The jacket of the “Corduroy” book claims that Sedaris “lifts the corner of ordinary life, revealing the absurdity below its surface.” There’s a good reason the absurdity is below the surface. No one witnessing the events above the surface would have seen a lot of what Sedaris writes about. His memoirs are largely made up. Or as Sedaris freely admits, he exaggerates.
I got to this story through Al Romenesko at the Poynter Institute, where you can see the links to the Slate story on Alex Heard’s New Republic piece, in which Heard seems to me to make a pretty good case that Sedaris’ stories are based in truth, but then are embellished to make them funnier. Quotes and entire scenes are pulled entirely out of Sedaris’ imagination, according to Heard. When you go to the Poynter site, a lot of people defend Sedaris, indicating that no one should expect a humorist to be telling the whole truth. It is true that when I read Dave Barry, I don’t assume that everything he’s telling me is factual. His context, however, makes that obvious. For me, Sedaris doesn’t. If it makes me an idiot to not have been clear all along that these were fanciful versions of real events, I confess to being an idiot, then.
J. Peder Zane writes in the Charlotte News & Observer that Heard’s story is a bit much, because Sedaris’ readers were in on the joke anyway. I suppose I always wondered if this day would come, so the news wasn’t much of a surprise.
Sedaris defends himself in New York’s Newsday
Sedaris has always freely acknowledged that he exaggerates. He came to fame talking on NPR in 1992 about his stint as a Santa’s elf at Macy’s (a true story, The New Republic asserts). But did he lie about his experiences working at a mental hospital or taking guitar lessons from a midget? Heard says Sedaris wildly and willfully mischaracterized what went on.
“What do you think a state mental hospital is?” Sedaris reponds. “They’re not going to say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re a real hellhole, a real pit.’… If I got the style of the buildings wrong [Gothic instead of Tuscan Revival], excuse me. I still stand by what I wrote…. People aren’t buying my books or showing up because they think every word is true. They’re showing up because they want to laugh.”
Given controversies about such authors as James Frey, Sedaris says, “It was just a matter of time before somebody wrote this article. It’s just in the air. I’m probably lucky the person who wrote it is so incompetent.”
Sedaris mentions the architecture, which is a minor point. The major problem with the mental hospital story, though, wasn’t the description of the architecture, it was Sedaris’ retelling of something that he said transpired there that apparently didn’t happen.
No question Sedaris is funny. But according to Heard, Sedaris’ book Naked begins with a statement that the stories are true. I guess that’s the first lie of the book.
In the book I’ve almost finished, Sedaris recounts telling his brother about a documentary of a child who had a secret twin dead inside him. It had really long hair.
“It’s a bunch of baloney,” my father said.
“No, really, I saw it.”
“Like hell you did.”
“Like hell” to any of it.