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June 17, 2012

Lying Memoirists and a Farewell to Arms







If it’s been a while since I used this space to whine about dissembling brother memoirists, well, there are a couple of reasons for that.

The first is just my genetic incapacity to make whining entertaining. Superior comedic minds can “work mad,” can channel their outrage into hysterical art. Lewis Black, the late Sam Kinison, and the later Muammar Gaddafi, to name but three, could spin their bile into comedy gold. My whining, in contrast, is about as inspiring as that of a six-year-old child or a Daily Caller correspondent. And not exactly a ratings bonanza, either: searches for “David Sedaris ethics violations” can’t quite keep up with “Katrina Law naked,” though I can’t for the life of me imagine why.

As for the other reason, I’ll leave it for later, in the (thoroughly justified, it seems) hope that you won’t read that far.

Anyway, this is essentially an announcement of my retirement from griping about the likes of David Sedaris. You see, back in March, John Cook wrote this piece for Gawker that pretty much obviates the need for me to revisit this topic ever again, thus freeing me up to spend more quality time with all of you breaking down Spartacus nude scenes and deconstructing obscure Japanese porn. Yippee.

I mean, just read the piece. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Personally, I would have left out the dismissal of Sedaris as “a silly little Greek man.” My view remains that Sedaris is an exceptionally gifted storyteller—just not a memoirist. (At this stage, need I even bother to link to the earlier, oft-cited Alex Heard piece on Sedaris, which drew admissions from the author himself that he had created entire characters that never existed and put himself into situations that never occurred? Well, all right then: here.) The unfortunate ad hominem notwithstanding, Cook’s piece really says everything I ever wanted to say on this topic.

Okay, there I go again, belching out thick, gray graphs of humorless whining. But before I leave the Cook piece, let me caution you to stop reading once you reach the end of Cook. Do not venture into the comments. I realize that that is trite, boilerplate advice along the lines of “Don’t fellate yourself with the vacuum cleaner” and “Don’t have sex if you’re in a horror movie pitched at teens,” but it bears repeating in the case of Cook’s column.

I made the mistake of skimming those comments with every expectation of finding fans of Sedaris and of David Foster Wallace (who is also taken to task in the piece, along with some heretofore unheard-of life form improbably called “Mike Daisey”) in the proverbial high dudgeon, rallying to their heroes and piling on the eminently reasonable Cook.

Boy, was I wrong. Many a comment began with “I agree with you completely,” “Exactly this,” “This is dead on,” etc., etc. I felt properly ashamed at my lack of faith in the American reading public. Sedaris/Wallace fans or no, these commenters knew a well-reasoned argument when they saw one and had the grace to salute it.

But then I made the blunder of reading those same comments more carefully and discovered that all that agreeing and dead on-ing and cyber-high-fiving and such was directed not at Cook, the author of the piece, but at the very first commenter,* who “totally destroys” Cook, in the eyes of one of her sycophants.

I suppose Cook’s misstep was the bundling of Sedaris, who is only liked, with David Foster Wallace, who is liked, revered, and dead—a pretty potent combo for a writer if you’re lucky enough to snag it. Though some of the commenters appeared to try to pass themselves off as readers of both “DFW” and Sedaris, I have my doubts about that. I think Cook managed to draw the Sedaris fans out of the woodwork and the DFW aficionados out of the wainscoting, creating an unholy alliance where none had previously existed. In any event, he should have followed my lead of pairing Sedaris with Augusten Burroughs, whom nobody has ever really liked.

Right, then: I suppose we have shed practically all of our readers by this stage in this tedious whimperfest, so that I can now safely trot out my second reason.

Let me do so in my usual roundabout manner, just to shake off any readers who may still be tailing me. I published two memoirs during the previous decade. When it came time to select a category for them (i.e., fiction or nonfiction), I wavered, but eventually settled on “fiction” for both. This decision, I’m proud to note, had much less to do with fears of litigation and more to do with something akin to a sense of morality. Both books contained long tracts of dialogue reconstructed from vaguely remembered snippets, for example, and events that were almost certainly told out of sequence or remembered inaccurately.

I’ve already documented the fabrications in my first memoir, the bestseller How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks and Doom Your Immortal Soul, at length here.** I’ve been meaning to give the same treatment to my second memoir, but am still holding out hope that someone might actually buy it first in order to make the exercise more meaningful.

Okay, so fast-forward to winter 2011, when I was preparing my third book, Wussie: In Praise of Spineless Men, for release as an ebook.

This book is not a memoir per se. Of its twenty chapters, twelve are either carefully researched (by my standards, at least) biographies of notable wussies, or essays on some or other aspect of wussitude itself. The remaining eight consist of autobiographical episodes from my high school days or early teaching career in Japan.

Thus, when I had to make that critical, irreversible decision—fiction or nonfiction—well, I sort of…kind of went with nonfiction this time. Given that the bulk of it really is nonfiction, don’t you see… Heh-heh…

This, of course, is the height of disingenuousness. Some of those eight memoir-ish chapters run pretty long and consist of multiple anecdotes, and I do not skimp on the fiction-like devices that I used in the two previously published memoirs, such as reconstructed dialogue, the telescoping of events, and worse. Here are two examples of “and worse.”

In Chapter 11, “A Tale of Two English Teachers,” I recount the humiliating defeat suffered in a staredown with a student by our high school English teacher, Mr. Black. I go on to note that my colleagues and I on the underground newspaper staff thereafter concocted and published a cartoon melodramatically reconstructing the event, to Mr. Black’s further mortification.

Prior to publication, I contacted “Penniman,” the artist for the newspaper, seeking a scan of the comic in question. He replied that, while he did indeed draw such a comic, it was never published in the newspaper.

I felt fairly sure that it had been published, or at least I managed to convince myself that I felt that way, and let the story stand as I had (by that time) already written it. Of course, you’d think that the person who actually drew the thing would have a better recollection of its eventual fate, right?

Later, in Chapter 13 (“One Wussie’s Obsession with Naked Ladies: Five Increasingly Disturbing Anecdotes”), in a story titled “Field Trip,” I describe leading a small class of Japanese students to an English library in Tokyo where they could practice research skills prior to gaining admission to U.S. universities. A demure young woman in our group named Noriko put on a long and lavish and entirely unintentional display of cleavage there while hunkered over a reference book placed on a low table, and I gleefully observed her male classmates taking turns perving on this display.

A central character in the story is one such classmate, Tadashi, a gloomy, silent specter with psychological issues. The story concludes with Tadashi finally noticing Noriko’s cleavage and smiling for the first time in memory.

About that, then… All the people in the story are real. In fact, finding myself in a fake-naming slump, I just stuck some of them with their actual names. The lengthy, accidental cleavage display? Solid truth. The recently engaged, evangelical Christian student who took particular interest in said cleavage? I stand by that. Tadashi’s reaction to the cleavage—and, for that matter, his very presence in the library—ah… Well…

I went back and forth on this story for quite a while. My best estimate at the probabilities for Tadashi’s participation in this story are as follows:

That Tadashi was in the library on that day: 75% (He joined the class midway through the term, but the library trip always came near the end of the term. He was probably there.)

That Tadashi noticed Noriko’s cleavage: 60% (I mean, it was really hard to miss, and went on longer than an Allman Brothers’ drum solo.)

That the wonderful cleavage caused Tadashi to brighten, and may have cured his depression: 5% (Ah… Yes… How about them Dodgers?)

Well, it could have happened. I have no memory to the contrary. But I have no memory of it, either.

After agonizing over that ending, I just succumbed. I just couldn’t divorce myself from that bit, and now it sits there smack in the middle of a book that I have deliberately chosen to market as nonfiction. As a result, I must sell off the High Horse that I have been riding all these years vis-à-vis lying brother memoirists like Sedaris and Burroughs—and maybe Wallace, too, though I’m happy to let Cook work that side of the street.

Let me close by quoting one of the more cretinous commenters on Cook’s article, if only to take the spotlight off myself. The person is attempting to drive a wedge between this Mike Daisey creature and writers that he/she happens to like:

Sedaris and DFW are editing [sic] storytellers, using the flexibility of memory to their advantage. Daisey just straight up lied.

Once again—and this is my last shot on this topic, trust me here—let’s be clear: David Sedaris has knowingly projected himself into entire situations that never occurred. Nothing remotely similar to the events depicted in such stories ever happened to him. He created characters who had no real-life doppelganger and put copious amounts of funny dialogue into their nonexistent mouths. Then he brought forth those books as nonfiction and allowed them to be sold as nonfiction to millions of readers, the majority of whom have no inkling as to the extent of his penchant for “exaggeration.”

If that’s “the flexibility of memory,” then I’m a homophobic midget guitar teacher.

But I, too, am a sinner. I, too, have “said the thing which is not” under the nonfiction banner now. And that, above all else, is why I’m shunning this topic from here on out.

Catch you two weeks later with either Spartacus or porn.





* I suppose the customary approach here would be to summarize and then dismantle the arguments put forth by said commenter, but doing so would require several drinks, and June, alas, is one of the months traditionally set aside around here for tea-totaling. Just take my word for it that the reasoning has all the heft of a Herman Cain stump speech.








** Oh, by the way: calling it a bestseller is also kind of a fabrication.