Last month Holly and I got to see David Sedaris at Elliott Bay Book Company here in Seattle. He was promoting his latest book, When You are Engulfed in Flames, which is a collection of previously published essays and some new material. The most enjoyable part of the evening had to be the Q&A session after he read, and this is only because David Sedaris is so witty and fast on his feet. The truth about David Sedaris is that he is arguably one of the best American humorists writing creative non-fiction today, but he has also been criticized for stretching the truth in his work.
The first time I heard anyone criticize David Sedaris for flouting the truth, it was a fellow writer whom I admire. She took issue with his dialogue, which she described as “too perfect to be real.” To me, this criticism seemed a little much. Who can remember exactly what another person said? In my own memoir, I’m writing about events that happened thirty years ago. Some dialogue stands out for me, but most of it doesn’t. I create an amalgamation of what I think my mother or father would have said, given the circumstances I’m writing about. I try to make it as vivid as possible. For a humorist, it’s no great leap to assume this same sort of thing about making the material as funny as possible. Wouldn’t that be the whole point of writing a humorous essay? So although I admire my friend’s writing, I chalked up her criticisms of Mr. Sedaris’s dialogue to envy or some other personal problem and moved on.
But then last year Alex Heard of The New Republic did a full on investigation on the factual truth of Mr. Sedaris’s work in a piece titled, This American Lie. Despite the shocking title, Mr. Heard didn’t find much. He reiterated my writer friend’s earlier complaint about the dialogue. If he discovered some embellishment here and some exaggeration there, Mr. Heard was quick to point out that none of the issues amounted to the same degree of problems other journalists (Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair) and memoirists (James Frey) have had with the truth. Mr. Heard fairly acknowledges that a tall tale done for the sake of humor is a credible defense. And I don’t believe he’s done a hatchet job. But I couldn’t help but feel amused at his seeming surprise that most of the Sedaris clan refused to meet with him. I was also delighted to discover that Lou Sedaris, the patriarch of the Sedaris family, who did agree to an interview, started off their relationship with a terse, “I’m not sure I like your agenda.” Of course the Sedaris family didn’t welcome Mr. Heard: He wasn’t just checking out a brother and son, he was investigating a humorist for being funny. Who wouldn’t have shied away?
No writer should be above scrutiny, but these days unearthing claims to legitimacy seems to be the clearest direction creative non-fiction is going. That’s a disturbing trend. Make no mistake, I do want to know if a memoirist claiming to be half white, half Native American foster child and Bloods gangster is actually a suburbanite from an upscale family. But I’m not sure every writer in the non-fiction aisle requires a full blown investigation.
This isn’t just about Alex Heard’s article, or David Sedaris’s humor. Even writers I admire look at the veracity of another writer’s non-fiction as simply a challenge, a flower waiting to be plucked. We writers should know better. If you’re a fiction writer, the reader’s game is to determine what might be real. If you’re writing non-fiction, the tables are turned and only the least cynical among us seems to take non-fiction at face value anymore. Witch hunting can’t be good for creative non-fiction.
Credibility is a precious coin; writers squander it at the peril of their own career. That goes for writers stretching the truth about their lives, but also for writers stretching my patience to its limits with unreasonable claims about an essayist that can so easily make me laugh.
And that’s the truth.