Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Something for more for writers to think about

by Rick Blechta

As if the writer’s life isn’t already such a struggle given the state of the publishing industry let alone the state of the world, I ran across an article last week that every novelist should read: Alan Dershowitz claims a fictional lawyer defamed him. The implications for novelists are very real. Please click HERE to read the article I saw in the Washington Post.

Okay, after reading the article you might be saying, “This isn’t something I would write about. I don’t put real people in my novels.”

True, but I know several novelists who inject the occasional real person (usually a public figure) into their plot. This person may not actually appear on the page, but the author might comment on this real person in a negative way — maybe they have an ax to grind — and the next thing they know, a very unwelcome lawsuit arrives on their doorstep. Whether the suit is successful or not, you know it’s going to cost you a lot of money in lawyer fees to defend yourself.

Here’s an example. When W.P. Kinsella wrote Shoeless Joe, he included a large number of real people in his plot, starting with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Another real person used was J.D. Salinger — or should I say the famously litigious J.D. Salinger who was not happy that he’d been co-opted into Kinsella’s novel and “intimated he would sue should the character ‘J.D. Salinger’ appear in any other medium, should Shoeless Joe be adapted.” (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoeless_Joe_(novel))

In short while Kinsella avoided a lawsuit in the case of his novel, when the book was adapted for the big screen, the producers, leery of being sued, changed the name of the character to Terence Mann, casting James Earl Jones in the part.

Is it worth it to use real people in one’s plots? I’m thinking that in these litigious times it’s not. Or should I say that a writer has to seriously contemplate if there is not another way to accomplish the same thing? In the suit brought by Alan Dershowitz, he doesn’t appear in the TV show, but the fictional lawyer certainly makes some inflammatory remarks about the real lawyer.

How will this all play out in the courtroom is anyone’s guess, but I for one will be following this story.

I’ve never used real people in my stories, but I have been tempted to have characters make possibly inflammatory observations about real people I don’t like. I know other authors who have done that. No lawsuits on those yet, but who knows? I don’t think it’s worth the indulgence. I make little enough money writing as it is. No sense having to hand it (and more) over to a lawyer.


There’s even more litigation involving Field of Dreams, if you care to read about it (it is interesting): https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/field-of-schemes/358624/


Sybil Johnson said...

Very interesting.

Rick Blechta said...

Sybil, my initial thought was along the lines of "Oh, Lord, another thing to worry about, then I looked at the issue a bit more sanely. People of privilege, I've found, tend to think they have to protect their reputations at all costs. Dershowitz seems to be one of these. The show he's suing seemed to also have an ax to grind based on what the character said. Not having seen the show in question, I don't know the context of the dialogue and whether it was necessary to the plot or if the writers were being self-indulgent.

But it did make me pause to consider how I might avoid this sort of "entanglement".

Charlotte Hinger said...

Rick, I followed your link to the Field of Dreams column and found the article fascinating. I don't use real people or have my characters make snarky remarks about people because I'm a Democrat and Kansas is one of solidly Republican states in the Union. I want people to focus on the story. We fight all of the time--at the drop of a hat. Since all of my books have some social issue I figure that's enough for a reader to deal with without throwing personalities into the mix.

Rick Blechta said...

Glad you found the article interesting as I did, Charlotte.