David Sedaris, Mike Daisey, and the Problem With American Storytelling

When your career is telling true stories — not writing fiction — and somebody accuses you of lying, that’s got to be tough. When somebody combs over your work and finds evidence that this is, in fact, the case, that you and your publisher are misrepresenting your partially fabricated work as truth, big problems arise. It may highlight how the sad state that art of storytelling has become in America, that we need to fabricate stories — but sometimes, amid our denunciation of liars and frauds, we forget that fabrication has always been part of that art.

Fabricating was, of course, the big problem with Mike Daisey and his This American Life episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” A few months after the show’s premiere, in 2012, it was revealed that Daisey had reported on things that “actually happened when he visited China,” as well as “things that he just heard about or researched,” in a piece that came out of a monologue he’d been performing since 2010. After that, the hits kept coming and coming, rendering Daisey’s credibility pretty much nonexistent — and leaving many to wonder how he could salvage any sort of career from that very public wreckage.

But long before Daisey, a similar controversy attached itself to another figure associated with This American Life: David Sedaris, whose work prompted one woman to proclaim, “He’s lying through his teeth.” It was Sedaris who, in 2007, had to deflect criticism when Alex Heard at The New Republic realized that a few of the things Sedaris wrote about in his book Naked just didn’t sound all that believable. Although Heard arrived at the conclusion that Sedaris “exaggerates too much for a writer using the nonfiction label,” but didn’t end up giving the writer the “James Frey treatment,” the questions about the level of honesty in Sedaris’ work were there. And yet they hardly put a dent in his popularity or his sales.

Daiseygate happened, and the conversation around Sedaris making up parts of his stories started popping up again, prompting Ira Glass and his producers to take a longer look at Sedaris’ work, in the hopes of avoiding (or at least catching) another huge mistake with one of the show’s marquee contributors. Since Daisey’s admission and This American Life‘s retraction, Sedaris has contributed twice to the show, and a look at his list of past contributions reveals that he appeared on the show less and less as his books sold more and more, so what happened with Daisey probably had very little to do with it.

Fast forward to today: Sedaris has a new story in The New Yorker about using Fitbit, the week after Daisey announced his latest one-man show, Yes All Women, at the Public Theatre in New York  — which he later changed to Yes This Man, because, as Daisey said, “Twitter blew up about the show. People were outraged and furious.” It’s proof that no matter what Daisey does, he’s wearing a scarlet letter, although any guy who names his own show after the #yesallwomen hashtag surely has a problem with judgment. It was in poor taste on Daisey’s part to co-opt the hashtag after it was created as a direct response to the University of California at Santa Barbara shooting rampage in May, but it did leave me wondering if the response to the title would have been any different had a man other than the disgraced Daisey used it. If you’re a man, you have to have a very great reason to make that the title of your show; Daisey (or any man, for that matter) getting paid to talk about “how our world is built on the subjugation and ownership of women, and how men perpetuate that violence every day” isn’t it.

Ultimately, Sedaris and Daisey don’t have much in common outside of their shared association with This American Life and the calls to scrutinize their work after questions arose about how true their stories were. The biggest difference between the two is the fact that Daisey added (maybe adds; I’m not familiar with his work after the Apple story) journalism to his stories, while Sedaris is a humorist; if he does fabricate things, the impact on world affairs is minimal. But as Heard pointed out in 2007, Sedaris’ work still shouldn’t be considered nonfiction. Mark Twain told a lot of stories from what he claimed were part of the Mark Twain life story, not the Samuel Clemens one. We love him just the same — but we don’t consider many of those stories nonfiction.

Daisey is another story, since his fabrications about Apple did have an impact — one that should have been more positive than negative, since it made more people aware of the deplorable conditions people work under to make the things we casually purchase. But it wasn’t the truth, and ultimately it hurt Daisey’s cause far more than it helped.

These are the essential differences between Sedaris and Daisey, but the bigger issue is how far both storytellers need to go — and what they need to claim about the stories they’re telling — to get people to take notice, and how much we’re willing to tolerate from them. Sedaris will no doubt keep on writing his strange stories, and people will continue to buy them; Daisey’s future is a little bit tougher to predict. Whether or not you agree with this outcome depends on how firm a line you take on what we call nonfiction; if you care about it at all, though, then it’s worth worrying about the extent to which American storytelling has come to rely on embellished stories presented as pure truth.