Tuesday, March 13, 2007

David Sedaris and The Not So Funny Truth

Over at The New Republic Alex Heard, editorial director of Outside magazine, has a pretty thorough expose of David Sedaris' "nonfiction" essays. I have always been a big fan of Sedaris' work and so was naturally disappointed to see that much of his work barely resembles nonfiction at all.


What somewhat separates this discovery from those of, say, James Frey's work, is that Sedaris has always admitted punching up his stories because he is, above all, a humorist. Nonetheless, it also serves as a reminder of one fact that too easily gets overlooked in these sorts of discussions: Writing good nonfiction is hard. Figuring out what happened and how, relying on the evidence before you, fealty to the facts -- these things make nonfiction, to my mind, far more difficult than fiction, and thus when pulled off well, more compelling. Fiction requires a tremendous imagination. Nonfiction requires something greater -- tremendous precision and a willingness of a writer to give himself to reality. Imagination plays a role in the best nonfiction as well, but that imagination must serve the larger good of truth, something that can be far more difficult to piece together than most people realize.


I suspect that because of his ouvre, and because he never denied making up elements of his work to improve the stories, Sedaris will emerge from whatever stink this stirs up cleaner than Frey. (Though as I recall, Frey returned to the bestseller list as a result of his unseemly kerfuffle.) But I wish that even more than writers, who oftentimes do not categorize their work, editors and publishers would do their due diligence and not try to wedge work into the nonfiction pile if it does not belong there. I would be happy to see "creative nonfiction" become a designation if we need a compromise. But calling something "nonfiction" really ought to mean something fairly specific even if that label does not need to be limiting.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

How much of a hero would you be if you posted the entire article here? Your link goes to a partial teaser. I would be eternally grateful, thanks!

*Special* Agent Chet Desmond said...

I prefer Amy, but David is pretty funny as well.

dcat said...

Anonymous --
I'd love to be a hero, but the link actually is to the full article. It may be a subscriber-only deal, though you can try going to the TNR homepage and see if it just requires registration. If this advice does not make me a hero, perhaps a good samaritan?

SACD--
I like Amy as well. She does agreat advice column in one of my favorite magazines, the Believer, and is brilliantly funny. I don't think this situation will dissuade me from liking david, but I hope that his books in the future find some way to indicate that this is at best nonfiction with a lot of liberties taken.

dcat

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's just a partial artcle for the non-subscribers. You need to sign up for a 4 week trial to read the full article (requires payment info, etc...). Oh well, I tried! Thanks anyhoo ;)

David and Amy are the nicest/zaniest people in person, I only wish I could have been in their presence at the same time. How fun would that be?

dcat said...

The whole family seems like a hoot. I'd certainly love to meet Amy or David.

Sorry about the disappointing link.

dcat

Anonymous said...

"Sedaris will emerge from whatever stink this stirs up cleaner than Frey."

Frey was an Oprah-pimped liar who claimed his stuff was true. Sedaris has always worked in the realm of truthiness.

Plus you assume people still read TNR. These are hardly the same situations.

Julian said...

I just have to believe that his granny (Ya Ya) was discovered in a neighbor's yard eating from the bird feeder. As for the rest of his work, who cares whether it is truth or fiction?

Tommi said...

Picture this. On long way home from weekend of skiing. Two dudes, two chicks. Riding in a Dodge 4x4 pickup 'cross Europe. It's a seven hour trip from Klosters, Switzerland to Frankfurt, Germany. And what do the tired, thigh burning chicks want to listen to during the ride? That's right, F'n Sedaris' Audio Book - the one with the Barbie on the cover. I always knew that Sedaris was a liar because of the stuff he says about his brother. I am a redneck and I never talk or act like his brother. That stuff just ain't funny enough to be true - about rednecks anywho.
-tgs-

Heather and Matthew said...

A speech therapist tricking little kids with lisps into saying silly, state and sourkraut has to be something special. It couldn't be a lie. Honestly.

Anonymous said...

People actually think of Sedaris as "non-fiction"? People are morons.

Anonymous said...

"Writing good nonfiction is hard. Figuring out what happened and how, relying on the evidence before you, fealty to the facts -- these things make nonfiction, to my mind, far more difficult than fiction, and thus when pulled off well, more compelling. Fiction requires a tremendous imagination. Nonfiction requires something greater -- tremendous precision and a willingness of a writer to give himself to reality." What a provincial opinion! Can you name a single non-fiction writer who is on the level of a James Joyce, William Faulkner, or Saul Bellow? Or forget the all time greats, how about a non-fiction writer on the level of a Thomas Pynchon or a John Banville? The creation of good fiction is the supreme artistic act.

Anonymous said...

It may be fiction, but speech therapy really happened to me! Pretty much exactly as he describes it. He must have gotten it from somewhere...

owlathome said...

Geeez! How long before Dave Barry is dragged before the Inquistion? Perhaps he'll even be given the Pythons' "comfy chair." Here's a thought ... what about a genre called "humor"? It could have a lot of wiggle room and readers could believe or not.