material and more than mere talent. He is a genius observer of our modern twisted culture. I take him very seriously and laugh with him. I have sympathy for those who prefer to attack him.

Thanks for writing, both of you Bills. You've given me the chance to re-frame the issue in simpler, clearer terms.

For Mr. Heard's outrage over Mr. Sedaris' fabrications to be credible, he basically has to move Mr. Sedaris out of the Mark Twain-James Thurber-Garrison Keillor humorist camp and into the Stephen Glass-James Frey-Augusten Burroughs journalist-memoirist camp.

The problem, as you note, is that 1) Mr. Glass claimed to be a journalist, and he committed what amounted to fraud, not just in fudging his magazine articles, but in lying to his editors, fabricating websites and sources, etc. Mr. Sedaris has never said he's a journalist, as far as I know. 2) As I note, both James Frey and Augusten Burroughs claimed to be writing autobiographies, while Mr. Sedaris, given ample opportunity to do the same, denied any such thing and said his writing wasn't "serious" enough even to be considered a memoir. What's more, Mr. Frey angrily defied his accusers, claiming to have documentary evidence to support his writing. In a subsquent book by Mr. Burroughs, he has inserted the disclaimer that some things have indeed been changed -- possibly because of the lawsuit Running with Scissors inspired, possibly because of the Frey uproar.

But in Mr. Sedaris' case, when directly challenged about his stories, he has repeatedly said that he stretched things. I heard him once at a reading simply state that the ending for the story he was about to read was something he "needed" for the story to work, it was what he honestly felt, but it wasn't what happened.

The "memoir" as a form has always been a little suspect about one hundred percent, dyed-in-wool, scientifically verified accuracy -- given its reliance on memory, after all. Increasingly, what we've seen in the publishing world is that the label "memoir" is primarily a lucrative marketing tool, a way to designate where the book gets shelved in the store (and where it gets tallied for the bestseller lists). Mr. Heard would probably have found much more material to investigate in any number of political or Hollywood celebrity memoirs. And he wouldn't have had an author who has fessed up and continues to fess up -- that he writes humor.

You've stepped onto that minefield that separates -- though just barely -- Journalists from other kinds of writers. You'll find the bones of Rick Bragg scattered out there.
The line seems to depend upon what writers say they are writing. Sedaris' sin seems to have been that he claimed, in some fashion, that what he was writing was "true." He did not, so far as I know, claim that it was journalism. Those who have read Sedaris know precisely what he's about, and it's never been journalism. They also know the difference between "truth" and journalism.

No. Because the last two aren't intentionally funny.

Good thing Mark Twain wasn't around. He'd have to explain that when he wrote "On the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," he really wasn't confessing to killing hobos and stacking them like cordwood behind his house.

Seriously ... as much as I can be ... is it very common for people to confuse "humorist" with "journalist" or "memoirist"?


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