Sunday, January 29, 2006

Liar, Liar, books on fire...

I met Stetson Kennedy a couple of weeks ago when we both had breakfast at the same coffee shop. He's a local legend, and his home (Beluthahatchee, which was made famous by Woody Guthrie) is now a historic park. Like most ninety year olds, Stetson is showing his age, but he was both spry and affable that morning, and I liked him.

Stetson is famous for once infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, and then writing a series of newspaper articles, followed by a book, about his experiences. The Klan is not the powerful invisible empire it once was, but in the late 1940s, it was still a secret and dangerous organization, and Kennedy exposed their secrets. In return, the Klan put a bounty on his head (and body) of $1000 per pound.

Two writers, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, made Kennedy the hero of a chapter on the Klan in their book, Freakonomics. The chapter focused on the concept of information asymmetry, and how the Klan's power was enhanced by their secrecy, but when Kennedy exposed their secrets and held them up to ridicule, he diminshed their power. Now Dubner and Levitt have attacked Stetson Kennedy in their latest column in the New York Times Magazine. The column, titled Hoodwinked, offers evidence that Kennedy embellished his stories, and that he wrote the book in a first person narrative, apparently taking credit for actions that were not his, but rather the actions of his infomants and fellow civil rights activists. More information is available at their site,

In the aftermath of the James Frey - A Million Little Pieces incident, I expect we will se a lot of this fact checking, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. In this case, Kennedy wrote his book in a style reminiscent of Mickey Spillane, and the book's hero, the first person narrator, is larger than life. It reads like a 1940s detective novel, because that's what it is - except it isn't a novel - it's a memoir, or an expose, or what? Creative non-fiction? I don't know the label it was marketed under, and I don't know if that label meant then what it means now, or if the meaning is universal. Whatever the meaning, the reality is that at a time when few white men dared to cross the path of the KKK, Kennedy did it, and put his own life at risk. Kennedy says he compiled information from many sources and recast it as a first person account. He says he did it to add dramatic appeal, and to protect the identity of an informant (he credits the informant at the beginning of the book, and says the informant risked his life to help with the book).

If his book reads more like an action movie than like the day to day hum-drum of working against the morons who were the original Boys in the Hoods, I can't fault him or his publisher. I'm not alone. People like Studs Terkel, Hodding Carter, and Morris Dees (director of the Southern Poverty Law Center) say that Kennedy's contribution and courage outweigh any fault they could find with the way he chose to tell the story.

This is America, and no matter how many times we see Myth-Busters prove it won't work, we still want our hero to shoot the gas tank on the bad guy's car and make it blow up. We don't hold Hollywood writers, producers, and directors up to ridicule when they play fast and loose with the facts, why do we hold book writers to a higher standard?

I can tell you that my stories are fiction. They are not fact, and any similarity to real events is just that - a similarity - not a recitation of the actual event. In some cases, the facts wouldn't be believable, in others, they wouldn't be interesting. I mould the facts into something readable, something I hope will capture your imagination and immerse you into my world: the world of my mind, where my thoughts and my characters intermingle with the reality of my life and my experiences. It is not my goal to recount for you what happened, rather, it is my goal to tell you the truth - about how these people act, about how they think, how they speak, and how they feel. In the real world, girls in prom dresses sometimes fart. If I said my prom date farted as we slow danced to The Way We Were, it would be the truth, but it wouldn't be a fact. If I pretended that girls in prom dresses were immune to farting, that would be a lie.

When my story is inconsistent with the facts, remember that I write fiction, and please remember that you're the one who ordered the broccoli with cheese sauce. Let's both just act like nothing happened and quickly waltz our way to the far side of the gym. Just this once we'll both pretend we didn't smell anything.

Mark Pettus,
Sunday, January 29, 2006

6 comments so far. Thank you, Blogger serenity, Blogger Kelly Parra, Blogger Dennie McDonald, Blogger Mark Pettus, Blogger Joanne D. Kiggins, Blogger Mark Pettus,

Let me know what you think

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at 10:56 PM Blogger serenity said...

Sometimes, my female love interests fart.

Somehow, it always comes out endearing rather than repulsive.

I love fiction, and all the truths it entails.

at 12:13 PM Blogger Kelly Parra said...

Wow, what a great story, and yes, I imagine all the Frey business has started more fact checking into memoirs. As long as Stetson accomplished a good deed, why do others have to diminish that?

at 2:19 PM Blogger Dennie McDonald said...

hey Mark - glad to see you blogging again!

James Frey {tsk, tsk} his sales numbers are still up in the top ten so truth or lies people don't seem to care - but I heard him say he was working on a fiction book now - lord knows he's had the practice!

at 6:28 PM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Serenity, Kelly, and Dennie - Thanks for commenting.

at 12:47 AM Blogger Joanne D. Kiggins said...

How wonderful that you met Stetson Kennedy and what a great post!

This book was originally written in 1954, during a time that anyone who was involved with it could have had a price on their heads for divulging that type of information.

As you stated, you aren't sure how the book was marketed and the definitions of genres or categories may have been quite different back then.

I still see a major difference between what was reported about Kennedy's book and how or who the facts came from as compared to how Frey handled his so called facts.

Unless I read the article incorrectly, in Kennedy's book, the facts of what happened were still true, regardless of who told them, or by whom they were seen or experienced. The identity of whom experienced most of the scenes was kept confidential and that was known upfront.

Is it that I don't feel a 90 year old man should be questioned after all these years because he risked his life to speak about the unspoken and the facts of the story were in fact true. I don't know. Do I think Frey risked his life to tell his story? No. If anything, he risked his integrity.

You certainly have given my brain food for thought. Integrity/truth, aren't they both important?

at 2:12 PM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Integrity is an interesting word, and most of us don't understand it. It means whole, complete, solid. If building lacks integrity, it falls down. Every brick is "integral" to the whole... you get my drift.

If James Frey is a self-destructive, manipulative, lying drug addict, then doesn't this latest episode indicate that he has integrity?

Sorry, I just love playing with words. ;)

Truth matters, but truth is elusive. Facts are not truth. I think Frey's message about addiction and redemption is the truth, and if we focus on the message, and not on the man, we'll find truth there.

Kennedy said the other night that he doesn't care how anyone remembers him, he just hopes they remember his message - that we all stewards of our "Fellow Man and Mother Earth."


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