Friday, April 13, 2007

When is a lie not a lie?

Jack Shafer takes David Sedaris to task for not sticking to the facts in his "nonfiction." (via Slate)

For all the noise that I've made about my old friend Mr. Frey, I'm actually a bit surprised that criticism of David Sedaris has been so strong in some places. (Although there does not, at the moment, seem to be a career-threatening critical mass coming together.) In my mind, there's a huge difference between Frey and Sedaris, and only the smallest part is the Sedaris is a better writer.

Frey and Sedaris both, at least loosely, market their writing as memoir. (I think that Sedaris is actually more attached to the word "nonfiction," which in my mind, makes his case more problematic, but more on that in a minute.) Frey, however, did not just claim that he was telling the story of his life. He claimed, in effect at first and then more explicitly once Oprah picked him up, to be articulating an alternative to traditional addiction recovery methods. If this claim is based on a lie, this is hugely important, because this is a lie that can hurt people. Sedaris, on the other hand, has never made any claim other than that his family history and his day-to-day life are each quirky and interesting.

Personally, I have no trouble believing that Sedaris not only exaggerates, but fabricates entire conversations and events. I've never given much credence to his claim to write nonfiction, and so, perhaps, that's why I don't give much weight to people who try to check his facts. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I don't exactly expect humorists to be journalists.

It is of course, entirely possible that my opinions are weighted by the fact that the bookstore in which I used to work shelved Sedaris's books in the fiction section.

So I think that Sedaris should really let his own insistence on the nonfiction label go. But ultimately, I don't think that the revelation that Sedaris's home life may not be as constantly amusing as he makes out is really all that damning.

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