Monday, March 19th, 2012

In Fabrication Uproars, At Least Everyone Agrees David Sedaris Is a Liar

Poor David Sedaris! The recent "truth in journalism" dust-ups—John D'Agata's bizarre book written with a former fact-checker, and the "This American Life" episode-long retraction of Mike Daisey's "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs"—has given everyone a chance to call Sedaris a liar. But it's okay that he is! Sometimes. Wait, is it? Not really. Let's see what everyone thinks about David Sedaris.

• "No one thought that all of the workplace events recounted by David Sedaris in 'Santaland Dairies' were literally true." —Matthew Baldwin.

• "I am a longtime fan of 'This American Life,' but I have never assumed that every story I heard was literally true. The writer and monologist David Sedaris frequently tells wonderful personal yarns on the show that may not be precisely true in every detail, but this was not a story about a family car trip gone bad." —David Carr.

• "Artists use artistic license. No one, for example, assumes that David Sedaris’s amusing anecdotes that also air on public radio are completely factual. The standard of a monologue is not the same as the front page of The New York Times. Daisey’s argument is that his goal was to be David Sedaris, not Jayson Blair." — Philip Bump

• "The program, which made its name with charming, small slice-of-life tales has gotten increasingly ambitious in recent years, and has begun running a number of successful investigative pieces alongside its bread-and-butter stuff from people like David Sedaris, who has a famously slippery notion of truth himself." —Noreen Malone.

• On Mike Daisey: "This is not David Sedaris doctoring a quirky anecdote about his family." —James Poniewozik.

• "Alex Heard picked apart David Sedaris’ embroidery of reality in his allegedly “true” radio stories and books for The New Republic, but Sedaris doesn’t pretend his work is reportage." —Glenn Fleishman.

• "The writer-monologuist David Sedaris once told Time magazine, when asked if his works should be shelved in the fiction or nonfiction section of the bookstore: 'Nonfiction. I've always been a huge exaggerator, but when I write something, I put it on a scale. And if it's 97 percent true, I think that's true enough. I'm not going to call it fiction because 3 percent of it isn't true.' Try running that by a journalism ethics class." —Chris Jones.

• "For all his lies, Sedaris remains a trustworthy writer." —Liz Stephens.

• "I’m not shocked at all that many of the most fantastic details of Sedaris’ most beloved pieces aren’t wholly true, or even a little bit true, but this still bugs me so much." —Rachel Maddux.

• "But fiction does not lie to us—it creates other worlds, with other rules, that, if rendered well, can tell us something true about our own world. The reader understands this, just as the reader (well, most readers, anyway) understands when reading, say, David Sedaris, that comedy inherently allows room for exaggeration, and even fabrication. (It should be noted that, at The New Yorker, when a fictional world intersects with the real world, or when comedic exaggeration seems poised to do damage, the details are fact-checked. Even in cartoons.)" — New Yorker fact-checker Hannah Goldfield.

• "It's all pretty funny, but, like many readers, I've often wondered if, as advertised, it's all true. The family stories, for the most part, never struck me as that hard to believe—the Sedaris kids seem a little tame, frankly—but every now and then, especially in Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day, you come across something that sounds like a whopper flopping on the deck…. The trail was long and fascinating, and it led me to a larger question: whether 'nonfiction' means anything when you're talking about humor writers who admit to flubberizing the truth for comic effect…. During our conversation, he told me he wouldn't care a bit if he found out that Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes was written by 'some guy in Montana who made the whole thing up,' because the tale he spins is so beautiful." —Alex Heard, 2007.

88 Comments / Post A Comment

Leon Tchotchke (#14,331)

I always viewed Sedaris as being in the same vein as Garrison Keillor. The value of the stories is that they are entertaining, not that they are true – as opposed to journalism, or as opposed to Mike Daisey's schtick, where without the assertion of truth mst of the power and heft of the writing is gone.

This is the same reason people came down so hard on James Frey: Frey's "memoir" only had any value or weight to people because it was supposed to be true. If it's not true, it's exactly as valuable as if I were to write a book detailing my years as a member of the NYPD; which is to say, not very.

@Leon Tchotchke I'll never forget how that escaped convict killed you the day before your retirement. You have been missed.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

Jeremy Lin is actually Puerto Rican.

freetzy (#7,018)

@Leon Tchotchke Basically, if you're a really great writer, you can make stuff up, because people will forgive the inaccuracies for the greatness. If you're more mediocre as a writer, you'd sure as shit better be accurate because people will forgive the mediocre-ness for the facts you supply. This is why there are journalists (hopefully decent writing + great facts) and writers (hopefully decent facts + great writing). If you're somewhat mediocre at both writing and facts, and rely on each to prop up the other, you're gonna get in trouble.

KenWheaton (#401)

What Leon said. Sedaris is in the mode of Twain, a humorist. Which is not the same thing as investigative reporter. Funny piece about my family or INTERNATIONAL EXPOSE OF THE WORLD'S MOST PROFITABLE COMPANY are slightly different, no?

BirdNerd (#4,196)

@KenWheaton slightly

hman (#53)

It's ironic that Ira's wife herself is (was?) a fact-checker for the Times.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

@Lockheed Ventura @Lockheed Ventura Momofuku's pork buns are made with Slim Jims.

frontsidebus (#5,387)

Yeah I never understood why Sedaris ever entered into these discussions. Who gives a shit if all that stuff literally happened to him or his family exactly the way it was presented? I'm sure nobody would have cared about the whole James Frey thing if he didn't screw it all up by deliberately misrepresenting it.

@frontsidebus He keeps coming up because he makes up things that are represented as fact. He tells stories about what happened to him. That's why they're funny. But they didn't.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Gee, if only they had addressed this very issue at length in the TAL retraction episode. Oh wait…

(I mean it's pretty clear that Ira's frustration was not that the story was not 100% true, but that it was REPRESENTED AS BEING 100% TRUE despite them having many long and detailed conversations trying to clarify/verify this. The show has no problem running partially/mostly true items, or even fiction, but it does label them as such.)

keisertroll (#1,117)

I bet his brother isn't even an actual rooster.

@KenWheaton No. The entire Sedaris shtick is: MY WACKY LIFE! MY WACKY FAMILY. These are only funny because every sentence starts with an "I." They're funny because they're outrageous true stories.

But they're not. True, that is.

No, no one's saying that he's representing there are WMDs in Iraq. But he's still, you know, making things up. (Including, oh, I dunno… ALL OF THE DIALOGUE in his early books?)

davidwatts (#72)

@Choire Sicha There's a great part in Shattered Glass where one of Glass' co-workers at TNR is just in awe that his stories always turn out so interesting; that she can have a good, funny idea and look into it and come away not finding very much of interest, but he always comes away with a great story. And I think that's what's most frustrating about this Sedaris thing, or Daisey, at least from my point of view: that he fucking cheats. It takes a lot more skill (and work!) to write a funny, interesting story that is also 100% true than it does to pretend your story is true and then just make up some funny parts.

@davidwatts RIGHT, I feel that a lot too! Like, blargh, why am I laboring by the rules when it's so easy and profitable not to? (Answer: because it feels right! Because I believe that you can't learn or believe anything about the world unless you're presented with facts! Otherwise we're making false suppositions.) I mean I guess this is less "important" for comedy but….

barnhouse (#1,326)

Daisey was trying to change people's minds about the way they use and think about technology, and the way they spend money; it's a matter of international trade relations, politics and so on. Because Sedaris is pushing zero political or social agenda, it's kind of a non-crime; it's clear at the outset that his sole purpose is to entertain.

Also: Sedaris is almost exactly like Thurber. Some is true, some isn't, and if you consider the matter as you read, that seems pretty clear; it's almost like a statement about the nature of memory and how we construct our ideas about our families, our loves. It wouldn't work for either Sedaris or Thurber, that style, if it weren't about people very close to them. Though Thurber unlike Sedaris (to my knowledge) also wrote standard-issue short stories about fictional characters; those have a very different feel to them, you can tell they weren't "based on a true story."

Dave Bry (#422)

@barnhouse That is a good and important distinction.

@Dave Bry I personally hate this line of argument. (I mean, it's not WRONG though! Yes, I'll totally make the distinction between "invented a war with Iraq" and "funny shit someone's mom said." There is a truth there!)

Dave Bry (#422)

@Choire Sicha Well, we're in danger of sliding down a slippery slope, I guess. But I do think the difference is good to note. It's the difference, maybe, between being made to walk around the town square with a big "F" for "Fibber" sign around one's neck, and head-on-pike.

barnhouse (#1,326)

What about the point of literary art, though?

Also, do you really think that Sedaris was selling himself as a memoirist? Because I don't … he was never "here is the Real Story of My Life" or whatever, the way people do when their remarks are in the nature of a confessional, like James Frey's.

Backslider (#819)

@Choire Sicha It's absurd that you expect the literal truth of an accounting firm from a professional sotryteller, former meth addict ex-Elf,furniture refinisher and art student. And yet you are probably going along with the fable that Robert Bales is solely responsible for the killing of 16 innocents in Afghanistan along with half a dozen obvious lies I could flag on the front page of the NY Times.

Really man. C'mon. Priorities.

GailPink (#9,712)

I love David Sedaris.

saythatscool (#101)


barnhouse (#1,326)

@GailPink I love him, too. Especially "Me Talk Pretty One Day," the best language-class story ever recorded. So embroidered, yes, and yet so true.

Dave Bry (#422)

@barnhouse I love him, too. But I think it's letting him off a little too easy to just accept it because it's so entertaining—because it's so "true" in the deeper way that you mention. (And I agree with that thought.) It should be, it would be better, if it was all 100 percent true. He presents his stuff that way, I think. He should hold to tighter standards than "almost true is good enough." (Colbert's "truthiness" come to kind.) If he wants to get some "almost true" in there for entertainment purposes, he should more clearly indicate than he has at some points in some of his work.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

@GailPink- I love him MORE.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Okay, here is where we differ exactly!! I do not think it would be better if it were 100% "true" because the exaggerations are shaped by his feelings about what happened, as you kind of acknowledge in your remarks re: Public Apologies below. The "narrative flow" to which you refer is the central element of a Sedaris piece. It's about his feelings about what happened. And those are true. And there is no attempt whatsoever to hornswoggle anybody with respect to this.

barnhouse (#1,326)

p.s. Same goes for Wallace's State Fair and cruise ship pieces. Mind you I have watched many journalists go completely apoplectic and pound the dinner table with their fists over the latter, and in this very house, too.

@barnhouse Wait… Huh. I understand you mean he's creating a narrative out of his feelings about general situations. But then we're just readers of his made-up psychodrama, where he creates little strawmen to have feelings about! That's like, the diary of an alcoholic. (Which… hmm!)

saythatscool (#101)

@scroll_lock GO BACK TO JAMAICA

Dave Bry (#422)

@barnhouse If those exaggerations are essential to capturing his feelings about what happened, I would like it if he tipped that a little more in the writing. It's maybe a hard thing to do. It's definitely a hard thing. It's more work. I appreciate the value of fibbing for narrative sake, for emotional impact, for humor—but when it's happening, I want to be told more clearly what's what. The line between fiction and non-fiction is important to me. Sedaris is not a magical realist. He is a memoirist. He presents (and I guess there is dispute about this) but I think he presents his work as true. So it should be. Unless he presents it as not true—the wonderful holiday cards piece from the first book, for example.
I'm not sure I would agree that the exaggerations are essential, to his "straighter" essays, the ones that read like "this really happened to me," in the way you suggest. I think Sedaris is a skilled enough writer to render his memories more honestly, and still have the impact that he does. I believe in him that much! I want him to do the work. (Again, I am feeling bad in attacking Sedaris. Because I love him.)

scroll_lock (#4,122)

@saythatscool : Go back to The HOME

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Choire Sicha all you say is true. My feeling about writing generally is that it is always very liable to be a "made-up psychodrama" no matter where it appears or how it is sold. That is to say, I particularly appreciate rigor and truthfulness for their very rarity. Such things are hard to identify, even. Ira Glass (and also Adrian Chen, this morning) revealed their essential fidelity to the truth over this Daisey thing, for example, so valuably.)

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Dave Bry (this is so interesting!! Thank you for writing all these amazing notes.) I would say no, Sedaris does not present himself as a memoirist, but rather as a storyteller. It's quite clear that there is a lot of hyperbole in his stuff, in the way that anyone might exaggerate for effect while telling a story; really no different from saying, "the guy was twelve feet tall," "and then I DIED about a thousand times," or whatever. In the case of Sedaris he exaggerates about whatever lustful Christmas elf at Macy's. And that slightly loopy, fantastical tale-telling quality is, I would say, absolutely essential to his effects. If it didn't come off a little extra-crazy, magically crazy, it wouldn't be nearly as good (again, cf. Thurber, "The Night the Bed Fell." If anybody tried to change one syllable of that thing to make it more "truthful" I would definitely come after that person with an axe. Har!)

Dave Bry (#422)

@barnhouse It is interesting. And by taking as rigid a line on this as I am, I don't mean to imply that it's a simple thing. Because I don't think it is. (For one, like you said, there is a big difference between untruth in a journalistic story that can have real world impact, and what Sedaris does—untruth for effect when all he's talking about is himself and his personal experience.) But yes, I guess we read Sedaris differently, you and I. Before the Alex Heard thing came out a few years ago, I really did think that Sedaris was presenting 100 percent truth. (Except in the sentence-by-sentence instances where he was obviously joking. The "He was twelve feet tall!" stuff you're talking about. And also except in the stories that were presented more obviously as fiction. Like the holidays card one.) Maybe it's a lack of subtlety in my reading, or a gullibility.* I don't know. But I really took him to be telling the truth-as-close-as-could-come-to-it. Like a memoirist. I would like to be able to say that learning that he fudged stuff didn't affect how I received it. I am all for literary art for art's sake, and the value of receiving art or entertainment in as much of a vacuum as we can construct for ourselves as we receive it, but if I really think about my reaction, and if I'm honest with myself, I have to say that I liked it more, or at least that I felt something more special about it, when I didn't know he was fudging. Even at the parts where I would say, "No way!" upon reading it. I am that gullible, I guess? But I enjoyed the believing.**

*(I have, literally, fallen for the "Did you know the word 'gullible' is not in the dictionary?" joke not once but twice in my life.)
**Please don't tell me there is no Santa Claus.

C_Webb (#855)

@barnhouse I consider Sedaris in the vein of great family storytellers — we all know that our grandparents probably embellished, if not outright fabricated, some of their great stories, but we clamor for them nonetheless — the telling tells as much about the teller as what is actually told. Everyone has these family stories, but Sedaris makes millions off of his, while we're left trying to reconstruct the one about Nana and the IRA from the multiple versions she related over the years.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Haha!! I would never tell anyone there is no Santa Claus because THERE IS? As I have always maintained. (What a perfect illustration for this topic!!) Also, @C_Webb: exactly.

Mark Pappas (#8,512)

So wait, Sedaris didn't actually double major in patricide/matricide while at Yale? I thought these stories were 100% true.

Smitros (#5,315)

The lying part wouldn't bother me if he were funnier.

KenWheaton (#401)

@Choire Sicha
So did Twain, to a large extent. And a lot of that was passed off as "nonfiction" — or at least presented as "I did this" and "This happened to me" — though the audience knew he was completely full of shit. Now… Augusten Burroughs, on the other hand!

@KenWheaton Oh wow. No one speaks of Augusten anymore.

That stuff was what we call "made up." :)

gumplr (#66)

@Choire Sicha except for newsprint being great for cleaning fogged mirrors! But yeah, that's about it.

Moff (#28)

@Choire Sicha: So, what do you think should be done? (I mean, it sounds like you think Something Should Be Done.)

frontsidebus (#5,387)

@Choire Sicha I don't know, why would anyone think that a 40 year old person would remember exact dialog from something that happened when they were 12? It just never occurred to me that was something he needed to explain or justify. I'm sure his life/family are sufficiently wacky to the point that they provided enough source material to write about.

Dave Bry (#422)

It is important, I think. And its a matter of doing something in good faith. No: people do not expect memoirists to be rendering dialogue from 30 years ago verbatim. But it's important that they are trying their best to do so. Otherwise, it's cheating, and I do think it matters. Because we read something differently when we are being told "this actually happened" than we do when we are being told, "this is made up." There is bound to be some creative imagining that goes on with recalling and writing about events from our past. But it's important, to me at least, that a writer does his or her very best to remember things as accurately as possible. And if some remembered truth doesn't make for the funniest bit or the best story or punch line, well, it's the writer's job to withstand the temptation to fudge. If the material is worth writing about, it's worth rendering accurately and honestly.
Yuck. I'm starting to sound a little high-horsey here. So I'll add that I agree with Choire that most of the instances under discussion are not pikeable offenses. And I'll agree with Gail Pink that, while I was disappointed to learn of his fudging (much as I was to learn same about David Foster Wallace in the recent Franzen-Remnick talk) I still love David Sedaris. And David Foster Wallace, too. But I would love them more if I believed they stuck to the truth as accurately as they could possibly remember it.

Moff (#28)

@Dave Bry: Do you think you ever fudged or tweaked or condensed with the Public Apologies? (This is a sincere question, not being a dick. It just seems like that's the sort of thing where you could potentially lose some narrative flow by adhering 100 percent to The Facts As You Recall Them.)

Dave Bry (#422)

@Moff I do my honest best to adhere 100 percent to the facts as I recall them. And there are times when, in my recalling, I think of a funny or poignant detail and I'm psyched to include it… But then, as I think more about it, I realize that, no, actually, that's not the way it happened, and then I sadly omit that part from the story and work to try to retain narrative flow within the constraints of 100 percent truth. To the detriment of narrative flow, sometimes, to be sure.

frontsidebus (#5,387)

@Dave Bry Fair enough, I did read "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" recently and although I enjoyed it, I was a little disappointed by having knowledge of the "fabrication" controversy ahead of time. That's a more direct example of an adult supposedly directly observing events with the intention of writing about them for publication (being paid to do so) and then fudging it for entertainment purposes.

Murgatroid (#2,904)

@Dave Bry So when's your book coming out, Dave?

Dave Bry (#422)

@Murgatroid Well, if I can get myself to stop writing over-long, repetitive piffle about better writers than myself here in the Awl comments section and finish it, it's supposed to come out Spring 2013.

Murgatroid (#2,904)

@Dave Bry Tide your publisher over with a collection of Dave Bry's Awl Comment Section Comments: Greatest Hits.

Mr. B (#10,093)

"Mr. Sedaris, this is Hank, and I've been assigned to fact-check "Next of Kin" for Esquire. First off, I've been cross-checking your quotations from the pornographic novel against an original and many of the 'typos' appear to have been exaggerated in your piece. Since you gave yours away as a child, perhaps your memory is faulty? Please get back to me ASAP."

scroll_lock (#4,122)

@Mr. B – Next of Kin is sooo great. I loved how Amy used it as a textbook for teaching her imaginary students when playing "teacher".

Mr. B (#10,093)

Oh, and in case anyone missed this from last month, and is interested in how The NY-er fact-checks their cartoons.

@Moff I think people should tell the truth. No bigs. I mean, not asking for HEADS ON PIKES. Heh.

zidaane (#373)

@Choire Sicha

Pink Slime………………15%
Made Up Shit……………..5%

Moff (#28)

@Choire Sicha: Yeah, I dunno. I mean, YES on truth, for the most part. But it feels like there's some room between Mike Daisey/John D'Agata/James Frey and David Sedaris. Maybe partly because:

- hyperbole has always had a close relationship with humor;
- there's nothing at stake with Sedaris's stories; there's no greater social issue (Chinese factory conditions, suicide, addiction) to draw conclusions about; and
- no one has really ever complained about Sedaris not telling the truth.

There's just not evidence it was ever a problem. In fact, people seem to have instinctively understood he was fictionalizing to a degree. Whereas people clearly did not understand that with Daisey, D'Agata, or Frey. I like truth, and I like clarity, but I like to think there's also room for human intuition rather than universal stringent demarcation or standards. I dunno.

hockeymom (#143)

@Choire Sicha I write a lot about my family (often RIGHT HERE)…and for the record, the stuff I write is TRUE. As in, exactly how it happened. Or exactly how I remember it happening. Most of the time, I check with my sisters and if their memories are the same, I count it as true. But, kind of to your point, I've sort of started editing myself…mainly because 1. I started feeling like people might think I'm making stuff up and 2. Who wants to hear about my crazy family, because while they are amusing and crazy to ME, they aren't Sedaris level of amusing and crazy…and I'm not a Sedaris level writer, so maybe writing about them in the comments section of The Awl is kind of selfish and rude?

JennyBeans (#7,034)

@hockeymom I read (probably in one of these articles linked above, but I'm now too lazy to look it up) that Sedaris has his family members read his essays before they are published, and if they object he changes things. So I think this is an important distinction: it's humor, it's getting to some essential truth, the stakes are low, etc. Wherease Daisey's piece rang false to the other people who were there, and the stakes are much higher.

deepomega (#1,720)

Does it count as journalistic malfeasance when these writers you quote claim Sedaris is funny? At the very least, that's an exaggeration.

City_Dater (#2,500)

But David Sedaris is a humorist and Mike Daisey is a santimonious tool who's built a career on, basically, glorified mansplaining.

So there's that.

turd_sandwich (#5,660)

i was particularly disturbed by the omissions and fabrications in "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk"

Rollo (#3,202)

For what it's worth (not much), it seemed obvious to me reading the early Sedaris stuff that it was exaggerated, and it didn't at all diminish my enjoyment of it. (And I did enjoy it, sorry I'm not cool.) The sense that it was part bullshit seemed like part of the joke, and his stuff is less funny, I think, without that sense. Whereas Daisey's Apple stuff is not only without value but actively harmful because it is untrue.

It seems like there should be a special category for this, the opposite of a roman a clef. I loved James Herriot and Gerald Durell's books growing up, and they are also that strange mish-mash of truth and fiction. Would I have enjoyed them less knowing that some of the events were exaggerated, or happened at a different time, etc? Um … possibly, which is a little sad. Twelve-year old me really loved those books.

Am I the only one who basically assumes ALL entertainment non-fiction is at least partially bullshit and also doesn't care at all? Truth is for newspapers (or current equivalent). For entertainment it's all about what entertains. Functionalism!

Moff (#28)

@My Number Is My Address: Well, "Don't believe everything you read" is a pretty solid watchword, whatever the medium. But a lot of the material under discussion here seemed or claimed to fall on the side of newspapers or the current equivalent. (And too, who's to say newspapers can't be entertaining? Besides people with newspaper experience, I mean.)

sarahpm (#13,702)

@My Number Is My Address im like sooo with you. and I'm all DUUUHHHHH to this conversation in a way. Truth about shit like dead people and war and money. if you're writing to make me laugh and you're not really hurting anyone please go ahead and make shit up

MichelleDean (#7,041)

I have many feeeeelings about this but they reduce to: I don't understand why all of these authors eschew the "fiction" label unless they genuinely feel that to be classified as fiction would constitute an insult to the work, all other things (or sentences) being equal.

So I'm not really weirded out by demanding, consequently, that they earn the apparent compliment of the nonfiction label by being honest. Note, though, that I said "Honest," not, "trial-transcript verbatim."

Moff (#28)

@MichelleDean: But part of this is maybe a publishing issue — there's a section in the bookstore for Fiction and sections for Nonfiction and probably a section for Memoirs, but not really a place for Memoirs That Have Taken Poetic License. It doesn't seem quite right to market Sedaris (or, say, this new book by Jeanette Winterson) as fiction; in fact, as a reader, I would be more confused if I didn't know his work and saw it mixed in with the novels. Because I would read it and think, "This seems way too autobiographical to be on this shelf."

MichelleDean (#7,041)

@Moff Many fiction writers have so much autobiography in their work – or, minimally, personal psychodrama – that the distinction is not as clean as you make it sound here. Thus the distinction is often between writing where the narrator/protagonist shares a name with the author and writing where it does not.

Also, isn't it quaint of us to be discussing buying at bookstores, you and I! so 1997.

BadUncle (#153)

@Moff I wonder where Mark Twain's essays fall.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@MichelleDean I think that gets to the heart of it – the "fiction" tag is arbitrary (based on either what the writer wants to convey or what the reader wants to derive) and thus by extension, standards of ethics for writing in general are likewise arbitrary. Provide the smallest tincture of fun to your writing, avoid the "cold grey block of facts" approach, and watch the expectation of good practice melt away.

dham (#4,652)

@Danzig! Could it possibly be because "memoir" is a more profitable genre than "autobiographical fiction"? I imagine that those who care about "honesty" in writing have created this issue by demonstrating willingness to pay for it.

@MichelleDean Hi Michelle. The label "fiction" isn't really a label so much as it's the basic material constituent of every single written word. When you study literature pretty much the most important thing you learn that fiction is never the pure expression of the self. It's a craft, and like all crafts is devoted to its own wholeness. Even a diary isn't pure expression, as you are always speaking to an audience of one, deferred through time. It can express or conceal the self, with the author being alternately totally in control, or completely oblivious to that expression. However you slice it, expression is totally immaterial to the ontology of the work.

The only reason to ever say "non-fiction" in a medium that you know is 100% fiction is to allow for that bubble of dramatic tension to be set up around the work. You create a tiny world set apart from the medium of fiction, and invoke the public's trust to give those words power and import. You are setting up something special – a specific device of fiction.

What you are invoking is the specter of total objective expression. People crave connection, and that's what non-fiction offers them. And so when that trust is ruptured, the device fails, the fiction loses power and once you re-read it, seems farcical and ridiculous. You feel bitter for having ventured real trust into a medium that is 100% untrustworthy on the vouchsafe of the author. It's a real relationship, and once it cracks apart you become jaded, like with an ex.

Paradoxically, it's both a) stupid that people don't understand that all non-fiction is fiction, and b) extremely important that the non-fiction author not lie.

David (#192)

And Zooey Glass is my brother. That’s Zachary Martin Glass to you.

BadUncle (#153)

Say what you want about his fabricatons. But I feel fairly confident that he speaks terrible French.

SMM (#227,945)

SMM (#227,945)

@SMM that's really huge. srry

sarahpm (#13,702)

@SMM that's awesome

margue3riz (#227,553)

@sarahpm really

I once commented that one of Balk's existential raps gave me a boner. That actually wasn't true.

lawyergay (#220)

"Non-fiction" is maybe just a label that enables readers to experience more deeply and pleasurably the frisson induced by suspension of disbelief.

I taught creative writing to college kids for a couple of years, and one of the things they used to do in class was try to tell–without knowing anything about the text–whether what they were being read (by me, out loud) was fiction or non-fiction. It's kind of fun and also interesting in terms of how writers cue their readers to accept a story as "true." Try it with your friends!

dham (#4,652)

I neither like David Sedaris much, nor understand what could possibly lead someone to care about personal writing being "factual."

Anarcissie (#3,748)

Say it ain't so, David! The part about the mother telling her child to piss in the artificial snow has to be true, or there is no hope or light in this world.

acupuncture01 (#228,319)


David Sedaris got a lifetime pass on his boring writing style because of the supposedly "true" origins of his stories. Maybe now that we know they're fabricated, people will demand the same from him as they demand from other fiction writers.

irieagogo (#209,640)

Some friends and I were just talking about how terribly, badly NOT written like a teen "Go Ask Alice" was, and how, even as kids of 9 or 10 we just didn't buy it, and how, coincidentally, as a cautionary tale against drug use, it did not deter us, but rather made us WANT to try drugs. So, whatever, "real diary" by "Anonymous" dead teen drug user.

I remember reading Anais Nin diaries and being sort of scoobied, trying to figure out HOW she managed her country chateau lifestyle, running in to Paris to give Henry Miller cash all the time. There was like this big chunk missing that left so many questions unanswered. Sometime later, I learned that things like her HUSBAND who SUPPORTED HER financially and made all her escapades possible while she cuckolded him, were simply deleted from the text, as if nonexistent! Some trick. I had an icky eeew response to her after that—not a trustworthy narrator!

Having read some David Sedaris books, let's say four or five, I've found them humorous and entertaining, quick reads, good for plane trips or beaches. I can't say that as I read those books that I ever puzzled over whether or not the stories were true, or to what degree they were true. It just never occurred to me. And now that I'm reading that he makes shit up, I feel completely neutral, not vindicated, disappointed or aggrieved. Like several others on this thread I don't get the big whoop.

What would really piss me off would be to have "The Diary of Anne Frank" debunked. Grr.

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