Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Not Quite a Red Letter Day for Vowell and Sedaris

David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell brought a couple of hours of This American Life to this Santa Barbara on Saturday, and the truth be told, I have to spend some time talking about what the truth is. Sedaris opened by indirectly referencing the tempest in the press pot of late created by Alex Heard's article in The New Republic (no link, as it's a pay story--gee, you'd think TNR was as worthy a pub as the News-Press) that calls out Sedaris for making shit up (and he is sort of obsessed with excrement--a diary entry about a Japanese barber with shit-stained hand joins the ranks with the giant turd in the Parisian toilet and his grandma's scary brown towels--, but let's not get sidetracked trying to pin his psycho-development). The question becomes can you lie in nonfiction, and if you do, how horrible a person does it make you.

For it seems writers beyond Heard find fudging your shit to be a big no-no. Oscar Villalon in the San Francisco Chronicle argues there are only two reasons for non-fiction writers to lie:

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.

I don't mean to get bogged down in attacking these two points, as the first suggests most readers aren't very smart ("golly gee, if I'm going to bother to read, I better get me some book-learning"), and the second suggests readers are very gullible ("he told me it's true so it must be, golly gee"). Instead, I have to point out that Villalon ignores the 20th century and the thinking that got done in it that suggests we might not ever know anything, and that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle applies to literature as much as the arts. Terms like fiction and nonfiction are both fiction, at this point, and each and every reader has to figure out what's "true" and what's "funny" and if those two words have to do anything at all with each other.

Meanwhile, back to the stage of the Arlington in Santa Barbara, upon which Sedaris never mentioned the to-do directly, but instead joked about the two things he would say that were untrue that evening, and would also go on to talk about his wife Gail. And how her poor uterus fell out in shock upon learning about the drug-addict writer (the never mentioned, yet pardoned, yet savaged James Frey) who lied in his book she loved so much. In the meantime Sedaris wondered if his fibs compared to a country claiming another country had some bad weapons and used that lie to invade the other country...sure enough, we seem awfully eager to castigate our writers and let our politicians not be driven from office with pitchforks and torches. It's one thing to re-create quotes from your childhood; it's absolutely another to sit quietly like a George Tenet till that book deal comes through. But maybe that's just me.

OK, as for the reading itself, truth be told, or at least my version of it, we may be in the land of diminishing returns for both writers. Sedaris might be cruising on his best tropes at this point, for in addition to the shit schtick (me talk potty one day?), he's recently been to Japan and his diary entries from that trip have a lot of the "lost in translation" humor he has mined so well before (especially in "Jesus Shaves"). He can't talk Japanese; the Japanese can't talk English; verbal hijinks ensue. Eventually he'll have to travel to outerspace and hope there's actually non-English ETs with which he can trade intergalactic mangled phrases. His longest piece, due out in the New Yorker in a couple of weeks, seemed an effort to be a bit more serious as it examined his semi-friendship with the sex offender who lived in his small French willage [sic], and thereby considered what is beyond the pale. Maybe its point was to make us wonder how we ourselves might be violating this man (with a plate in his head) by laughing at him, and as with much Sedaris, it's not like he's writing to make us think better of him.

Vowell probably was more rewarding for those who don't know her work well. She opened with a piece about John C. Freemont's non-hardy but very talented cartographer Charles Preuss, a fun look at an inadvertent explorer but we managed to hear it two weekends in a row on KCRW's broadcasts of This American Life. For her longest segment she read the admittedly uproarious section of Assassination Vacation about the Oneida Community, a truly American mix of utopianism, conserving precious bodily fluids, and the making of "products" including James Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau and durable kitchen goods. This topic is perfect for her wry eye, as it captures a kind of hope and hypocrisy that is ripe for ribbing. But again, Amy and I were pretty sure we've heard her read this passage before, and I did read the book. (Still, fans want to hear Springsteen do "Born to Run," so maybe I'm just a pissy audience member.)

Still, it might just be that both Sedaris and Vowell have set such high standards that even they can't live up to them. I did laugh, and isn't that enough to expect for a Saturday night out?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I have to point out that Villalon ignores the 20th century and the thinking that got done in it that suggests we might not ever know anything"

And well he might, since pomo is largely a pile of crap. I suggest you go read David Hume, who wrote back in the 17th century, and had much more sensible things to say about epistemological uncertainty.

"and that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle applies to literature as much as the arts"

No, Heisenberg's Principle applies to neither; it only applies to canonical conjugate quantities, specifically the momentum and location of objects. It seems that you have ignored the lesson of Alan Sokal, and what physicist Murray Gell-mann said:

"One project I worked on at Caltech involved trying to understand the approximate symmetries of the elementary particle system — particularly the hadrons or strongly interacting particles (including the neutron and proton and their brothers and sisters and the pi mesons and their brothers and sisters). I tried various higher symmetry schemes and then finally hit upon what I called the eightfold way, with the group SU(3) as an approximate symmetry. That worked very nicely. At the time I was interested in India and in the various religious traditions of India — not that I would embrace any religion — my interest was merely academic. I thought it would be a good joke to call the scheme the eightfold way, since the particles tended in many cases to come in sets of eight. Some silly people wrote books trying to connect my work on particle physics with oriental mysticism, whereas the connection was only a joke."

9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Er, make that the 1700's, i.e., the 18th century -- truth be told.

9:39 AM  
Blogger George said...

Dear anon--

Sure, I'm playing fast and loose with my physics (and metaphysics?), but if there's any place post-modernism isn't a pile a crap it's literature. Fiction and nonfiction as "genres" is more or less marketing at this point, for all writing is performance.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Melissa McEwan said...

I just read Heard's article, and some of his complaints struck me as wholly silly. When he was going on about how Sedaris' speech lessons weren't precisely as he "memoired" them, I wanted to pant dramatically, "What?! Say it isn't so! Oh my stars and garters!" and demand to be carried tout de suite to a fainting couch.

I mean, who read that and thought it was a straight retelling?! It was so evidently a child's story overlayered with the imprint of adulthood to me that I cannot imagine taking it seriously enough to complain it "shouldn't be labeled nonfiction."

Much ado about nothing, if you ask me--and I'm normally a pretty intractable pedant, lol.

Random Aside: I'm reading Sarah Vowell's "Assassination Vacation" right now and it's brilliant.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Trekking Left said...

George - I have to disagree with you on this one. I thought Sedaris and Vowell were great. And the "rapid-fire" exchange where he read diary entries and she read letters was different and quite entertaining. I've seen both of them separately, and I thought this was a real treat.

Anonymous - In Star Trek, they invented the Heisenberg Compensator to get past that pesky problem preventing the success of the transporter. So, there you go.

4:08 PM  
Blogger George said...

Trekking, I saw the two of them do the tag team thing before at UCLa a few years back, and that time, too, they did a more rapid fire thing near the end, so I guess it's more a problem of me seeing them too often than a problem with them.

4:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In Star Trek ..."

In the world of pomo, Star Trek physics is as valid as the stuff done by real life physicists -- both are just "narratives" reflecting to social habits of the narrators.

1:17 AM  
Blogger Marty said...

Anonymous, don't make me go Godel's on your ass. Hume was interesting, as was Bacon (extra crispy, please [apologies]), as was Hobbes (Leviathan makes a horrible, instructive sense and explains our sudden infatuation with security uber civil liberties), but not as much as Calvin (the cartoon kid, not the protestant whacko heaven-is-a-wonderful-quarterly-report guy [how pomo is THAT!{btw, using pomo in the lower case is, well, pretty pomo, but I'm not pomophobic or anything]), and Hegel and Marx and Nietzsche and Wittgenstein (who wrote a whole book on certainty called, appropriately enough, On Certainty) and Lacan and Derrida, who was a philospher (who thus had to read Hume or he would have been making Lattes or baguettes instead of intellectual chaos), not a literary critic despite what you may have heard (Where'd Freud go? Mom? MOM!). When the poet says let be be finale of seem (and let fees be finale of "No more taxes"), Wallace means it's all words (that'll be ten dollars, please) and seem is all we have and you're taking a metaphor literally (which means you don't understand metaphors), or, if you do understand metaphors, you'd certainly understand that "literature as much as the arts" is an ironic tautology and merits no such literal physics analysis. But most importantly, they will ship Turley to Georgia as long as I order it in person, and I have. Cheers.

1:48 AM  
Blogger George said...

Marty--Something tells me that you bought some Turley and drank it prior to that 1:48 am entry, but I still more than approve. Although I was hopnig you'd break into Monty Python's "Philosopher's Song."

I blog therefore I am.

8:32 AM  
Anonymous sbukophile said...

I thought that Sedaris and Vowell were great--I was roaring with laughter all evening. I think the criticism of Sedaris is really nitpicky. Who cares that much about whether each piece is true down to the last tiny detail? I thought it was great how he "answered" his critics with that story and his wife Gail.

5:28 PM  

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