The recent publication of David Sedaris’ new collection of autobiographical essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, has reignited a debate among critics as to whether the best-selling comedic author’s stories are based on fact or fiction. Since author James Frey was exposed in 2006 for fabricating parts of his supposed memoir A Million Little Pieces, memoirists have faced greater scrutiny.
What the commentators said
David Sedaris has always admitted “that he exaggerates for effect,” said Sarah Lyall in The New York Times. In his new book, there’s even an author’s note that “describes the stories as ‘realish.’” As far as Sedaris is concerned, “reality is a subjective, slippery concept, particularly as no two people have the same recollection of the same event.” But in these post–James Frey times we live in, “readers and critics are especially sensitive to signs of fabulism in nonfiction.”
Well, Sedaris “recently came to the defense of James Frey,” said Thomas Connor in the Chicago Sun-Times. But “regardless of where you stand on the issue of playing fast and loose with the truth, you may emerge from Sedaris’ latest collection of essays wishing he’d played it a little faster and looser—‘cause it ain’t very funny.” So considering the fact that real life “isn’t always funny,” Sedaris just might be “the more truthful and honest of the humorous memoirists.”
“It doesn’t matter whether the reported facts really happened,” said the blog Hobart. All that matters is that a writer is artfully honest with the reader. “If David Sedaris has to take a few liberties to spark some genuine feeling in us, or take us somewhere we never imagined we could go, that seems like a fair trade.”