A new collection of David Sedaris essays – entitled When You Are Engulfed in Flames – comes out next week, and Entertainment Weekly has used the opportunity to check in with the humorist and to find out how he survived all those accusations of “reportorial inaccuracy” that dogged James Frey and Augusten Burroughs, et al.
If you ask Sedaris, the Frey backlash, culminating in a public shaming by Oprah Winfrey, was overblown. ”His punishment outweighed his crime,” says Sedaris. ”I don’t recall Oprah Winfrey calling George Bush a liar when he was on her show. And those lies cost thousands of people their lives.”
So to get back to that question he always gets from the crowd: As he’s strip-mined his own North Carolina upbringing and subsequent adulthood, how much has Sedaris himself made up? Plenty, he has frequently and cheerfully confessed. But it doesn’t matter because he’s a humorist, right? The New Republic begged to differ last spring. In an article titled ”This American Lie” by Alex Heard, TNR accused Sedaris of doing more than just stretching the truth. ”With some of his stories, especially the early ones, like in Naked,” says Heard, ”he’s taken every liberty a fiction writer [does]. It makes the story very funny, but also makes it something you shouldn’t call nonfiction.” Responds Sedaris: ”I’ve said a thousand times I exaggerate. Why is it news when somebody else says it?”
Some of the sleuthing Heard did seems solid, including, for example, getting Sedaris to confirm that he invented details of encounters with mental patients in 1970. But many a bizarre situation checked out true, and Heard’s contention that Sedaris’ work amounts to a mean-spirited exploitation of his family and others seems, well, grossly exaggerated. Sedaris’ Little, Brown publisher, Michael Pietsch, shrugs off Heard’s piece as ”a ludicrous exercise” that ”ignores a great American literary vein of essays in which great writers take liberties with their personal experiences.”
But the more pressing question is: how much longer will Sedaris be able to mine his personal life for stories? As the EW article points out:
[...] fame and scrutiny change things, including audience perceptions, and Sedaris worries that success may be dulling his outsider-loser edge. Maybe nibbling at his credibility, too. The withering assessments of his own lunacies haven’t diminished, but the events are tamer and backdrops fancier: swanky hotels, the first-class section of an airplane. ”I don’t know if I’ll get away with it,” says Sedaris. ”I’m trying to write about what’s happening to me now. So there I am sitting in first class, right? I don’t know if people will say, ‘F— you, I never get to sit in first class!”’