Public radio has been good for David Sedaris, and vice versa. In 1992, the then-unknown writer started to turn tales about his quirky upbringing and odd-job work history into the stuff of hilarious, and golden, memoir.
Starting with his reading on NPR of a now-beloved story about his experiences as an elf for a Macy’s Santa Claus, Sedaris has grown into one of America’s preeminent humorists, with a string of best-selling story collections. In addition to NPR’ s news programs, he is a semi-regular contributor to “This American Life,” a weekly public-radio program that features extensive first-person, nonfiction stories.
But in the wake of an episode in March in which a contributor to “This American Life” admitted to fabricating facts and people in his story, Sedaris’s work is undergoing new scrutiny.
The immediate question is whether Sedaris’s stories are, strictly speaking, true — an important consideration for journalistic organizations such as NPR and programs such as “This American Life.” A secondary consideration is what, if any, kind of disclosure such programs owe their listeners when broadcasting Sedaris’s brand of humor.
Then there’s this: Does it matter whether a humorous writer, working on a news or nonfiction program, makes stuff up?
Unlike a stand-up comedian or a comic literary stylist such as James Thurber, who engaged in obviously implausible situations, Sedaris’s stories fall into a gray area. They are rooted in real events and populated by presumably real people, with their humor derived from Sedaris’s comic “voice.” These exaggerations and comic interjections are evident to a listener or reader, and Sedaris has attested that they are essentially autobiographical. His best-selling books, such as “Naked” and “Barrel Fever,” have been sold as nonfiction.
Except it’s not that simple.
In a lengthy investigative article for New Republic magazine in 2007, writer Alex Heard fact-checked Sedaris’s output and found that he had invented characters and concocted important scenes in some pieces. In one story, for example, Sedaris described working as an orderly in a mental hospital with a co-worker named Clarence. Although Sedaris had once volunteered in the hospital, he told Heard that he hadn’t been an orderly and that Clarence was imaginary. The magazine titled Heard’s article “This American Lie.”
According to Heard, Sedaris also invented parts of a story called “SantaLand Diaries,” about his Christmastime experiences working at Macy’s. The story has become one of NPR’s most requested features and has been replayed on the daily “Morning Edition” program every year around Christmas since 2004.
In an author’s note in his most recent book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” Sedaris seemed to concede that not every experience he describes happened. He called his tales “realish.” (Sedaris could not be reached for an interview for this article.)
According to host and producer Ira Glass, “This American Life” began discussing Sedaris’s contributions to the program after an embarrassing episode in March, in which it acknowledged that a monologue by writer Mike Daisey contained numerous fabrications. The show “retracted” the program it aired in January, in which Daisey described harsh working conditions in the Chinese factories that make Apple’s iPhone, iPad and other products. Glass told listeners that Daisey had invented scenes, facts and people — which is exactly what Sedaris has said he’s done.
While the stories themselves are hardly equals — Daisey’s was a hard-hitting exposéabout industrial exploitation, Sedaris’s essays are light and personal — they both raise the question of what’s permissible in the context of a nonfiction program.
“Some of his characters are made up. You can’t use a nonfiction label and do that,” said Heard, the editorial director of Outside magazine. “Hilarious dialogue is the license he gave himself. . . . [But] if it’s nonfiction, you just can’t do that.”
Others defend Sedaris and his presentation by NPR and “This American Life,” saying the liberties he takes are justified because his intention is to draw laughs, not report serious information.
“I don’t think David ever posed himself as a journalist,” said Torey Malatia, who heads Chicago Public Media, which produces “This American Life.” “He’s a storyteller, a humorist. The giveaway is when he’s wildly exaggerating. It’s art. It’s fiction.”
Said Ellen McDonnell, NPR’s executive editor of news programming: “I guess, to me, [“SantaLand”] was just a holiday story. I mean, he was an elf! It was not a he said-she said, who-what-why story like Mike Daisey.”
Alicia Shepard, NPR’s former ombudsman and a visiting journalism professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, had a similar view. “David Sedaris has never been presented as a journalist,” she said. “He’s a storyteller. I do think there are different expectations. It’s acknowledged that he’s making things up.”
In fact, listeners would be unlikely to know this by the way NPR and “This American Life” present Sedaris on the air. NPR introduced its last rebroadcast of Sedaris reading “SantaLand” in December by calling it “a ‘Morning Edition’ holiday tradition.” It has used similar language in each of its rebroadcasts.
“This American Life” rebroadcast an old Sedaris monologue on May 5 — a nearly 15-minute piece about his family’s pets — without any hint that parts of it might have been untrue.
In an interview, Glass said no one at his program was concerned about Sedaris before the Daisey episode. “We just assumed the audience was sophisticated enough to tell that this guy is making jokes and that there was a different level of journalistic scrutiny that we and they should apply,” he said.
But the Daisey debacle has brought about a reassessment. Glass said three responses are under discussion: fact-checking each of Sedaris’s stories to ensure their accuracy, labeling them to alert the audience that the stories contain “exaggerations” or doing nothing.
At the moment, Glass said, he thinks the best course is to check Sedaris’s facts to the extent that stories involving memories and long-ago conversations can be checked. The New Yorker magazine subjects Sedaris’s work to its rigorous fact-checking regime before it publishes his stories.
Glass says labeling Sedaris’s stories presents its own problems: “It’s a hard thing to figure out how to do it in way that is respectful of the audience and is respectful of Sedaris.”
But people at NPR, which is separate from “This American Life’s” producer, Chicago Public Media, think the label option makes sense.
“When you have so much questioning of what’s real, fair, subjective and accurate in the news media, it doesn’t help to have [a segment] on a news program that gives no indication that some liberties have been taken,” said Edward Schumacher-Matos, NPR’s ombudsman, its independent in-house critic. “I do think some kind of flag or label or introduction would be appropriate.”
McDonnell and Shepard agree that a reader alert is warranted. Shepard suggests calling Sedaris’s work “a blend of fact and imagination.”
McDonnell goes further: “In my very clear hindsight, you’d call it fiction.”
"Stepping Out" by David Sedaris
The 2016 Common Community Reading “Stepping Out,” by David Sedaris
David Sedaris is one of the most noteworthy essayists of the late 20th and 21st centuries. His essays are typically very funny, but also point to difficult truths about human behavior. Often his essays deal with relatively “mature” content that would not be suitable for a Common Reading selection. However, “Stepping Out” deals, on the surface, with Sedaris’ obsession with his Fitbit activity tracker, a timely topic (our relationship with technology) that we believe you will find relatable. At another level, the essay is about obsession and addiction more generally, a topic that would have applications to other facets of Catawba’s Orientation. The essay also allows us to examine how “tracking” daily steps taken without looking at the larger picture is like focusing on individual college courses, rather than seeing the big picture about the nature and purpose of a Catawba College education. Still another level of the essay is the concept of relationships: with others, with a place, with oneself. Therefore, we believe that this selection represents a good choice for a “summer” reading, but also provides several layers for you to explore during a classroom-based discussion.
Reading and Study Guide
Before You Read
You are about to read an essay called “Stepping Out” by David Sedaris published in the Personal History section of The New Yorker. Active reading for college requires you to do some work before you actually begin reading. To prepare to read this article, please respond to the following:
- The author of this essay is David Sedaris. Use the Internet to find out something about him. (A simple Google search will do.) Who is he? What else has he written about? Where is he from?
- This essay was published in The New Yorker. What do you know about The New Yorker? Go to http://www.newyorker.com/ and find the “About Us” link at the bottom of the page. What does this tell you about the magazine? Who do you think reads this magazine? View the “Personal History” section at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/personal-history. How does this section differ in tone and audience from The New Yorker?
- Do you—or does someone you know—own a Fitbit, Jawbone, Vivosmart or other activity tracker? Why do you think these activity trackers have become so ubiquitous in the past 2-3 years?
While You Read
In college, it is important to read with a pen or pencil in your hand so you can mark passages that seem important (even if you can’t quite say why they’re important), confusing, or strange, and so that you can write down definitions of words you don’t know as you read. You could also write down reactions to what you read, or a note about what something reminds you of from another context.
First, print a copy of the essay. Your professor likely sent you a link to the essay, or forwarded it as a PDF. After you have printed it, please number the pages. This will make it easier for you to take notes and to participate in a discussion of it during Orientation.
Next, read the list of questions that follows. It is important to read them all before you begin reading the essay so that you know what kind of information to be looking for.
As you read, make notes about the following questions and anything else you want to.
- Sedaris appears to anthropomorphize (look it up!) his activity tracker. In one example, his partner, Hugh, asks him why twelve thousand steps isn’t enough. Sedaris replies, “Because… my Fitbit thinks I can do better.” How might assigning human emotions to a thing be harmful?
- In many ways, this essay is a narrative of relationships. We meet Lesley, Thelma, Dawn, Janine, Maja, and Hugh. As these people are mentioned, underline their names and then write in the margin what these relationships are based on (friendship, fitness, love, etc.).
- Consider how these relationships change or are replaced as Sedaris grows more and more obsessed with his Fitbit.
- How does his relationship with place (airports, country roads, home) evolve? Write your ideas in the margins as you encounter these places.
- I was traveling myself when I got my Fitbit, and because the tingle feels so good, not just as a sensation but also as a mark of accomplishment, I began pacing the airport…
- Why is it that some people can manage a thing like a Fitbit, while others go off the rails and allow it to rule, and perhaps even ruin, their lives?
- I was devastated when I tapped the broadest part of it and the little dots failed to appear. Then I felt a great sense of freedom. It seemed that my life was now my own again… I lasted five hours before I ordered a replacement, express delivery.
How might these lines lend the essay a darker tone, pushing it into a story about addiction? Are these quotes meant to be taken at face value? Or, is there a level of playfulness or sarcasm? Are there similar quotes in the essay that strike the same chord? Underline them.
After You Finish Reading
Now that you have finished reading the essay, spend some time reflecting on it. Respond to the following questions, in writing. You should have a conversation with the text. Write down questions you have about the meaning of words, points of disagreement with the author, or to remind yourself to think more deeply about specific passages after your first reading.
Throughout the essay, Sedaris introduces us to a number of friends. How does his relationship with this technology – his Fitbit – enhance and/or detract from his relationships with people?
- How might relationships with technology generally, or with specific modern technologically-advanced gadgets (such as our smartphones and tablets, other wearable tech devices, etc.) impact our relationships with people in a positive manner? In a negative manner?
Now consider your undergraduate education at Catawba College.
- How could you measure your success at Catawba?
- Is your degree audit, an “education tracker” that lists all of your completed courses, an effective measure of how far you’ve come in reaching your undergraduate goals? Are grades?
- How is treating the “tracking” of your college education through courses taken and grades earned similar and dissimilar to Sedaris’ tracking of his “steps” rather than physical fitness?
- What is the goal of college education, its overarching purpose?
- What do you think is the difference between “mastery” and “performance” in college?
- Are all of your goals at Catawba educational in nature? How would you go about measuring your progress on these non-educational goals?
An activity tracker is meant, at least at some level, to motivate people. The Fitbit website, for example, proclaims, “Whether you want to use heart rate to take your fitness to the next level or just want to see how your steps add up each day, there’s a Fitbit tracker for your goals.”
- What intrigues Sedaris about the Fitbit he notices on Lesley’s wrist?
- At what point in the narrative do you think his Fitbit becomes more of an obsession than a motivation? Or does it?
- What is the difference between motivation to reach goals and an obsession?
Think about the story that Sedaris tells when recalling his experience with the Fitbit. He recalls his memorable experiences and observations (for example, the toffee-colored cow giving birth, the animals and kinds of trash he sees).
- Do these observations improve his commentary on his Fitbit experience?
- Would he have had these experiences and learned new things about his neighbors and neighborhood without the Fitbit?
- How do you think unexpected experiences you will have at Catawba will shape your story? Will they change you in important ways? Will they enrich your time here?
What questions or ideas do you have about this text that you would like to raise during your seminar’s discussion of the article?