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David Sedaris And The Limits of Non-Fiction

April 1, 2007

One word that seems curiously absent from Alex Heard's article about David Sedaris in the March 19 issue of The New Republic is "memoir."

The magazine devotes an entire four pages to Heard's attempt to blow holes in humor writer Sedaris' supposedly "true life" stories, to expose them for what they are -- a hilarious, carefully crafted bunch of half-truths bordering on lies, rather than works of "non-fiction." (Heard takes umbrage at the fact that Sedaris' books are listed in the non-fiction section of many bookstores and as non-fiction reviews in publications. Heard also reports that Sedaris himself has told interviewers that his stories are true.)

But more than a fiction or non-fiction writer, humorist, or radio personality, Sedaris has always been, first and foremost, a memoirist. And authors of memoirs, unlike autobiographers, are known for taking a liberal attitude towards the truth. Stretching it for comic or empathetic effect is one of the genre's favorite devices.

Heard's method of constructing his case against Sedaris would never hold up in court: He debunks Sedaris' narratives by tracking down and interviewing people with direct connections to episodes from the author's prose to get their "eye witness" perspective on some of the events and characters described in the stories. I suppose there's something to be admired in Heard's persistence and detective skills. But using an interviewee's response to a situation depicted in a story as a method of corroborating its truth seems highly flawed as a reporting method to me: Why should we accept some interviewee's memories of a nudist camp in the Finger Lakes region of New York over Sedaris'? Both could equally be made up. The mind distorts events quite quickly after they occur. People remember things the way they want to. All memories are partial and unempirical. In other words, Heard doesn't get much closer to reality than Sedaris.

Finally, who really cares if Sedaris' stories are true or not? They're funny, most of the time, and that's pretty much all that matters. And given the choice between reading an article by Heard or one by Sedaris, which would you pick?

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