Realish-ism: new literary genre or dancing around the truth?

A report in the Washington Post this morning details the soul searching National Public Radio is doing over contributor David Sedaris. Sedaris is a well-known memoirist and comic whose quirky stories about his upbringing and later life have also been best-selling books.

The issue NPR is having is that it is a news organization and Sedaris might be making stuff up. The Washington Post:

“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.”

In his most recent book, WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES, Sedaris himself called his stories “realish.”

It is easy to see why this is a problem for NPR which, as a news organization, deals in facts. But Sedaris’s books have been sold as nonfiction. Is he on shaky ground there?

This is a question that came up recently with one of our clients, who has been told by a top literary agent that he needs to put more dialogue in his story. "How can I do that," he asked, "when I don’t remember exactly how the conversations went." Our answer: make it up. But in this case, he is recreating dialogue that took place between two real people. He can make reasonable guesses about how they talked and he does know what was said.

We would draw the line at making up characters and so would Alex Heard, cited above: “Some of his characters are made up. You can’t use a nonfiction label and do that. Hilarious dialogue is the license [Sedaris] gave himself. . . . [But] if it’s nonfiction, you just can’t do that.”