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NANCY CARR • As the Beatles’ story is told and retold, the line between fact and fiction can grow vanishingly thin, and that’s why this interview with author Jude Southerland Kessler alarms me. She’s currently promoting volume three of a projected nine-book Lennon project she hopes will be “John’s ultimate biography.” Kessler is writing Lennon’s life in novelistic style, basing the narrative on fact while fleshing out conversations and scenes. Here’s what concerns me: she insists her books are equivalent to conventionally researched and presented biographies, and calls people who think otherwise “uninformed.”
Call me “uniformed,” but I adamantly believe that once an author includes invented dialogue and details in a book, she’s no longer writing nonfiction. The distinction matters because there is a vital difference between what we can know for sure (i.e., the Beatles were in Studio 1 on this date, recorded these songs, and engaged in this conversation, which we have on tape) and what we can’t (i.e., here are George Harrison’s thoughts during the session, here’s what Ringo said to Maureen at home later). In my opinion, writing that blurs this difference—however well-intentioned, as it seems to be in Kessler’s case—is dangerous. I also think it’s ethically dodgy, particularly when some of the protagonists (in this case, especially John Lennon and George Harrison) are no longer around to respond to the thoughts or words being attributed to them.
In the interview, Kessler leans hard on the legitimately impressive amount of research she does for the books and the footnotes and documentation she appends to them. However, research doesn’t address the central issue: the narrative is a blend of what can be factually documented and what Kessler has imagined, and within the running text there is no way for the reader to tell which is which. That Kessler is basing what she imagines on thorough research doesn’t alter the fact that what she’s adding is fiction. That doesn’t make it bad, it just describes the genre accurately.
Asked about having to create some conversations, Kessler says this about a sample chapter of She Loves You:
“Well, some of the conversation is created…because as you’ll see in the chapter, a great deal of the conversation is footnoted, so it’s actually what they said. In the recording session chapters, ALL of the conversation is exactly what they said, taken from the EMI tapes. So, as much as possible, I use their real words; only some of the conversation is created.”
To my mind, this blending of conversation taken from a verifiable external source with conversation that is invented, with nothing in the narrative itself to mark the distinction, is exactly the problem. However many interviews Kessler does, however many sources she reads, and however many footnotes she writes, there is no getting away from the fact that some portion of this “history” exists solely in her imagination.
Kessler defends the claim that her books warrant the “nonfiction” designation by referring to the way the ancient Greeks practiced historical writing. Citing Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (written about 430 B.C.) as an example, she points out that ancient writers added speeches and other constructed elements to works accepted as histories. But it makes no sense to argue that her books should be considered “nonfiction history” as that term is understood today because they conform to criteria used by the ancient Greeks. It’s rather like arguing that because your laboratory work aligns with the procedures of 15th century alchemists, your findings should be considered on a equivalent footing with results based on 21st century scientific protocols.
I understand that Kessler wants to make Lennon’s life vivid for readers. Apparently her uncle, a Civil War historian, recommended she write a conventional biography of Lennon based on her research, but she decided not to because she felt that had “been done to death.” Choosing to write a biography that reads like a novel means, however, losing a key element of authentically nonfiction biography: pausing the narrative to explain when the facts are in doubt. In a conventional biography, every time a reader encounters phrases like “some sources say that . . . but” or “accounts of this incident vary, with X recording . . ,” the reader knows the author is flagging a place where the narrative can’t be definitively established. No matter how exhaustive an author’s research is, there are limits to what can be known with certainty, and the better a biographer or historian is, the more clearly he or she will help the reader distinguish where those limits are.
But by choosing to write books that read like novels, with no authorial voice interrupting the running text, Kessler places herself in the position of having to create a continuous narrative of events even when the events are contested or only partially known—often the case in the Beatles’ story. Yes, she includes footnotes, but only readers who examine them closely will be able to determine where the verifiable stops and the imagined begins (and in my opinion, at times it’s not clear even after such examination). And by its nature, an emotionally involving narrative acquires a weight that footnotes can never match.
It disturbs me that Kessler says “narrative history does not change or add to the truth in any way but tells the exact story of an event in such an interesting way that people want to listen!” It is impossible for any text to encompass “the exact story of an event,” as I think even the meticulously accurate Mark Lewisohn would attest. Kessler, is of course, free to write whatever she wants—and I would have no issue with what she’s doing if she acknowledged her works as a blend of nonfiction and fiction. I think readers, as well as all those people who were caught up in the Beatles story, deserve that clarity.
Note: You can read an excerpt from Kessler’s most recent book here. Hey Dullblog readers, take a look for yourselves and let us know what you think.