There’s a minor scandal brewing for American funnyman David Sedaris. Last month in a New Republic piece, Alex Heard called out Sedaris on embellishments and fabrications in several of his non-fiction humour pieces. Most of these instances were minor, and Sedaris himself admits to them, citing storyteller’s licence. Still, writes Heard, there’s something wrong here: “No, I’m not equating him with Frey or Blair or Glass…. most of his crimes are petty, making him a nonfiction juvenile delinquent rather than a frogwalk-worthy felon. Still, his work is marketed as nonfiction, and there’s a simple rule associated with that: Don’t make things up.”
Heard goes on to add, “I imagine Sedaris’s defenders would argue that, since it’s just humor, none of this is a big deal.” Which, as Jack Shafer shows in an excellent piece on Slate, is pretty much what happened. After surveying the various defences of Sedaris that media commentators have been quick to offer, Shafer efficiently demolishes the leave-him-alone argument:
Sedaris and company want to erect a penumbra that shields humorists from criticism when they blend fiction into their nonfiction but still insist on calling it nonfiction. The logic behind this is difficult to follow. If writing fiction is the license Sedaris and other nonfiction humorists need to get at “larger truths,” why limit this exemption to humorists? Let reporters covering city hall, war, and business to embellish and exaggerate so they can capture “larger truths,” too.
And as Daniel Radosh notes on his blog, big-time famous writers like Sedaris seem to be granted a little more leeway than their more obscure colleagues. Radosh reminds readers of the case of Rodney Rothman, a young writer who was banned from The New Yorker in disgrace for some embellishments and exaggerations that in retrospect don’t sound any different from the ones Sedaris blithely cops to. (But don’t feel too bad for Rothman – he went on to write a book, and to work on the late, great TV show Undeclared.)