In The New Republic, Alex Heard rakes the hot coals under our favorite elf (“This American Lie“):
Over the years, as I watched other nonfiction writers go down in flames–Frey, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, the “monkeyfishing” guy at Slate–I wondered why no one had checked on America’s favorite nonfiction imp. So I decided to do it myself. The trail was long and fascinating, and it led me to a larger question: whether “nonfiction” means anything when you’re talking about humor writers who admit to flubberizing the truth for comic effect.
I admit to sharing Heard’s concern that too many memoirs are made-up these days, but I’m flabbergasted to find David Sedaris in the same paragraph as Frey, Glass, and Blair. The distinction is that key word in the third sentence: humor. Yes, allowing people to make stuff up under the rubric of nonfiction when they’re making us laugh — but not when they’re making us cry — may lead to a sort of “I know it when I see it” legal distinction, but it works for me. James Frey’s tawdry tale relied on the “true story” tag to hold our interest. Worse, Glass and Blair made stuff up and called it news. But if anyone’s using Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim as primary source material for school papers, they’ve got bigger problems than the author’s I’ll-call-you-sometime relationship with the truth.
What’s really startling is that Heard was surprised to learn that Sedaris’ exaggerations went beyond emphasis and dialog. Did he actually think that Sedaris’ real life is as crazy as a cartoon?
Of course it isn’t. Then why call it nonfiction? The nature of Sedaris’ humor relies on his ability to write in the first-person and to use his own life as the springboard — calling it fiction, even though we know it’s mostly made-up — just feels wrong.
(One could argue that making James Frey use a “novel” designator on his books would have robbed them of the urgency that made people want to read them, and one would be right: we don’t need them as novels or memoirs.)
In the San Francisco Chronicle (“Public’s taste for nonfiction has publishers playing fast and loose with labels“), Oscar Villalon writes that “there’s no excuse for calling a work containing chunks of fiction nonfiction.” Again, I think context makes a big difference, but I do agree with his conclusion:
All this legerdemain over categorizing books implies that there’s something second-rate about writing and reading fiction. It’s one thing if the public believes that, but it’s entirely another when publishers, agents and writers say as much through their actions. They need to acknowledge that’s the lie their “truth” is pushing.
I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, I only read nonfiction” — or words to that effect — as if saying, “Novels are nice if you’re the kind of person who likes fairies and dragons, but I prefer to educate myself.”
These people deserve a nonfictional punch in the nose. Clearly they haven’t read works like What Is the What, The Echo Maker, and Acts of Faith — all novels that are more challenging and thought-provoking than they are avenues of escape. (Not that there’s anything wrong with reading for escape, either.) Moreover, given the constant march of made-up memoirs, maybe theses nonfiction snobs should question their assumption that what they’re reading is factual.
If I hadn’t gone on so long already, I’d make a grand, sweeping statement about how the public’s appetite for nonfiction is tied to the reality-TV phenomenon, which is the result of a sucking emptiness at the center of many people’s lives and is expressed in the desperate desire to make connections with other people, any people, who are somehow perceived as more “real” than we are — but it’s late, so I won’t.
There’s room on my shelf for fiction and nonfiction, and if someone’s trying to make me laugh instead of trying to put one over on me, I don’t really care what they call it.