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David Sedaris Gets Frey-Olated

In today’s New Republic, Alex Heard demonstrates pretty conclusively that Sedaris makes things up. But is that so bad? After all, the guy’s a humor writer—not, say, a journalist for a well-respected national magazine. Jewcy editors Michael Weiss and Izzy … Read More

By / March 14, 2007

In today’s New Republic, Alex Heard demonstrates pretty conclusively that Sedaris makes things up. But is that so bad? After all, the guy’s a humor writernot, say, a journalist for a well-respected national magazine. Jewcy editors Michael Weiss and Izzy Grinspan discuss the issue over Skype despite sitting at adjacent desks.

Michael: So when I first heard about this story, I thought it was going to be a really juicy gotcha, a la Frey and Glass. But after reading the piece, I think, so what? It seemed to be apologizing for itself more than it excavated any buried corpses in the Sedaris backyard. So he makes real people into mean caricaturesparticularly if they're family.

Izzy: Right. I think that's pretty normal for humor writers.

Michael: They fuck you up, your mum and dad. The writer takes sweet revenge.

Izzy: Exactly. My parents have been bracing themselves for this kind of blow for years. Unfortunately, they have no dark secrets.

Michael: I SUPPOSE one could argue that falsifying an experience as a psych ward volunteer is cruel and obscene…. but he didn't name patients or really go into their morbid case histories.

Izzy: Right. Stephen Glass would have written that Dix Hill piece as an exposéas journalism, that is. James Frey would have written about how Dix Hill saved his life. Both of those seem sleazy, to me. But using it as a backdrop for humor is a really different story

Michael: Even if his slack-jawed, gangsta-wannabe younger brother doesn't really have a "fuck it bucket" (filled with consolation candy for when life treats you rough), it's hilarious to think he does.

Izzy: Also, Amy mentions that in her housekeeping book, so maybe it's true. Anyway, the actual personality of Rooster Sedaris [who, let it be noted, reprints one of David’s stories about him on his website] probably matters less than the fact that he seems like someone you could know.

Michael: Totally. It's not like anyone in the family sued him.

Izzy: Even if they did, would that make the stories less good?

Michael: They seem less than pleased and it's obvious he's exploiting them, but what writer doesn't do that, ultimately? Philip Roth used to have to defend his parents and say that his mother was NOT Mrs. Portnoy.

Izzy: Meanwhile, ironically enough, my grandma WAS.

Michael: And his portrayal of that character was infinitely worse than the way Sedaris portrays Ya-Ya.

Izzy: Right. But Roth was writing fiction. Have you ever read Barrel Fever, Sedaris's book of short stories?

Michael: But Sedaris does have this family, and even the sources in the TNR piece make it seem that their characteristics are at least recognizable from his writing. No, never read that one. I've done Naked, Me Talk Pretty and Corduroy.

Izzy: It's not nearly as good as his "non-fiction."

Michael: So I think his humor writing has succumbed to what I call the sitcom rule. As with Married with Children, the first few seasons are pretty mild and inoffensive. Then, as the show picked up steam, they made Al more vulgar, Kelly dumber and Peg sluttier. Same principal with the music teacher: Reinvent the character to be seedier.

Izzy: And I kind of think it's kosher, as long as you're not using the story to prove any points or sell any ideas. What drove me crazy about the James Frey thing is that he's a shitty writer. I mean, just awful.

Michael: I never read his memoir.

Izzy: So
the only thing anyone gets out of his book is this inspirational message about overcoming drug abuse.

Michael: There's a great bit in The Last Days of Disco. Ever see the movie? Alice is in book publishing as an assistant. She gets a manuscript written by someone claiming to be descendant of the Dalai Lama. But it turns out, he's a liarjust some guy interested in Buddhism. So she switches the genre from autobiography to self-help: instant bestseller.

I suppose the quick-fix then is to get Sedaris to say: "based on true events,” a la adapted screenplays. That would placate the TNR writer. Still, was this worth thousands of words to investigate?

Izzy: Probably not. But I like the way you're thinking. We need a new category, somewhere between fiction and nonfiction-where-it-matters-that-it-happened.

Michael: How about "inspired non-fiction"?

Izzy: That sounds too douche-y. (Sorry.)

Michael: You know you'd find me hovering around any section in Barnes and Noble called "probably bullshit."

Izzy: Yes! Problem solved.

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