Oct. 24, 2007
Seriously funny: UI professor finds lessons in Sedaris humor
David Sedaris might be too funny for his own good.
A New York Times best-selling author and frequent contributor to Esquire, The New Yorker and NPR's "This American Life," Sedaris is known for his hilarious essays on his eccentric family, his days as a holiday elf at Macy's, and his quirky experiences as an American in Paris. But as University of Iowa English Professor Kevin Kopelson points out in his new book, "Sedaris," readers may overlook the fact that Sedaris is trying to teach some life lessons.
Kopelson will read from his book at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29, at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City. For more information on the reading, visit http://www.news-releases.uiowa.edu/2007/October/101607kopelson.html
"My fear is that he's so funny that people only absorb his lessons unconsciously," Kopelson said. "I want to bring those lessons to our attention. I also know that there are readers who think he must be some kind of immoralist because he is so sassy, or maybe even because he's a gay writer. I want those people to understand that they're misunderstanding him, that he is profoundly moralistic."
In "Sedaris," published in September by the University of Minnesota Press, Kopelson breaks down the roles people have played with Sedaris in real life -- teacher, student, employer, employee, co-worker, relative, lover and stranger -- and explains how some of those roles translate into roles Sedaris plays with his readers. As an author, Sedaris often plays the part of teacher or parent, Kopelson said.
"Sedaris himself wants to become a better person, and he wants his readers to become better people," Kopelson said. "That desire on his part very much relates to the roles he plays with us. The most important role is the role of the good, nurturing parent or teacher who knows how to use shame in a constructive way."
In the essay "Us and Them," Sedaris' mother, Sharon, uses shame to teach him a lesson about selfishness after the young Sedaris goes to great lengths to avoid sharing candy with his oddball neighbor kids. The neighbor kids show up to trick or treat a day late, so Sharon is out of candy and wants Sedaris to share his stash. But Sedaris would rather destroy the candy and eat varieties to which he is allergic than share. The story ends in an epiphany about his behavior, with Sedaris stuffing candy into his mouth, getting chocolate everywhere, and Sharon telling him to take a good look at himself.
"To me that's a very significant story, because in the same way Sharon was trying to get David to take a look at himself, David tries to get his readers to take a good look at themselves," Kopelson said.
Sharon died of lung cancer when David was a young man. In a way, Kopelson said, Sedaris picked up where she left off by passing her lessons on to his readers. The cover of the book -- a cigarette burning on a cupcake tray -- connotes his mother's unfinished life.
Kopelson also uses the book to argue that, contrary to what some scholars believe, it's possible for a writer to be both gifted and serious, even if he is popular.
"Part of Sedaris' genius is knowing how to address a wide audience," Kopelson said.
Sedaris' ability to reach a general audience inspired Kopelson to write his book for a general audience. His motivation for writing the book stemmed from teaching courses on literary satire and confession, and the fact that Kopelson relates to Sedaris' role as a parent and teacher on a personal level. Kopelson has helped raise three teenage stepsons with his partner, surgeon David Coster.
"To the attentive reader, there's a bit of a hall-of-mirrors effect with the book," Kopelson said. "I'm such a Sedaris fan that I start trying to emulate him in various ways, and learn from his good example as a writer and moralist."
Kopelson has read all of Sedaris' essays several times, and is even writing a few Sedaris-esque confessional essays of his own.
Despite Kopelson's admiration for Sedaris, he avoided meeting the author until the book was complete.
"I didn't want my analysis to be influenced by it," Kopelson said. "I wanted to engage as a typical Sedaris reader, with the voice on the radio and the word on the page. I actually prefer to read him as opposed to hearing him on the radio, because the man could read the phone book aloud and be hilarious. That can be distracting from his underlying seriousness. His writing can be very moving, but you only pick that up on the page."
After the book was done, Kopelson met Sedaris at a reading in Des Moines and found that, "unlike a lot of writers, he's just the person you'd hope he would be from knowing his writing." The two writers have since become friends, but Kopelson isn't convinced that Sedaris will read "Sedaris."
"He's told me that he doesn't read anything about himself because he doesn't want to be influenced by it," Kopelson said. "He doesn't want to read something that approves of what he's done for fear that it will encourage him to keep reproducing that type of thing, and he doesn't want to read anything negative about himself because it might be demoralizing. But I hope he does read my book -- it's such an appreciation of his work."
Kopelson joined the UI's English Department, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in 1992. He teaches courses on the modern novel and critical theory. A native New Yorker, Kopelson attended the Bronx High School of Science and the Juilliard School (for piano). At age 19, he graduated from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in music, and at age 22 he graduated from Columbia University with a law degree. After working four years as a civil litigator, he enrolled at Brown University, where he earned a doctorate in English. He's the author of four other books: "Neatness Counts: Essays on the Writer's Desk" (2004), "The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky" (1997), "Beethoven's Kiss: Pianism, Perversion, and the Mastery of Desire" (1996), and "Love's Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics" (1994).
"SEDARIS" TRIVIA: The back cover of "Sedaris" features a testimonial from David Hyde Pierce -- a.k.a. Dr. Niles Crane on "Frasier" -- who said, "Charting a course from Marcel Proust to Tony Danza, Kevin artfully captures the exquisite pleasure and pain of reading David Sedaris. A witty, thoughtful, intimate encounter." In another testimonial, Paul Reubens -- a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman -- said, "If I were to read a book on David Sedaris it might be this one." Kopelson attended college with Pierce and once worked with Reubens' sister.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
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