gall and gumption

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Is It Lies Or Is It Fiction?

I have been searching for over a week for the issue of The New Republic with the piece about David Sedaris in it. Why can I not find one? Via Romenesko I find this Jack Shafer piece at Slate. It seems, according to TNR writer Alex Heard, that Sedaris has been making up stuff for his true stories. (I’m reserving judgment on the piece until I can get hold of a copy of TNR.) The part about Sedaris is on page 2, if you want to skip the story of the soldier who made up some war experiences.

But then you’d miss the socko opening.

If you've never embellished an anecdote to get a bigger laugh from your drinking companions, please stand up. If you've never lifted an emotional story from your kid brother's life or from a book you've read and then plugged it into your own narrative, you can stand up, too.
If you're still sitting, stand up and join the other liars. Everybody embellishes and steals a little, and some of us do it a lot.
Why do we lie? When talking about our own histories, we lie because we fear—quite rightly—that unadorned our autobiographies are too dull to interest anybody. Plus, the true lies we tell around life's campfires are mostly harmless. So what if I sharpened a punch line or boosted the pathos a little at a dinner party? Social listeners don't demand the Associated Press' high standards of accuracy from storytellers. If anything, they expect a little fiction marbled into the facts.

"If you're still sitting, stand up and join the other liars." Oh yeah? Well fuck you too! What? Oh sorry I didn't get the joke, hahaha he's a liar too so if this isn't true it's because he's a liar and what am I doing calling him a liar when I’m just another liar -- if I say I’m not a liar I’m lying hahaha! So we all find ourselves wallowing together in the mud hole, what fun. Now what do they call that little bit of editorial jiu-jitsu? Journalism? Humor?

That “quite rightly” is a nice touch. You poor, pathetic, pedestrian dullards.

I’ll tell you what really annoys me about this song and dance about the AP reporter’s high standards of truth. All storytelling is fictive. The driest AP business story – a summary of United Widget’s unremarkable annual report -- is fictive. The form of a straight news story is prescribed for a number of perfectly sound practical purposes: economy of space, speed (pressure of deadline or pressure of events), avoidance of ambiguity in matters of fact, avoidance of appearance of bias about facts, because it’s part of the record. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as you can see whenever you read a piece of well-executed objective reporting. The journalist selects and edits, leaves out facts, makes all sorts of judgments that are not visible on the page. Some of these formal judgments are made for the journalist beforehand, and some judgments are made later in the process, for other reasons (Thanky, Tom.). Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they haven’t been made. Yes, I’m deliberately making the best possible case for straight news reporting here. For the worst case, watch CNN for about half an hour. Shafer’s AP reporter – any news reporter -- is really only accountable to one standard: the accuracy of his factual assertions. But where is the accountability for all those other judgments? There isn’t any. Not that there’s all that much of any other kind of accountability either, come to think of it, as Glenn Greenwald points out yet again.

“The lies we tell around life’s campfires are quite harmless.” This statement is, if you will pardon the expression, not true.

You’ve all I’m sure encountered the sort of long maudlin human-interest newspaper and magazine story, the one where the writer has worked his way up to the privilege of using techniques like irony and “dramatization.” From a literary perspective, they’re unbelievably bad. Because they too work with a narrow range of permitted literary devices. And these literary devices are all clichés. I remember at J-school the reverence with which people would cite that one Gay Talese story about Joe DiMaggio, the one where Talese never actually talks to DiMaggio, as if this were an unparalleled act of literary daring, permitted only to the most seasoned and proven professional with years under his belt. From imbecilities like this, you see, you get to Sedaris. The Talese story uses fictional techniques to jazz up facts but only in the approved way, that is, with a sort of hard-boiled sentimentality that falsifies not facts but feeling.

There’s a beautiful symmetry to all of this when it is now alleged that Sedaris has been using claims of fact to jazz up his fiction.

Another public storyteller whose personal recollections don't jibe with reality is David Sedaris. Alex Heard's examination of Sedaris' nonfiction in the March 19 New Republic reveals the humorist taking broad and routine liberties with the facts in pursuit of laughs.

Sedaris' stories derive their punch from the fact that they're supposed to be true, a standard he embraces in the introduction to his 1997 collection Naked. "The events described in these stories are real," Sedaris writes. Even so, nobody expects a humorist to apply the absolute faithfulness to characters, dialogue, and events in his stories that an AP reporter brings to a congressional-hearing dispatch. No scold, Heard bends like a contortionist to accommodate Sedaris, writing that it's OK for a "humorist to recreate dialogue that captures the general spirit of how a conversation unfolded But this artistic license doesn't give humorists the right to remember their stories more vividly than they actually happened and still call them real. If humorists pipe lines of dialogue like a playwright (as we now know Sedaris does) or remold scenes from life like a novelist (as we also know he does), they're basically writing fiction and should cop to it. If we label Sedaris' pieces fiction, are they as hilarious? I think not, and I think Sedaris knows that, and I think that's why he presents them as nonfiction.

Does Shafer think that it’s Sedaris or fiction in general that suffers from the lack of “punch?” I can’t tell. But I do remember that the disgraced James Frey had the same story when he was found out: that his fabrications would make more of an impression on his readers if he said they were true. So I start to wonder if this bizarre notion has taken hold in some way in some of the murkier corners of the publishing industry. “It’s a great story but it’ll have more punch if it’s true!” The word “true” now discounted to meaning something slightly less than “authentic.”

Without having read the TNR piece, but with memories of a couple of Sedaris’ books, I’m not surprised to hear of these questions. I find that Sedaris’ books just fit so neatly into a certain school of “memoir” writing, there seemed to be a whole outbreak of them in the mid- to late 1990s. I read these stories and can imagine a lot of clever people sitting around slightly tipsy and laughing (Shafer’s drinking buddies, I suppose), and I’m also thinking that the stories are well-worn, stereotypical, told too often, slick. They lack any sense of exploration or discovery, any sense that these writers might happen across an experience whose meaning they can’t snap up with their know-it-all cleverness.

If you stroll through Borders Books on a Sunday afternoon and come out of there feeling vaguely depressed, it might be because of the sight of all those “Mommy has quit her publishing job, married and moved to the suburbs to take care of little Chesterfield and Davenport while Daddy works in the city ” books. (Sedaris at least spares us that!) The campy covers of the fiction ones look exactly like the campy covers of the nonfiction ones.

Sedaris is as good at this sort of thing as it’s possible to get. He’s a genial writer, certainly. But the kinds of faults I’m describing are internal, unrelated to with any external condition of fact: they are problems of attitude. If something fails as fiction you can’t save it by suddenly attaching the label “True!” to it. Truth can save bad writing in journalism (and only a narrow spectrum of journalism, at that). But it can’t save fiction; here’s the amazing thing. It can’t even save most badly written things that are true. (I remember once when I was teaching writing at UCSB this big guy showed up silent and sort of glowering through each meeting of the class. About midway through the quarter he turned in a story about a guy who had broken his leg. I read it to the class, anonymously, and people began to find fault with the writing, which was shrill, pretentious, and violent. Predictably when these faults were pointed out the writer blew up at me and told me I couldn’t possibly understand his writing because I had never had a broken leg. Well, you know, I shouldn’t need to have a broken leg to be able to judge a piece of writing. Did he bring the story in the hopes that maybe I had had a broken leg somewhere in my past? What about all those people who haven’t been murdered who are reading murder mysteries?)

Compare any of these books with, say, Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter, published more than 50 years ago. Athill could easily have been one of these people. She, too, was a bright, witty, attractive young woman who went into publishing, except her fiancé dumped her and – because she really loved him – it very nearly broke her spirit. For years afterwards, she just never felt all right, she was carrying a deep sadness. Whenever I think of this story I wonder if she was aware, when she was writing this book, of her own courage in having lived through it so uncomplainingly. She just kept going, limping along with this injury, not always, apparently, completely conscious of how much it had hurt her. It’s almost as though she wrote the book to inquire into this defining experience and the long shadow it cast over her youth. The difference between Athill and the AP reporter is that Athill has all the editorial leeway that the AP reporter doesn’t have. But Athill isn’t using this leeway to jazz up the facts and impress her friends; she’s using it to discover the truth.

The lies we tell around the campfires of life aren’t any less lies because they haven’t been collected into a book. That’s ridiculous. The harm they do is this: they make it harder for us to know what the truth looks and feels like. Which is hard enough as it is.


At 9:27 AM, Blogger Chuckling said...

Funny, I've been pondering these same issues. My observation was that writers will soon be adding car chases and explosions to their little personal narrative fictions in order to hold the readers' attention.

As someone steeped (like a bag of tea) in the highest traditons of objective journalism, I find it impossible to watch an entire half hour of CNN.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger L7 said...

That "quite rightly" is, I think, crap, because I think most people have some pretty good (true) stories in them.

About the fiction-being-presented-as-nonfiction thing, well, I agree. No one likes being lied to. (Or being lied about.) Is it possible that so many people, writers included, lie so much to themselves that they maybe can't always distinguish what is true? (I don't know why, but I hate to think it is only marketing.)

Maybe I am missing the point?

At 10:01 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Well, there's a beast of a question, L7.

But luckily for you, you just finished reading Martin Chuzzlewit and the answer to your question is there, in the incomparable Mrs. Gamp. Also, from this question I infer that you have not read nearly enough academic scholarly prose, where Pecksniffery rules as SOP.

Chuckling, If I understand Shafer correctly they'll be borrowing their kid brothers' car chases and explosions. I thought a half hour of CNN might be a bit of a stretch.

At 5:05 PM, Blogger John said...

Hi, G.G. You sure got a lotta gall and gumption, and a measure of irascibility, and some orneriness and honor (thanks to your great entertainer who taught you "life is wherever you find it," and wherever you don't it isn't, so who gives a fuck if it's fact or fiction), and a lovely-splendid way of dressing down a person. Damn lovely. Damn splendid. --Your old friend, John

At 10:11 PM, Blogger Kia said...


It's about time you showed up. Come back here often.

At 10:12 PM, Blogger Kia said...


It's about time you showed up. Come back here often.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger Shots said...

Thanks for a very interesting and thoughtful post on an issue that needs debating. I think sales issues and the growth of what this reviewer calls misery lit are central to what's going on.

I pitched a book about a girl growing up on a sink estate to publishers. It was a walk in the park compared to something like Dave Pelzer but, as a novel, many rejected it as too dark. Some, you could tell, were desperate for it be a memoir and disappointed when it wasn't.

Then again, I quite enjoy the work of Jenny Diski, who writes some very interesting travel memoirs. One of the things that makes these so colourful is the way she hints she perhaps hasn't been anywhere near the places she is writing about. Playful? Or dishonest? I can't decide. And yet I think there's enough truth in the themes she's really interested in (life and people, not places) so that it doesn't matter if she's made up the setting.

Maybe it depends what you're lying about as to whether it's harmful or not. It's one thing to pretend you've been to Antartica, another altogether to say you were abused by your uncle and beated to near death by your mum.

At 6:05 PM, Blogger buckner said...

This post reminds me of an incident in one of Marvin Mudrick's classes. Mudrick sometimes talked about his dislike of social functions such as cocktail and dinner parties. He thought the conversation was forced, and he was uncomfortable with the way people stood around holding drinks. Since he didn't drink alcohol he had trouble figuring out what to do with his hands.

One day he came into class complaining about a dinner party he'd been forced to go to over the weekend at the house of a collegue in the English Department. He was indignant that the professor's wife had served meatloaf at the party. "I could have had this at home!" he said, and then he went on: "To top it off, after she put the meatloaf on the table she turned and offered me a knife and asked if I'd like to carve!" The students broke out laughing.

Later some students were talking about the class. One of the students was upset about the story Mudrick told. She'd visited him earlier in the day and he had told her about the meatloaf, but he said nothing about being asked to carve. She was sure he lied in class to embellish the story.

I suppose no harm was done. It made a much better story.

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