“Realish”: blurring the line between fact and fiction

In a quote that I can find absolutely no reliable source for (but am totally kinda sorta sure I remember right), David Sedaris, who coined the term "realish" to describe his autobiographical musings, was asked by a fan if he exaggerates. His reply?

"You bet I do!" †

I guess I have a soft spot for that liminal space in memoir-writing where pathological liars meet storytellers. What we want to believe interests me more than the objective truth that, as depicted in Rashomon, is often illusory in anything related to personal experience. Here are some thought-provoking books, movies, and journalistic thinkpieces to explore that space with me.

Take James Frey. With his Oprah-propelled fame, he was at the top of the world: A Million Little Pieces was a rave-reviewed bestseller. Ironic, really, given that it was a story about hitting rock bottom...a story that didn't happen. But maybe something like that happened, when The Smoking Gun and Oprah herself exposed him for fabricating many things that he'd presented as facts. There's a great longform Vanity Fair retrospective on it all here.

Do you remember, around the same time, the smaller literary scandal about JT LeRoy? The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and Sarah were supposedly written by someone whose rock bottom was even more tragic than Frey's...except that it, too turned out not to be. In today's terms, it was kind of a Catfish situation...and no, I don't mean the aquatic creature. Many other literary giants of the time were taken in. Here's another longform journalism piece that delves into the story, and it was also the subject of a recent documentary, Author, the JT LeRoy Story.

These examples, along with the controversial (but not discredited) work of Augusten Burroughs (most famous for Running With Scissors) and David Pelzer (A Child Called "It"), make me wonder: what is it about stories of personal tragedy that we find so appealing? Is there something about them, too, that is inherently prone to exaggeration and fictionalization? Are those the narratives we're more comfortable with? And consider the equally-brutal and actually-honest story of Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle, or Mary Karr and Frank McCourt's bestselling, heartbreaking memoirs like The Liar's Club and Angela's Ashes: is it that to truly connect with us, we want it to read history like fiction, to be able to hold it at an arm's length, to be entertained by extremes we'd never want to live through? And what about experiences that can't be fact-checked, but are true in some more complicated way nonetheless? For example, Augusten Burroughs' brother John Elder Robison has written extensively on his childhood (start with Look Me in the Eye), and you'll see similarities to the things that Burroughs' other family members vigorously denied (see this Vanity Fair piece, for starters). What if more than one version of the story is true?

And then there are the catfishers and con artists, whose possible mental illness complicates the interpretation of their actions, who don't tell their own stories...but they've been told nonetheless. I highly recommend The Woman Who Wasn't There (it's a documentary, too, although we don't currently have it in our collection), about a woman who pretended to be a 9/11 survivor, and Art and Craft, about an accomplished art forger who never even made any money from his endeavor, to start exploring this strange subgenre. The Criterion Collection pick Crumb* is also well worth a watch. Armistead Maupin's novel The Night Listener* is based on his own correspondence with hoaxer Anthony Godby Johnson.

And consider the many authors who choose to deliberately place their stories in fictionalized, semi-autographical, and creative nonfiction categories -- not just to belay the hordes of outraged factcheckers and libel-hungry attorneys, but because they're trying to get at deeper truths: Opening Skinner's BoxBastard Out of Carolina, Night, and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, for a start.

Finally, back to the fellow whose quote started this blog post in motion! David Sedaris is hilariously misanthropic, and I'm equally delighted by hearing his experiences being gay, accidentally spitting a cough drop onto a sleeping airplane seatmate, being an expat, making up elaborate stories about spiders, lancing boils, getting addicted to his FitBit, and buying a human skeleton. Personally, I think his books are fine, but his audiobooks, readings, and NPR appearances are where his work really gets to shine. I recommend starting with the piece that made him famous, about his time as an Elf at Macy's, in Holidays on Ice. And one more longform must-read in the New Yorker: his somber piece on his sister's suicide, contemplating the gulf between his truths and hers, and the effect that the immense popularity of his version of his family's history had on the rest of his family.

*You can request books that we don't currently have in our collection through the Suggest a Purchase and Interlibrary Loan forms here! For movies, I highly recommend checking the Tucson institution Casa Video, or your favorite online streaming service.

†My partner, who's been trying to improve my relationship with factual reality for years, points out that the source of the quote is here, and it's, well, a little different from the way I remembered it. Memory, fallible, yadda yadda. "'I just thought, what do people think this kind of writing is? I'm not a reporter. Do I exaggerate? Boy, do I, and I'd do it more if I could get away with it,' he says, his voice going just that little bit higher."