David Sedaris and the Truth Police

Hi Writers,
I’ve been keeping up on an ongoing story originating from an article that ran in The New Republic a few weeks ago: “This American Lie” by Alex Heard.

Heard took it upon himself to do a painstaking fact-checking of much of the David Sedaris oeuvre and found that—surprise!—some of what Sedaris writes in his “nonfiction” is exaggerated.

Is there anyone out there who’s read Sedaris and believes the ridiculous, silly vignettes he writes are 100% fact? Where is this all leading? Are humorists, essayists and other storytellers going to have to start printing a disclaimer like this in the front of their books:

Warning: The events and characters contained in this work are based on kernels of truth that have been colored with literary devices such as hyperbole, metaphor and irony in an effort to create an engaging narrative.

I like David Sedaris’ writing and I’m not just trying to defend him here (mostly because he made me mad once by trying to charge us for an interview and I can be very petty that way.) I just think this is a dangerously slippery slope for writers—especially humorists and satirists—with all the self-appointed literary truth cops out there. Am I supposed to start calling Ramsey to fact-check every time Kevin Alexander mentions him in This Writer’s Life?

Can’t a funny story just be a funny story? Does it have to be 100% certifiably true if it’s been branded with the “nonfiction” label?

Still mad but I’ll get over it soon. And David, if you’re out there, I’m willing to give you a second chance.

Keep Writing,

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7 thoughts on “David Sedaris and the Truth Police

  1. Anthony Buccino

    "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." – Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

    Humor writing contains exaggerations and such – and we hope it it obvious (and funny) to the reader. Think of a reporter filing a story about a town meeting, it’s not every word that was said, or a transcript – but focused on what the reporter sees as important. With humor, we try to keep you reading and smiling along the way. If we stretch things, we hope you get the joke.

  2. Morgan Barnhart

    I believe the truth should be the truth if it’s nonfiction. If some things are exaggerated and changed, then slap a fiction label on it and say, "Everything is fake, except for the parts that aren’t." If you exaggerate or stretch the truth then it’s fiction. If, however, you tell the truth and then stretch it to be funny, but still making it clear what is truth and what is stretching just for a laugh, then it’s all good to call it nonfiction. It is a very slippery slope.

  3. JohnOBX

    Wow, if the Truth Police had their way, Dave Berry would be behind bars for life. Possibly walking the Green Mile.

    I think the humor bone is most effectively struck when there’s a truth and then something about the truth is exaggerated to produce the laugh.

    For example: Dick Cheney shot an old man in the face. He was fined by the Texas Wildlife Commission for taking old men out of season.

    Obviously, Dick Cheney did shoot an old man in the face. Clearly the TWC did not fine him. The reason this is funny is because there is no seasonal limit on old men. In Texas you can shoot them at any time of the year.

    I rest my case.


  4. Bob

    Warning: The events and characters contained in this work are based on kernels of truth that have been colored with literary devices such as hyperbole, metaphor and irony in an effort to create an engaging narrative.

    I’ve been pouring out my heart lately in an effort to capture the absolute truth in my nonfiction writing. I mean a real blood letting of my soul, so to speak. It takes a very imaginative and creative writer to adhere strictly to the truth and still create something that’s worth reading.Bang your head Maniac comes to mind. I guess if the truth was an actual thread of continuity that connected us all, (I don’t feel like a puppet) it wouldn’t need the efforts of good writers, and then literary detectives to verify it. The readers want do that, each in their own way.

    What’s my point?

  5. Mark

    Yes, the line between fact and fiction needs some preservation, otherwise deception has free reign. If Sedaris purports to presenting real life experiences then he needs to stick to the truth. Now that I know he is making stuff up, I have less interest in him. It is relatively easy to make stuff up. Reali life presented in nonfiction has a different way of teaching us about life than fiction teaches us about life. The person who purports to be presenting things that really happened is stealing the authority from reality. He does it only to make his work more attractive. (This BTW is exactly what Dan Brown did with the DaVinci Code, which dishonesty took him from a low-sales writer to being a multi-millionaire.)

  6. janey

    I’m glad there are people out there who still want truth to be, well, truth. Yes, according to Webster’s dictionary all nonfiction should be fact, true, not exaggerated. If I find truth to be dull, lifeless and boring, then I have the prerogative to read (or write) fiction. But such entertaining exaggeration should be branded fiction. When I read a nonfiction piece, I expect it to be just that-nonfiction, by definiton-the truth. I did reference a very old edition of Webster’s dictionary, so if the editor’s at Webster’s have changed the definition on "fiction" (and thereby nonfiction), then I stand corrected.