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Critic not laughing at humorist's work.

Byline: Mark Baker The Register-Guard

Success + fame + accusations = trouble.

Not that David Sedaris has been indicted by any means. We're not talking James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" here. Or anything in the same vein, for that matter.

But Sedaris - the best-selling humorist, memoirist and frequent National Public Radio commentator who appears Sunday at the University of Oregon - is the latest nonfiction writer to go under the microscope for allegedly stretching the truth a bit in his work.

Of course, maybe this is all just a marketing problem, says Lauren Kessler, UO journalism professor and successful nonfiction author herself.

"I don't believe that memoir is nonfiction," Kessler says. "I am sorry the publishing world has decided to label it that way."

A March 14 article titled "This American Lie" by Alex Heard in The New Republic magazine accuses Sedaris of not just stretching the truth in his popular books of autobiographical essays. It accuses him of outright fabrications.

"It's fine to use absurdly embellished descriptions for laughs - this is an essential tool for any humorist," Heard writes. "It's not fine to pretend - in a long and detailed scene - that you performed outlandish, dangerous tasks at a mental hospital when you didn't.

`And Sedaris definitely didn't."

Sedaris was on tour and unavailable for comment, said a representative for his agent, the Steven Barclay Agency of Petaluma, Calif. He has admitted, in response to Heard's article, of exaggerating many of his stories over the years for comedic effect, but says he has never completely fabricated anything in his writings.

"What do you think a mental hospital is?" Sedaris told Long Island's Newsday recently. "They're not going to say, 'Oh, yeah, we're a real hellhole, a real pit.' People aren't buying my books or showing up because they think every word is true.

`They're showing up because they want to laugh."

The nurse says no

Heard writes that he fact-checked four of Sedaris' books: 1994's "Barrel Fever," 1997's "Naked," 2000's "Me Talk Pretty One Day" and 2004's "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim."

The mental hospital that Heard and Sedaris refer to is Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, N.C., where the 50-year-old Sedaris worked briefly in the summer of 1970, when he was 13.

In an essay titled `Dix Hill' and anthologized in "Naked," Sedaris describes a bizarre and hilarious scene in which he helps an orderly with a patient, an older, naked woman who lurches from her bed and sinks "her remaining three teeth into my forearm."

Heard called the hospital and spoke with a registered nurse who's worked there since 1969. He faxed her a copy of the story, then called her back after she'd read it.

"He's lying through his teeth!" responded the woman, Margaret Raynor. Raynor referred not just to the incident with the patient, but to everything, from the hospital's Gothic style to the hospital's name, which Sedaris calls Dorothea Dix Sanitarium in his essay.

Several newspaper book editors and reporters have come to Sedaris' defense since the publication of Heard's article.

"How angry should the reader be with Sedaris?" writes Tom Walker in the Denver Post. "He is a humorist, after all, and we have always given humorists more rope.

`Hyperbole is their metier. Shaping the material to comic effect is what they do."

Tom Bivins, media ethics professor at the UO School of Journalism and Communication, agrees.

"I think it's a little dangerous to try and pigeonhole certain types of writers, and I think Sedaris falls into that category," Bivins says. "I think humorists need a little leeway."

Bivins also agrees with Kessler in that much of the problem here is the publishing industry's labeling of humor and memoir as "nonfiction."

If Sedaris' publishers insist on calling his work nonfiction, then it should probably be the "unembellished truth," Bivins says. If what he's writing is the "elaborated truth" then they should call it something else.

"Maybe we just need a new name for what he does," Bivins says.

Lies, damn lies and storytellers

At a Feb. 9 conference in Portland, "Keeping the Non in Nonfiction," sponsored by the School of Journalism and Communication's Turnbull Center, Kessler further addressed the issue.

She said telling stories is "at the heart of being human. And we want them to be good, whether we're telling our children a story at bedtime or writing a story for the newspaper. We want to grab the reader's attention, make the story meaningful, sad, funny, quirky, important.

"And so, at the heart of telling stories is embroidery and embellishment," Kessler said. That's why the fish we caught grows 6 inches, she says. Or the clever retort that we actually thought of 10 minutes later ends up in a memoir.

"And we don't think of ourselves as liars when we do it,' she says. `We think of ourselves as damn good story- tellers."

Kessler says that she has never read Sedaris as factual.

"I think if you were to sic an investigative reporter on anybody's memoir, I would bet that close to 100 percent would show that some elements of some story being told, were made up."

To hold Sedaris to the same standard as a newspaper reporter or an author of serious nonfiction would be "silly," she says.

PERFORMANCE PREVIEW

"An Intimate Evening With David Sedaris"

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Erb Memorial Union Ballroom, 1222 E. 13th Ave

Tickets: $40 general public, $30 UO students; EMU ticket office or www.ticketswest.com

Reach Mark Baker at 338-2374 or mbaker@guardnet.com.
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Title Annotation:Entertainment; David Sedaris is under fire for stretching the truth, but writing experts defend his use of exaggeration
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 27, 2007
Words:921
Previous Article:Sterns deliver, start to finish.
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