THE NOVEMBER 24-30 ISSUE OF THE GUARDIAN WEEKLY contained an article by John Sutherland concerning the problems of the British crime novelist Jake Arnott, whose latest book Johnny Come Home, was first published in April of 2006, only to be pulled off the market in August of the same year.
It seems that in this book, set in London's tin pan alley of the 1970s, Arnott named one of his characters Tony Rocco. Tony was a former big-band singer now turned impresario. While I have not read the book, Sutherland assures use that the fictional Rocco is depicted as a big-time pervert, and quite nasty. Unfortunately there is a real Tony Rocco, who has emerged out of obscurity, a former big-band singer and a figure of unimpeachable respectability.
Mr. Rocco has brought a suit against Arnott and his publisher, Hodder & Stoughton. And so the book has been pulped. At a loss to the publisher of thousands of dollars, the sum of which must be surely covered by liability insurance. The book will be reprinted with appropriate name changes. I am told that Arthur Hailey checked the names of his characters in the Manhattan telephone directory. Perhaps a more appropriate method these days might be an Internet search.
Sutherland informs us that "Where real names are involved an author cannot hide behind that all purpose shield: 'any resemblance is purely coincidental.' Nor do the courts accept ignorance as a defense. If you can be shown, by using a real-life name, to have injured a real-life reputation, then you will pay. The law is alongside the Bard," Sutherland quips, quoting Shakespeare: "He who steals my purse steals trash. But he who steals my good name steals all that I have.
The author is safe if his character has no good name to lose. Sutherland gives as an example Giles Foden lampooning Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, even though the exiled Amin was still alive and living in Saudia Arabia. The article also points out that authors such as Evelyn Waugh and James Joyce took great pleasure in introducing introducing the names of particular enemies into their fiction, but kept them in small nooks and corners of their novels, where there appearance became more of a private joke to their friends. Then law suits were not so easily instituted as nowadays, which was probably for the better.
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