May 15, 2012

The problem with “truthiness” highlighted as David Sedaris report called into question

by

Henrik Kubel, A2/SW/HK

In the wake of the now infamous Mike Daisey incident on This American Life, other writers operating in the grey area between fact and fiction are finding their work under the magnifying glass. On the radio segment, Daisey recounted incidents drawn from his performance piece ”The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”, which detailed poor working conditions at Apple’s Chinese factories.  A great portion of the anecdotes he used are now  understood to have been false or exaggerated.

The work of another This American Life alum, David Sedaris, is being called into question.  In The Washington Post, Paul Farhi asks whether Sedaris’ stories, mostly personal skits about his upbringing and working life, deserve to be examined in the same way as Daisey.

“The immediate question is whether Sedaris’s stories are, strictly speaking, true — an important consideration for journalistic organizations such as NPR and programs such as “This American Life.” A secondary consideration is what, if any, kind of disclosure such programs owe their listeners when broadcasting Sedaris’s brand of humor.”

Sedaris clearly has a comedian’s style, but his stories are still meant to be about real people and real events. Ellen McDonnell, NPR’s executive editor of news programming says of Sedaris’ work “It was not a he said-she said, who-what-why story like Mike Daisey.”  And yet, as Farhi puts it,

“Unlike a stand-up comedian or a comic literary stylist such as James Thurber, who engaged in obviously implausible situations, Sedaris’s stories fall into a gray area. They are rooted in real events and populated by presumably real people, with their humor derived from Sedaris’s comic “voice.” These exaggerations and comic interjections are evident to a listener or reader, and Sedaris has attested that they are essentially autobiographical. His best-selling books, such as “Naked” and “Barrel Fever,” have been sold as nonfiction.”

One might defend Sedaris, given he is writing in a personal, anecdotal style and is not attempting to claim journalistic rigour, as Daisey did.  Still, he implies his memoirs are factual or “realish”, and they may hurt those they represent in an exaggerated or fabulist manner.  This concern was examined by Alex Heard in The New Republic, in an article called “This American Lie”, where he interviewed the friends and family who Sedaris often features in his work.

This American Life is considering how to approach the issue.

“The Daisey debacle has brought about a reassessment. [Ira] Glass said three responses are under discussion: fact-checking each of Sedaris’s stories to ensure their accuracy, labeling them to alert the audience that the stories contain “exaggerations” or doing nothing.”

Memoirs are an extremely popular genre these days and it is possible that non-fiction has greater “currency” than fiction.  Perhaps that is why producers and editors have been unwilling to label such writers correctly.

Further issues of “truthiness” are examined in the book The Lifespan of a Fact  John D’Agata and Jim Fingal detail their exhanges, when as an intern, Fingal began fact checking D’Agata’s article about the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager.  D’Agata excused his errors and exaggerations by claiming that he was not a journalist but rather an essayist, without the same duty to truth, just as Daisey asserted that his segment for This American Life was simply a theatrical performance and not a piece of investigative journalism.

The problem with D’Agata’s claim was identified by Jennifer B. McDonald in a review of the book in The New York Times.

“His techniques look suspiciously like those of a reporter: he immersed himself in a place, got to know its people, consulted documents, recorded his impressions, turned his material into a narrative. Not only that, but he loaded his essay with factually verifiable detail — dates, times, dimensions, directions, statistics, names, quotations from actual journalistic sources. He declares that as an essayist he shouldn’t be held to the same standards of correctness as a journalist. So fine, he’s not a journalist. He’s a wolf in journalist’s clothing.”

Sedaris does not use detail in the same way as D’Agata or Daisey, but he does accumulate people and incidents to create humorous moments that are poignant because they are also meant to be true.  McDonald wrote, ”D’Agata uses “facts” that aren’t facts to make a statement about a “reality” that is real for no one but himself, and relies on “coincidences” that aren’t coincidences to reveal something “profound” about Las Vegas, or the cosmos, that is not profound but rather an accidental accumulation of detail and event.”

Sedaris might be accused of using the same technique, creating a mixture of profundity and hilarity by what he conveys as fact, which might be better called fiction.  But does it matter?

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.

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