Wanna thumb wrestle about it?

An opinion piece in the the San Francisco Chronicle this morning takes a look at truth in nonfiction, specifically, David Sedaris’ nonfiction.

True to form, the Chronicle piece follows on the heels of an article that appeared last month in the New Republic on Sedaris’ Naked, which reported that Sedaris went beyond mere exaggeration for humorous effect; that he took liberties with the truth. In the New Republic article (link above only gives the full story to subscribers; I read it on Lexis Nexis) writer Alex Heard investigates various scenes in Sedaris’ books but says that he is more concerned with the larger question of “whether ‘nonfiction’ means anything when you’re talking about humor writers who admit to flubberizing the truth for comic effect.”

In the end, he concludes that “most of his crimes are petty, making him a nonfiction juvenile delinquent rather than a frogwalk-worthy felon. Still, his work is marketed as nonfiction, and there’s a simple rule associated with that: Don’t make things up.”

Agreed.

The Chronicle opinion piece seems to agree too, pointing fingers at publishers, agents, and writers. The author of the piece, Oscar Villalon, wonders why a writer would “take the risk” of calling something nonfiction that isn’t.

And that’s when I started to get seriously irritated with this article. I quote:

Why take the risk of a public shaming?
There are a couple of reasons for it. The first is purely cynical: Nonfiction sells a lot more than fiction. For many readers, books must have some sort of utilitarian purpose — you have to learn something “real” from it — and they don’t see any point in investing their scarce free time in reading make-believe. It’s an ironically ignorant stance, but it exists. Publishers or agents, by calling a work nonfiction that isn’t, are hoping certain readers will be more likely to pick it up.

The second reason is laziness: In another irony, a writer doesn’t have to work as hard to create the verisimilitude and the nuance a novelist must render to make his world recognizable and true when he already has the reader’s suspension of disbelief. The book is labeled nonfiction, so however incredible the actions and descriptions therein, they must be believed. After all, truth is stranger than fiction.

Ignoring the fact that nonfiction writers “don’t have to work as hard” as fiction writers for a moment, Villalon seems to perceive readers as complete idiots without any sense of perception or understanding of grey areas. It’s either read and believe, or read and don’t believe.

My guess is that most readers know that Sedaris is exaggerating and that most readers probably assume that not every detail in his essays is factual. I know I do. And yet Sedaris is still wildly popular, which basically blows out of the water Villalon’s theory that nonfiction readers don’t want to waste their time with anything that remotely deviates from some absolute truth.

Back to the (from my perspective) more outrageous statement, that telling the truth is somehow easier than writing fiction because readers already believe that what you’re writing is true and you don’t have to suspend their disbelief…

To quote the New Republic piece:

In interviews, [Sedaris has] groaned about the time Esquire sent him to cover life at a morgue in Phoenix. The problem: He had to restrict himself to what actually happened. “I couldn’t exaggerate at all,” he told an interviewer. “It gave me a whole new appreciation for people who can honestly tell the truth, because people just didn’t always say what I wanted them to.”

Even Sedaris thinks writing nonfiction is hard, and for good reason. It is hard to maintain accuracy while also telling a good story that captures readers’ attention. For this reason, I could argue that nonfiction writing is harder than fiction writing (as some writers do), but I don’t believe that. They are both challenging; both must draw readers in, but by using different tools.

Villalon goes on to say that fiction is somehow getting short shrift out of all of this. Fiction! I find it amazing that someone could believe that nonfiction has somehow come out on the more credible side while fiction writing is now considered “second rate,” particularly following the James Frey fiasco, Augusten Burroughs’ legal woes, and the fraud of Jason Blair in the NYT and Stephen Glass’ pieces in, yes, The New Republic. If anything, I think readers are a lot more skeptical of nonfiction than they’ve ever been. And fiction: Fiction writing is at the heart of every MFA program, most literary magazines, many prestigious writers’ colonies and grants, and many of the big-name, big-money awards. There is status in writing fiction that nonfiction writers rarely achieve (unless their books are blessed by Oprah) despite the fact that, as Villalon points out, nonfiction sells more.

Which made me wonder, who is this Villalon guy, anyway? Turns out he’s the 30-something book editor at the Chronicle, and he’s on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, the group that gives out the prestigious awards. He’s also an author. Of a book about thumb wrestling.

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2 thoughts on “Wanna thumb wrestle about it?

  1. Thumbwrestling. I so wish I would have thought of that first.

    Re: The Truth: I’m glad I don’t write much CNF (largely because I can’t stop makin’ stuff up). It’s an unresolvable issue–although I suppose we could make a new genre called something like “I exaggerated to make this way funnier.” I think there already is a categoy called “I lied a few times to make a better story” (uh, fiction). Although… what the hell is truth anyway? Ask any two people who experienced the same moment and you’ll get two different stories.

    Lastly: Yes, I’d love to join your “Send-out-stuff-each-week” club. Seriously: Accountability is GOOD.

  2. I’d love to be snarkier about the thumb wrestling book, but the profits go to help kids at 826 Valencia, so it’s hard to be critical.

    I agree, truth as you mentioned, is a tricky business. There is truth in novels, too, and the moment I realized that fiction writers draw heavily (and sometimes even base everything) on real life was a bitter one for me. I had naively always assumed that fiction was pure imagination. But imagination takes reality and tweaks it, just as nonfiction could be considered reality, untweaked. Or in this case, just less tweaked.

    The problem, really is that nonfiction, as I have said before, is a poor label. It’s a vague term. There are shades of gray, like Sedaris’ work.

    Oh, and I’m making Thursdays and Fridays my send stuff out days!

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