Most people like to talk about why their families are more dysfunctional than yours. But author David Sedaris makes a stronger case for his family than most do, or at least a funnier one. For example, has your little sister ever worn a fat suit in order to trick your father into thinking she was fat? Does your brother — a grown man who calls himself “the Rooster” — curse out that same father in ghetto slang at the dinner table? And even if your family is as wacky as his, do you feel compelled to write volumes of work about such family dysfunction?
For Sedaris — who will be sharing ridiculous stories such as these in a reading this Sunday, Oct. 17, at New Haven’s Shubert Theater — a notoriously eccentric family is just the thing that fuels his popularity. But Sunday’s show promises to be populated not with Yalies, but with an older crowd of those more devoted to Sedaris’ work and to the Shubert itself. Here at Yale, many students are unfamiliar with Sedaris’ work entirely, or find his subject matter less applicable to their personal experiences. But Sedaris fans look forward to the reading, lauding his accessible writing style and his ability to find quirkiness in the dregs of everyday life.
Sedaris initially gained critical acclaim through his appearances on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” reading his play “Santaland Diaries,” which chronicles Sedaris’ experiences working as an elf in Macy’s department store in New York. In 2001, after gaining a loyal following of NPR listeners, Sedaris went on to write the best-selling collection of short essays, “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” His most recent collection of non-fiction, “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” was released this past June.
But Sedaris’ work, despite its mounting popularity, has not yet hit the literary canon of Yale English classes. The single advanced non-fiction writing class this year, “Non-Fiction Writing: Voice and Structure,” taught by Fred Strebeigh, does not include any readings from Sedaris’ work.
“[Sedaris is] a writer whose work I keep intending to get to know better than I do,” Strebeigh said in an e-mail.
In addition, not one of the 12 sections of English 120, “Modern Prose: Advanced Writing,” specifically includes works by Sedaris, despite the class’s unit on satire and comedic writing.
Tamara Micner ’07, who has tickets for the Sunday reading, said she reads Sedaris on her own to learn his method of satiric writing.
“I really value Sedaris’ work partly because of his style,” Micner said. “As someone who writes comedy and who aspires to write it way better, I appreciate the way he makes use of language and makes really bizarre situations accessible and somehow relatable.”
Kevin Roe ’06, who will not be attending the reading despite interest, agreed that one of the main draws of Sedaris’ writing is the style.
“Yes, he’s led an interesting life, but he’s telling the stories extremely well,” Roe said. “The great part is not just that he tells the story, but the way he tells it.”
But even though students enjoy reading Sedaris’ work on their own, some say the English department at Yale has not necessarily overlooked a valuable resource for its non-fiction writing students. Micner suggested that Sedaris’ humor primarily appeals to an older crowd, and perhaps Sedaris’ writing just doesn’t hit college students in the right way.
“Some people our age won’t enjoy his type of humor much — the kind you read in the New Yorker,” she said. “At the same time, he’s definitely not pretentious or overly intellectual in any way. He writes really clearly and simply, so he’s not out of reach by any means. It’s just that the things he writes about don’t always pertain to young adulthood or whatever.”
Roe said Sedaris’ writing might not be alluring to students unless they can find an aspect with which to specifically connect.
“He appeals to me because we sort of had the same experience,” Roe said. “He grew up in North Carolina, I grew up in South Carolina, so I relate to a lot of his childhood stories from the South …. But his appeal is not particularly to college students.”
Matthew Kennard ’06, who said he has no personal experience with the subject matter, said he especially appreciates Sedaris’ frank discussion of how drug addiction affected his life.
“With drug use, people usually like to keep the stories at arm’s length,” Kennard said. “He is brutally honest, and his writing embodies the ideas that everyone’s thinking but no one’s willing to say.”
At the same time though, Kennard said Sedaris writes in such a hilarious manner that it “makes it easy to digest.”
Kennard added that he also finds meaning in Sedaris’ stories about reconciling his family history with everyday life.
“One of the great aspects of the book is that [Sedaris] is Greek, and his father is Greek, and he talks about honoring his culture while living in Carolina, and being different than all his classmates,” Kennard said. “I think this is something that a lot of people here can relate to at Yale, a 300-year-old school: the tension between honoring the history of the school and keeping your own history.”
Roe said he sees Sedaris’ genre of non-fiction — “the humorous anecdotes about life” — as currently popular reading material. But as far as students’ leisure reading material goes, he said that another genre has piqued his peers’ interests.
“One of the big up-and-coming [genres] is young authors writing about young characters our age — or just leaving our age, right out of college,” Roe said, citing Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby and Michael Chabon as examples.
But for the Shubert, Sedaris will be the first author of his kind, said Anthony Lupinacci, director of public relations for the Shubert.
“We haven’t presented this type of show before — Sedaris is a comedian who is very well-received,” Lupinacci said. “I think we are going to attract a lot of new audience members with this show …. It’s a very unique situation.”
But the show at the Shubert will not be Sedaris’ virgin trip into the midst of the Yale community. New Haven has been familiar with Sedaris’ pull in the literary world for a while; after the publication of “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” Sedaris launched his 2002 Spring Tour at Woolsey Hall.
“Yale really intimidates me,” Sedaris told the New Haven Advocate in anticipation of the 2002 show.
Last year, the Yale Cabaret performed Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries,” which was well-attended throughout its run.
Lupinacci said the upcoming show has had enormous appeal. With the recent release of “Dress Your Family,” Sedaris is even more at the forefront of the literary world than he was during his last visit, and the show has now been sold out for two weeks. Lupinacci attributed the show’s popularity to Sedaris’ “incredibly broad” fan base.
The show will consist mostly of Sedaris reading excerpts from his books. However, there will also be an element of commentary, where Lupinacci said Sedaris will have the opportunity to ad-lib.
“There isn’t a specific core audience for the show,” Lupinacci said. “There are a lot of NPR listeners who discovered him through his commentary on NPR, but he also appeals to the mainstream public, who finds his works, which are very numerous, very accessible.”
Despite Sedaris’ less-than-consistent draw to young students, Micner agreed that Sedaris can appeal across the board.
“I definitely think there’s universal appeal in his work,” Micner said. “He won’t appeal to every mind, but to some minds, he’ll be really, really appealing.”