Ablene Cooper, a sixty year old African American woman in Jackson, Mississipi, has filed suit against Kathryn Stockett, author of the bestseller, The Help. I haven’t read it. Admittedly there are certain books that feel too Oprah Book Club-y to me and ”The Help” has all the hallmarks of being that kind of book. This may mean that I am a Franzen-style snob. Don’t care.
But let me say this. I have started three or four novels since my twenties and every single one of them suffers from the same flaw: I can’t get myself out of the story. Or, if not me, then someone interesting I know and wish to write about. I get maybe five chapters in and can’t keep going. The whole thing falls apart because I’m trying too hard, consciously or not, to model a fictional person after a real person or to tell a real story in a fictional guise.
I suspect this is the novelist’s greatest sin, save cliches and stories that turn out to be dream sequences. It’s true that real life informs our writing. Look at Hemingway. He lived and fought in Spain and wrote The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. But he knew how to separate himself, and his life, from the story. The same goes for Salman Rushdie, Pat Conroy, Gore Vidal, and any number of former lawyers who churn out legal thrillers like billable hours. They start with the basis, then move on.
Then there is the thinly veiled autobiographical/biographical novel, like Peyton Place or Citizen Kane. Part of the appeal of books like this, though, is the frisson of excitement that comes from peeking into someone else’s (real) life. The stories succeed exactly because the characters are recognizable. But this comes with a price.
Authors need to understand that the publisher’s disclaimer on the frontispiece of the book – “This is a work of fiction, any resemblance to persons or places, blah, blah, blah “- is not a perfect hedge against recrimination. Nor is Michael Crichton’s small penis rule. The legal actions available to claimants vary from state to state and nation to nation, but typically they take the form of libel/defamation, invasion of privacy, “false light” and so on. Most of these torts are intentional, meaning that – again, depending on the relevant law – punitive damages may be available. Punitive damages may or may not be covered under your or your publisher’s insurance policy, so your personal assets may be on the line to satisfy a judgment, if there is one. And in the United Kingdom, where libel suits are really bad news, you may also have to pay the claimant’s attorney’s fees.
I think that when people write a fictional character that very closely resembles a real one, it’s because they want to stick the knife in and twist it. So if you feel yourself doing that, stop. Fold. Re-deal. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I know someone named Hal. And I write a book, and include a character named ”Hal,” a fat, socialist derelict on welfare who smokes pot, wears a dirty Che t-shirt and listens to Bob Marley. So long as Hal doesn’t closely resemble that character in real life, the use of his name should not trigger liability. And I still get to enjoy my delicious secret, no less wonderful for not being actionable.