Saturday, September 08, 2007


As we all know, David Sedaris' prose is opaque. What do we learn about liberal America's favorite humorist by reading him…other than pretty much everything? A book like Kevin Kopelson's new Sedaris feels rather redundant not only because it relies on frequent and long excerpts ("I'll use both extensive quotation and paraphrase—something, I confess, my own students aren't allowed") but because it does not provide much analysis; rather than looking at what Sedaris means in the context of contemporary America, it looks at what the humorist tells us about himself. As if we didn't get enough of that from an author who can crank out a 3,000-page New Yorker essay about changing a lightbulb.

Kopelson, who teaches English at the University of Iowa, acknowledges on the first page of his hagiography that his subject may not be all that innovative: "Not that Sedaris is the only satirist to deprecate himself. The British poets John Donne (1572–1631) and Alexander Pope (1688–1744), for example, acknowledge their own failings along with those of primary targets." Donne and Pope? I'd have picked Phyllis Diller and early Woody Allen, but never mind.

It gets worse on the second page, which indicates that Kopelson may well have misread his subject's entire oeuvre: He posits that Sedaris is not a "cynical" satirist but a "sanguine" one, and that "the sanguine satirist likes people." Actually, David Sedaris only likes himself, while pretending to mock his own shortcomings. He looks down on everybody, especially his own family. But Kopelson's underlying point, one never confessed, is that Sedaris grants others license to indulge in constant navel-gazing and self-congratulatory onanism.

Sedaris is what happens when egos collide. Kopelson comes across as a typical superfan whose devotion ultimately is a way to express self-obsession. The book is "autobiographical in that I'm now dealing with my mother in print," he admits in one of his many howlers. Elsewhere, he explains that for Sedaris he modestly toned down his usual approach "It's time, that is, to renounce a certain style—a certain selfish virtuosity."

As one of the Heathers put it: "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw."


Malika said...

Voi voi voi, Djudju. !!

Alors toi aussi tu blogues ?

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Ben oui--comme tout le monde, quoi. Mais alors là c'est le passé qui se manifeste!

Anonymous said...

My Dear Elisabeth,

Kevin Kopelson is a well-respected colleague of your beloved Terry Castle (who happens to love Dr. Kopelson's writing), who also on occasion writes for The London Review of Books. He happens to have written an extremely insightful book about David Sedaris' work, a book that brilliantly cuts away the various layers of Sedaris and really gets to the core of his work and what he is doing. I'm afraid that it is you, not Kopelson, who has completely missed the point and mis-read what Sedaris is doing, a fact that seems readily apparent by your unnecessarily abusive comments about Sedaris in your other blogs. Your blog about Kopelson's book is uninformed at best (perhaps you should actually read it before writing about it)and arrogant vitriol at worst. And you're not even slightly funny. Next time, think about what you are saying. What goes around comes around.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Dear anonymous,

Unlike David Sedaris I'm not a professional humorist (thank god!) and am not even trying to pass my writing as funny. I do think he is wildly overrated, but I'm not sure why you cannot seem to accept a diverging opinion, especially since he's very popular and I'm obviously in the minority. We'll have to disagree on Kopelson's book about him as well. (Incidentally, I'm not sure why enjoying Terry Castle's writing also means I have to enjoy her colleagues' as some kind of package deal.)

Finally, it's fine if you don't appreciate my take on both Sedaris and Sedaris, but it's also easy to fire out attacks while hiding behind anonymity.

sd said...

that really was a weird sniping, anonymous. i didn't know you had to be funny in order to write critically about a humorist? and relax. many people can't stand tolstoy or kafka. i'm sure there's no need to cry bloody murder b/c someone doesn't like sedaris or kopelson; the world will go on.

on a completely different note, though, is "opaque" really the correct word in the first sentence?

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

"Opaque" was meant as a joke—obviously not a good one since it didn't come across as such (and that's why I'm not a professional humorist!). The word refers to Sedaris' prose actually being revealing, in ways both intended and not (sometimes it's obviously calculated to obfuscate the author's agenda but actually revels it).

sd said...

OH. Ha... ha... (no, it really is funny now that I think about it. No, seriously...)