Lies and memories: When stories read a little too good.

Media criticism.
March 27 2007 7:02 PM

Lies and Memories

When stories read a little too good.

(Continued from Page 1)

Another public storyteller whose personal recollections don't jibe with reality is David Sedaris. Alex Heard's examination of Sedaris' nonfiction in the March 19 New Republic reveals the humorist taking broad and routine liberties with the facts in pursuit of laughs.

Sedaris' stories derive their punch from the fact that they're supposed to be true, a standard he embraces in the introduction to his 1997 collection Naked. "The events described in these stories are real," Sedaris writes. Even so, nobody expects a humorist to apply the absolute faithfulness to characters, dialogue, and events in his stories that an AP reporter brings to a congressional-hearing dispatch. No scold, Heard bends like a contortionist to accommodate Sedaris, writing that it's OK for a "humorist to recreate dialogue that captures the general spirit of how a conversation unfolded."

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But this artistic license doesn't give humorists the right to remember their stories more vividly than they actually happened and still call them real. If humorists pipe lines of dialogue like a playwright (as we now know Sedaris does) or remold scenes from life like a novelist (as we also know he does), they're basically writing fiction and should cop to it. If we label Sedaris' pieces fiction, are they as hilarious? I think not, and I think Sedaris knows that, and I think that's why he presents them as nonfiction.

Sedaris and Randall retooled their stories for the same reason we improve ours around the campfire: to make them better. The biggest difference between their lies and ours is the transmutative power of print: Fib about doing a little post-graduate work at Berkeley, and it's unlike that anybody will bother you. Print it on your resume and let that circulate, and it may prove to be your ruin.

A second New York Times piece earned a chiding editors' note on Sunday: It documents the similarities between an anecdote found in Ben Schott's March 4 Times Book Review essay, "Confessions of a Book Abuser," and one found in Ann Fadiman's essay "Never Do That to a Book," published in her 1998 book Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.

Schott's piece describes being berated by a chambermaid in a foreign hotel for mistreating a book. So does Fadiman's. The punch line in Schott's essay, "Sir, that is no way to treat a book!" echoes Fadiman's, "Sir, you must never do that to a book."

Now, the similarities could be easily explained if the same chambermaid policed books in both Copenhagen and Lake Como hotels or if chambermaids everywhere are taught to admonish book defilers. But I don't think so. Schott insists he didn't read the Fadiman essay prior to writing his, telling the Times the chambermaid reprimanded him in 1989 when he was 15, which came nine years before Fadiman's essay appeared in a book. The Times editors' note doesn't accuse Schott of plagiarism but states that had it been aware of Fadiman's essay, it wouldn't have published his.

If Schott really experienced the event, I apologize for drawing him into this discussion. So, without calling anyone a liar, let's hypothesize how Schott's story might have come to be. Perhaps it happened to him (his version). Or maybe he read a review of Fadiman's book that included the chambermaid story and found it such a good story that he decided over time that it was something that could have happened to him. Or maybe he heard somebody tell the story in a bar and decided that it was something that should have happened to him because of his book-abusing ways. Perhaps Schott told this story so many times that by the time he typed it into his Times essay he had come to honestly regard it as his possession. If so, he wouldn't be the first.

Randall's wartime lies remind journalists that if a source's story is too good to be true, it probably isn't. The Sedaris inquiry instructs readers not to become too invested in a personal history that seems too funny, too sad, or too true. And the Schott affair suggests ever so gently that sometimes memory is a liar.

******

Who first said "memory is a liar"? I've forgotten! "A liar should have a good memory" is attributed to Quintilian (A.D. c. 35 to A.D. c. 95), but that's not the same thing. Let's crowdsource this one and find out who coined it! Send your findings to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Disclosure: Alex Heard is a friend. Also, I once wrote a piece for the Times Magazine and the fact-checkers were wickedly thorough. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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