I'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.