Smackdown: David Sedaris v. Augusten Burroughs

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David SedarisAugusten BurroughsI've been doing a lot of listening to audio books lately. The purpose, when I got a new iPod for my birthday, was supposed to be to listen to them while exercising. Which I'm not. But I do listen to them as I move to and fro, and sometimes while going to sleep, or cleaning the house, or walking the dogs if I'm by myself. One of the first books I listened to was Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors (which I reviewed here). A few books later, I listened to Burroughs' Dry. Now, I'm listening to David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day. I've heard bits and pieces of a couple of Sedaris' other works as well.

It's not hard to draw parallels between the two writers. Both are gay men living in New York (for at least some of their stories). Both talk at length about their fucked-up childhoods. Both talk openly about their addictions (Burroughs' alcoholism and Sedaris' speed usage). Both have a merciless, dark, nothing-sacred brand of humor that appeals very much to me, but I'm sure horrifies some people. Sedaris is more famous, more popular, and less controversial.

And, to my mind, Burroughs is more talented.

Burroughs has been criticized for making up some of what he writes, or at least exaggerating heavily, particularly in Running with Scissors. This may or may not be true. My guess would be it's partially true, and I'd also guess that Sedaris plays fast and loose with actual history in his autobiographical writing as well. I think it's part of this genre, especially when you are making the morbid, improbable, and truly demented funny, which is what both men do. Whether or not the things they write about are actually true makes very little difference to me. They could be true. They are probably true for somebody. And, like Tim O'Brien said, "a lie, sometimes, can be truer than the truth." I suspect this is so for both Sedaris and Burroughs. Some of what they remember actually happened, I'm sure, and some of it, perhaps, feels like it happened.

Regardless, there is, to my mind, a very basic difference between the two men (both of whom read their own work on audio book, by the way, and do it very well). Sedaris is a humorist who happens to find most of his humor in memoir. Burroughs is a memoirist that happens to be hilarious. This doesn't, in and of itself, make Burroughs better, it just makes his stories better. What gives him the real edge, I think, is that he's also the funnier of the two men.

David Sedaris is very funny. He has a great ability to take things that should be sacred and make them profane, and I highly admire that. Turning the death of family pets into a joke isn't something I'd have thought I would appreciate until I heard his story "The Youth in Asia." Burroughs, however, simply does him one better. Not only is his sacred more sacred (parental abandonment, rape), but his profane is more profane--and this makes it both feel more heartfelt (whether or not it actually is being a separate question) and come off a lot funnier.

I enjoy both Sedaris and Burroughs. I'll read (or more likely listen to) more from either one of them. But I think the characterization of Burroughs as a Sedaris wanna-be is just plain bullshit. More than Sedaris, Burroughs reminds me of a more academically gifted and urbane Christopher Titus--someone for whom the comedy, and the exaggeration, are therapy. While Sedaris seems to want to be funny and be happy to mine his family for material, Titus and Burroughs seem much more to be men dealing with growing up the way they did and being the men they are by being funny. While both ways are fun to observe, Burroughs (and Titus) stays with me longer.

7 Comments

I never thought of David Sedaris as having a bad childhood at all! I mean weird, yes, but his family seems well adjusted and friendly enough, whereas Burroughs seems truly neglected, and, to my mind, sexually molested.

I LOVED Dry. Running with Scissors was at points so depressing I had to turn it off. I just can't think of that story as funny at all. It was fucked up and depressing. Sedaris' famiy is odd, and different, but not feloniously wrong. Adults raping and neglecting children just isn't funny to me, pretty much. I don't think of them as that similar for this reason. I would have never thought Running with Scissors was a comedy. It's about the most depressing book I have ever read.

I have ripped two other Burroughs books, so we'll see how I like them. I think part of it is I hate how Burroughs reads his books, and yet, Sedaris' readings are SO much better than the actual text.

here was my review.

I am going to download all of those books onto my iPod now!

I totally agree.

I actually read Burroughs before Sedaris. And, I found myself comparing the two while reading the latter.

Burroughs hit me in an emotional place that Sedaris just didn't reach. Sedaris is fine, but I find Burroughs to be really exceptional.

sam has a stratagem

Count me as the first, and only on this post so far, to vote for Sedaris being the better of the two. I give him a slight edge because his memoirs are a bit more humorously enjoyable (duh, he is a humorist) and less melancholy than Burroughs. Sedaris has a lighter, offbeat take on sexuality than his hornier, frequently eroticizing contemporary. When reading Sedaris, for me at least, it's harder to stop and bookmark between essays/chapters, as some are beyond drop dead funny and I want to read what he has written that will make me laugh next, whereas Burroughs can be downright depressing at times and stopping is just necessary. Plus, anyone who concocts (tee-hee, fun word) a title, Me Talk Pretty One Day, that alone makes me laugh is clearly the winner in my book.

Some of Sedaris' best: "Town & Country" (my favorite and the first I ever read by him out of an issue of GQ magazine. He had me practically pissing my pants...although, I was also high at the time...) from the recent When You Are Engulfed in Flames; "Next of Kin" out of Naked; and Holidays on Ice warrants a few laughs, from the autobiographic SantaLand Diaries to the fictitious good-will contest between neighbors tale and the (very) darkly comedic Christmas letter. I recommend all his books, as each has its moments. Also, I didn't figure out right away that he was gay when I first began to read his books, so that came as a surprise (I also hadn't heard him speak until right before the release of WYAEIF).

In contrast, Burroughs' Sellevision is a fun, entertaining comedy and Possible Side Effects has a few comedic gems that had me lol-ing, such as the romantic getaway at the inn of dolls and his wacky antics in educating bad drivers with extreme pornography. I'm currently reading Magical Thinking, which is okay (but no Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim), and have yet to read A Wolf at the Dinner Table; I hear it's more depressing than RWS, which was sad but also interesting and at times laughable. Not sure if grammaticality is an issue, but Burroughs loves writing fragments, which slightly irks me, for someone to make as much money and get away with such poor grammar, savvy?

On a final note, Sedaris is a bit less in your face about being gay than Burroughs. Not that I have a problem with this, but I'm not sure how crazy a heterosexual reader feels reading about Burroughs feeling an erection pressing up against his butt while embracing a crack addict boyfriend. It seems that Augusten reaches, better yet overreaches, for the shock value at times, a Marilyn Manson of the literary world, if you will. In comparison, David would be the literary equivalent of Beck, funky, eccentric and sometimes innovatively genius.

Ooh, saucy! Need I say that I oppose you on that preference as well? I like both rockers too, but the one begins to irritate with his incessant "Babble, babble, bitch, bitch, rebel, rebel, party, party, sex, sex, sex, and don't forget the violence." "I'll clap my hands along, and rattle on like a vagabond" over that grotesque shit anyday. WHAMMY! Smackdown: Marilyn Manson vs. Beck - WHAMMY! ;)

I'd just like to start by saying the two are absolutely not comparable. Like you said, the main things that come to mind when thinking of these characters is that they're both gay, and they live or have lived in New York City. That's it. While, sure, they both write about their lives, Sedaris writes (short) humorous essays while Burroughs has a memoir. Maybe you should try actually reading the books rather than listening to them while you're dozing off, because I'm fairly certain he didn't mean any of running with scissors to be blatantly humorous. Just honest.
P.S. I agree with the Bruin Bum Alum.

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