Alex Heard, in The New Republic, reports how David Sedaris makes up some of the stories that he presents as nonfiction. (Link)
I like David Sedaris, but I have wondered whether some of his material is too good to be true. And I do think that being true is a big part of why his stuff is funny. A story that’s forgettable in fiction can be hilarious when you think it actually happened. (And not just hilarious, but more touching and more meaningful.) A piece of contrived crap can be important if it really happened.
Of course, Sedaris knows this, just like James Frey knew it, which is why he presents it as nonfiction in the first place. And it bugs me.
Now, to be careful here, this doesn’t go as far as saying that a humorist claiming to write nonfiction can’t slightly change conversation to make a funny thing funnier. Or describe his feelings with a bit of description that’s not strictly accurate. But the gist of the event has to be real. The main point has to be the same. It can’t just be made up from nothing, or else we’re just being lied to.
I have a cousin. Let’s call him Jared (since that’s his name). Jared may not do this anymore, but he used to have a habit of taking something that happened (or might have happened) and squeezing it until it seemed funny, while still presenting it as true. The problem is that he’d often have to squeeze it completely out of shape, to a point where it looked nothing like it used to. He’d squeeze it until it was ridiculous, because ridiculous things are funny WHEN THEY’RE TRUE.
To make a ridiculous thing seem funny when you’re not presenting it as truth is a lot harder. Mel Brooks can do it. The Farrelly brothers can do it. Most people can’t do it, and when they write fiction, they have to stick to things that the audience could actually imagine happening in real life. Otherwise, people just roll their eyes.
Jared had a million stories, but one of them is how I once fell asleep while doing the dishes. That’s pretty funny. Now, if I were writing fiction, I’d stay away from writing that a guy actually fell asleep while doing the dishes, because it’s not believable. If I can tell it as biography though, then it’s pretty funny.
But telling it as biography when it’s all made up is just lying.
So we have David Sedaris telling how he went through a series of funny episodes while working at a mental health facility, culminating in a woman biting his arm with her few remaining teeth. Sedaris tells TNR that he made it all up. He worked there, but none of the stuff he described actually happened. (The stuff that did happen wasn’t very funny.)
And we have him describing a wholly invented scene about his guitar teacher thinking that he was making a pass at him. This scene is so contrived that *if it weren’t true,* it would never make it to prime time.
And we have at least a couple of cases of witty dialog that Sedaris admits no one ever said.
I don’t think this is ok.
Of course, this brings up memories of the Million Little Pieces lie. Some people say that it’s ok to lie as long as you tell beautiful story. Call it nonfiction or call it a salami sandwich, a good read is a good read. Or, hey, you enjoyed it while you read it (because you thought it was true), so you got something out of it.
That doesn’t fly with me. And I guess that part of the point is that I don’t like a liar cashing in on his willingness to lie in order to sell more books. My experience with the final product aside, I don’t want cheaters to prosper.
Besides, my disappointment at finding out the truth FAR outweighs whatever chuckles I got from reading the thing in the first place. So now I’m annoyed with Sedaris, and my copy of “Naked” (thanks, JB) and “Me Talk Pretty One Day” are no longer making me happy.