A HELPFUL DISCUSSION?
by John M. Floyd
“Fat, dumb, and happy” isn’t a good description of me, but that’s only because I happen to be skinny. The other two adjectives are a good fit — I’m usually content and carefree. My wife is the worrier.
She’s the one who’s always concerned that we’ll make an accidental and innocent mistake on our tax return and spend the rest of our lives in prison, or that she’ll be tracked down and arrested for driving through the tail end of a yellow light, or that the Anti-Terrorist Task Force will get their street addresses wrong and break down our door in the middle of the night. I’m the opposite. I stew a bit when the stock market bobs up and down the way it has lately, but otherwise I’m fairly easygoing. And as far as the long arm of the Law is concerned, I’ve always held the probably naïve belief that if I’m honest and try to do the right thing, nothing’s going to jump out of one of the dark alleys of our legal system and drag me away.
I feel pretty much the same way about the rules and ethics of writing fiction. I don’t plagiarize and I don’t write harmful things about real people or products or corporations, so I don’t worry a lot about the possibility of litigation. But something in the news recently has added a little fuel to my wife’s already overactive imagination.
You’ve probably heard about it. Kathryn Stockett, the lady who wrote the bestselling novel The Help, was sued by a woman who claims that one of the book’s (and the movie’s) main characters was based on her. Stockett denies it, even though the two names are similar, and the question might be moot anyway—I heard the judge dismissed the suit a few days ago because it was filed past the one-year statute of limitations. But the incident does serve to remind us writers that it’s not only the nonfiction guys who run the risk of a lawsuit.
If you’re a fellow writer of short stories or novels, what do you do to make sure you don’t run into legal problems? Personally, I usually Google my characters’ names before I submit a story to try to ensure that I haven’t inadvertently referred to a real and identifiable person, and I sometimes (though not often) go so far as to invent company names and set my stories in fictional locations. Otherwise, I don’t worry about it much. The chances that I would be sued are slim anyhow, since I’m a guppy in a small pond—lawyers want bigger fish to try. I think it’s significant that Ms. Stockett was sued only after her book hit the bestseller lists.
I also think it’s interesting that there seems to be almost as much discussion about the lawsuit as about The Help itself. If it’s really true what they say about there being no such thing as “bad publicity,” the suit and its aftermath were probably a gift straight from heaven. In fact, if I were writing a fictional account of a situation like this, I’d probably have the author character plan the whole thing beforehand. In my story, I’d have the author find someone and say, “Look, I’m writing this book, and if it’s published and does well, you pop up and say I wrote about you without your permission, and sue my pants off, and the controversy will sell even more books and I’ll make a gazillion bucks and I’ll give you such-and-such a percentage.” I’m not saying that’s what happened, because it didn’t, but that’s the way I would plot it.
One final word: The Help is one of the two best novels about the South I’ve read in a long time—the other is Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin—and I think it deserves every bit of success and recognition it’s received. I’ve not yet seen its film adaptation, but I plan to.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to write, and I’ll continue to try to avoid any contact with lawyers. Maybe if I do get sued, it’ll mean I’ve finally hit the big time.