Fame has its privileges
Jack Shafer weighs in today on the issue of David Sedaris's exaggerations, giving me the opportunity to mention something I thought of a little while back. (Unlike Shafer, I live on Internet time, and assumed no one cared anymore by the time it occurred to me.)
I have mixed feelings about this whole thing. On the one hand, I'm among those people who always assumed that Sedaris told some stretchers in his non-fiction, and even if Alex Heard showed that he sometimes did a bit more than that, I couldn't get too worked up about it. Big fucking deal, right? (For the record, I don't think Heard got too worked up either; his piece was pretty gentle and understanding, all things considered.) (And while I'm in parenthetical mode, I'll mention that I used to be friendly with Heard several years ago.)
But something was gnawing at me, and eventually I realized what it was: Rodney Rothman.
Rothman was the writer of a very funny article that appeared in The New Yorker in November, 2000 called My Fake Job, in which he recounted his stint working at a tech company that had in fact never hired him. The shit hit the fan when it came out that Rothman had sexed up a few details and obscured others. Nothing major, just the kind of stuff that David Sedaris does.
Only Sedaris is still a New Yorker regular, while Rothman will never write for that magazine -- or perhaps any other -- again.
"It doesn't matter that this was a lighthearted piece," editor David Remnick said at the time. "We can't mix fact and fiction or change details without telling the reader. And it was important to come clean and apologize as soon as we were made aware of this problem."
As Shafer notes, "Most of the pieces cited by Heard come from an earlier part of Sedaris' career, before he was such a regular contributor to The New Yorker, which fact-checks even conjunctions, articles, and prepositions." But does the New Yorker fact check Sedaris's stories with the same rigor? Sedaris has made clear that he sees no problem with invention in the service of humor; Remnick has made clear that he does. Or is there one standard for famous, bestselling authors and another for first-timers?
See, Rothman was not a big shot when he wrote his piece. He came from TV-land, where he has since returned. Recently he also wrote a book called Early Bird about moving to a old folks' home (inevitably dubbed My Fake Retirement), about which the Times said, "Mr. Rothman suggested his book was best appreciated not as straight nonfiction but as personal essays that employ comic hyperbole in the style of David Sedaris."
If anyone feels like going through Sedaris's New Yorker output to see if anything jumps out as too good to be true, be my guest. Again, I'm not interested in burning the talented writer (or the magazine that occasionally sends me checks). I just want to know if Rodney Rothman is owed an apology.
Update: One other thing to consider is that Sedaris's fame actually does justify giving him more leeway, not because famous people inherently deserve to get away with more, but because readers already identify the brand "Sedaris" with a certain style of writing, so they bring the appropriate filter to anything with his byline. An unknown writer, however, is considered part of the "New Yorker" brand, which implies something more rigorous.
Update: Alex Heard says here that The New Yorker does its best to fact check Sedaris.