David Sedaris, Barack Obama and Fictional Nonfiction

At Obama Media, I’ve been tracking others’ investigations that question the Senator’s veracity in his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Related to that discussion, though perhaps less serious, is the discussion that has arisen following Alex Heard’s This American Lie, an investigation into humorist and public radio-propelled star David Sedaris’ apparent practice of stretching the truth of his “non-fictional” work. A part of me agrees with J. Peder Zane‘s response (via Romenesko) :

…we know Sedaris is no Edward R. Murrow. How? Because he told us so. Besides, life may be stranger than fiction, but it’s rarely as funny. Exaggeration and embellishment are what allow humor to suggest larger truths.

In fairness to Heard, full disclosure is important. But so are a sense of scale and context. His investigation of Sedaris’ work might have been useful without his prosecutorial swagger and damning headline. Unlike the infamous fabricators Heard also mentions in his article, James Frey and Stephen Glass, Sedaris has never tried to deceive his readers. We’re all in on the joke.

Heard responds in detail to Zane:

Carlson cited James Thurber and Garrison Keillor, who (I guess he forgot) are best-known for writing funny fiction inspired by real events. Sedaris chose to call his work nonfiction and repeatedly assured interviewers that everything in his stories was true. Even so, at times he allowed himself the use of every fictional tool in the bag to make his stories better. That’s a wonderful device to have at your disposal. Unfortunately, all the funny nonfiction writers I know would be fired if they were caught using it.

The distortions that resulted weren’t trivial.

Jack Shafer discusses Heard’s Sedaris investigation in a meditation on plagiarism:

Why do we lie? When talking about our own histories, we lie because we fear—quite rightly—that unadorned our autobiographies are too dull to interest anybody. Plus, the true lies we tell around life’s campfires are mostly harmless. So what if I sharpened a punch line or boosted the pathos a little at a dinner party? Social listeners don’t demand the Associated Press’ high standards of accuracy from storytellers. If anything, they expect a little fiction marbled into the facts…

Heard bends like a contortionist to accommodate Sedaris, writing that it’s OK for a “humorist to recreate dialogue that captures the general spirit of how a conversation unfolded.”

But this artistic license doesn’t give humorists the right to remember their stories more vividly than they actually happened and still call them real. If humorists pipe lines of dialogue like a playwright (as we now know Sedaris does) or remold scenes from life like a novelist (as we also know he does), they’re basically writing fiction and should cop to it. If we label Sedaris’ pieces fiction, are they as hilarious? I think not, and I think Sedaris knows that, and I think that’s why he presents them as nonfiction.

Sedaris and [Amorita] Randall [who exaggerated/lied in a NYT magazine piece] retooled their stories for the same reason we improve ours around the campfire: to make them better.

Steven White adds thoughts:

the definition of a term like “nonfiction” should be pretty clear: it means you don’t make things up, even if it sounds funnier that way.

This question of truthiness  has become more relevant with the increased prevalence of non-fiction storytelling, a paragon of which, as Jeff Jarvis pointed out, is This American Life and Ira Glass– Dr. Dre to Sedaris’ Snoop. Is bending non-fictional truth OK only if we laugh?

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