Monday, March 19, 2007

David Sedaris, big fat liar

In the first issue of the new, improved New Republic (not available online unless you have a subscription), Alex Heard gently takes David Sedaris to task for inventing dialogue, fabricating characters, and putting himself in situations that weren't as dramatic as he makes them out to be. "His work is marketed as nonfiction," Heard writes, "and there's a simple rule associated with that: Don't make things up." For example, Sedaris really did take guitar lessons from a little person (he uses the insensitive term "midget") when he was 12, but in his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris gives the teacher a different name and apparently makes up a story about the teacher freaking out because he thinks that young David is making a pass at him. Heard figured out the real teacher's name and tracked down another former student to poke holes in Sedaris's account. He did the same with Sedaris's story about staying at a nudist camp, figuring out the real person behind a fake name and asking eyewitnesses whether the real person would have actually said the stuff that Sedaris's made-up person said. The answer was no -- but how many fans believed that anyone actually confronted Sedaris, then a Manhattanite, with "You're all just so sophisticated sitting in your little cafes and looking up at the Empire State Building while the rest of us lie around in haystacks smoking our corncob pipes?" Heard does get at something that makes me sad when he notes that "nonfiction is bankable in ways that fiction is not." I would add that Sedaris is lucky to be in bookstores at all when the humor genre is practically extinct. Most bookstores do have humor sections, usually next to "puzzles and games," but they're full of comic strips and cartoons, books of lists and short jokes, and the occasional title by James Thurber or by Sedaris. There are about 10 sudoku books for every book of comic essays. (I didn't actually count them, Alex Heard.) I have seen Sedaris's "memoirs" in the fiction section, and I wonder whether bookstore clerks are doing it out of kindness, so he doesn't have to sit next to the transcribed stand-up acts of Tim Allen and Dane Cook. But a lot of his books simply disappear after they leave the "newly released" table. My favorite humorist is Calvin Trillin, but his ouevre is usually dismembered and scattered all over the bookstore. His hilarious books about food are in Cooking, and his one novel -- the wry Tepper Isn't Going Out -- is in Fiction, as if it's the most important thing he ever wrote. A few months ago, I was looking for About Alice, a tribute to his wife, who died in 2001. The book is sweet but very funny, and typically Trillin. Failing to find it at Borders, I did something that I do about once a year: ask for assistance. The clerk finally located the book in the Self-Help section, Death & Dying subsection. Just the place for a humor book! If About Alice is a Death & Dying book just because it's partly about how its subject died, shouldn't half the store's novels and most of its biographies be in that section? Disclosure: I interviewed Sedaris once and was totally charmed. We talked a little bit about my writing, and the overnight success advised, with complete sincerity, "You should get something published in The New Yorker. They pay very well." And I didn't have to make that up.

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