Sunday, December 20, 2009

Libel Case Questions Where Fiction Ends and Reality Begins

This past Thursday, a Gainesville, FL court found author Haywood Smith--of the popular Red Hat Club, which inspired the real-life organization The Red Hat Society--guilty of libel against a childhood friend, according to the Associated Press:

The jury found on Thursday that Haywood Smith's novel "The Red Hat Club" damaged Vicki Stewart because it contained a character that closely resembled Stewart and portrayed her as a sexually promiscuous alcoholic. The jury rejected a claim of invasion of privacy.

The jury of eight men and four women awarded Stewart $100,000 in damages and denied her request for attorney fees.

"SuSu," a character in Smith’s novel about Buckhead socialites, shared many similarities with Stewart, including where she grew up, her jobs and the circumstances of her first husband's death.

Click HERE to read more

After the verdict, Stewart told the Gainesville Times, "All I wanted is for this not to happen to anyone else. I am so appreciative of this jury, that took it upon itself to do something that will make our country a little better, and hopefully make our publishing laws better. This should not have happened."

I was shocked to hear about this case at work last week; I hadn't even heard about it being in progress. But while I can understand some people's desire to create such a kerfuffle--ego can be an oppressive thing--I can't understand why a jury would agree with such a claim.

Novelists are constantly pulling from their lives, their experiences and their encounters with strangers, friends, and family. As Romantic Times blogger Nicole points out, "Basing characters on people in real life is nothing new. Characters as diverse as Lady Macbeth, Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Dirty Harry are all based on true life counterparts."

So, what's the big deal? It's how fiction works.

Besides, no, say, Californian reading a novel will recognize the author's neighbor's Vermont son. It's ludicrous to think that readers as a whole will recognize a character as a real person and think it's an entirely true portrayal and suddenly that real person is defamed. Of course, the line blurs in instances of a roman à clef, where a novel fictionalizes real-life political, pop culture, and historical (etc. etc.) figures, often in such a way that it's clear who the character is intended to represent. But it seems that the people in those roman à clef's, don't care as much. They are already in the public eye, and it's almost expected. There is the occasional lawsuit--for example, in 2008 Nicolas Cage sued actress Kathleen Turner for her portrayal of him in her book, Send Yourself Roses—but with everyday people, this kind of thing seems excessive.

Yet, despite its fairness, the implications of this case leave the field wide open for anyone to sue any author for defamation of character. Now that Stewart has won, it’s obvious to me that many similar cases will start coming out of the woodwork. And even people holding grudges could easily claim a character was based off of them and try to get an author found guilty or even just badly publicized.

I understand that people might get upset if a character portrayed in a negative light resembles themselves, but let me tell those people a little secret: no one knows...or cares.

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