This American Epistemological Crisis.

May 22, 2012, 7:09 pm

I cannot understand the alleged crisis now reportedly plaguing This American Life – a program I have loved and listened to since its beginning. Indeed, even before I liked it, I liked Ira Glass’s reporting on NPR and even his stint hosting Talk of the Nation. I am, I think it’s fair to say, a TAL nerd. And the reason is the same reason people become nerds for anything – they believe they’ve found a group of people who share the same sensibility. But this sudden po-faced shock that David Sedaris’s stories might not be strictly factual reportage makes no sense in this sensibility, and leads me to wonder if I have been listening to a different program than TAL has been producing.

I always thought TAL aired stories chosen for their goodness as stories, and they might be true or not. Each episode of TAL is divided into “Acts” – which is something you do with a theatrical production, not a straight-up journalistic effort. And some stories were clearly true, and some clearly not so much. Even a not-very-discerning listener could tell by genre conventions whether a given story was meant to be taken a given way.

Some things sound like real reporting – like that Jack Hitt story on the prisoners’ production of Hamlet. Other things, not so much – I never for a hot second believed Etgar Keret’s girlfriend turned into a hairy guy at night.

Nor did I ever take Sedaris’s tales entirely literally, any more than a knowledgeable reader would take Mark Twain’s tales entirely literally. Do you really think Twain never once tweaked the dialogue in, say, Following the Equator to make it funnier? There are cues of tone, of sentence structure, even of dialogic writing … do we even have to discuss this?

If we do, I have sadly to report to Ira Glass my suspicion that Mike Birbiglia never really robbed a bank with Terry Gross, and that the staring contest between Dan Konopka and Animal was rigged: you see – please sit down – Animal is a Muppet, and doesn’t actually have to blink.

I mean, seriously. I know Ira Glass knows this – all of this, not just the reductio ad absurdum at the end, here. Doesn’t he? Of course he does. And so, I bet, do Paul Farhi and the Washington Post editors. So what’s going on?

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