Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mountain or Molehill?

In the news this week, best-selling author John Grisham is under fire from Duquense University for using their name in his latest book. Because the reference to a fictional event was not flattering, the university is decidedly unhappy.

The story made me think once again about an author's responsiblity to the public, to readers, etc. I'm aware that many publishers will strip out references to 'brand' names et al in manuscripts in order to protect themselves from liability. Some simply require credit to be given to trademark holders etc and yet others seem to make no distinction at all.

I can understand as an author, if you're using a sentence like: "My car is a piece of junk," said Mary. "It's a Ford and they're all crap," you might draw some criticism. On the other hand if the sentence were: "I love my car," said Mary. "I'll never buy anything but a Ford," would you need to take the same precautions?

Are authors to be held accountable for writing something [fictional] that could be construed as insulting to a particular product or institution? Does it infringe upon the right of free speech to make an author change a reference in a novel so that no aspersions are cast on a certain type of cola, or a brand of toothpaste, or a particular ivy league school?

I'm all for fictionalizing everything. I like fictional towns, fictional stores, fictional types of beer etc, but when you're shooting for realism, shouldn't you be able to invent a fictional incident and have it take place in a real location? Would it be the same if Mr. Grisham's crime took place in New York City and the Mayor of New York called him up to complain that such a thing made the city look bad?

Does an author deserve complaints if they describe a robbery at Wal*Mart or a murder at MacDonald's? Should publishers make every effort to strip out any adverse references to real places or products so that no one is offended, or should everyone just take a chill pill and get over themselves?

What do you think? Does John Grisham deserve a raspberry or should Duquense put on it's big girl panties and build a bridge?


Jen said...

Interesting post. I think it's a bit of both.

On the one hand I think they're overreacting a bit (maybe because they're a Catholic school).

On the other hand, it does paint the school in a negative light. He could have easily fictionalized a school, or named his alma mater (because I'm assuming they've probably rec'd $ from him and wouldn't have squawked).

One of my biggest fears is inadvertently using someone's real name and having them complain that now everyone thinks they're a serial murderer...

Kristen Painter said...

I have to agree with Jen on this. And since I don't know what the situation was that he set there, it's hard to really comment too much.

Bernadette Gardner and Jennifer Colgan said...

I don't know what the situation

His character was involved in an off-campus rape. I can see where the school might be concerned that someone might read the book and assume the incident was real, and perhaps choose not to attend the school out of fear - but I think the odds of that are very small.

I think it speaks to the idea of how much influence a writer can have. I can certainly imagine readers assuming it really happened because he's a best selling author who does extensive research - and because it's a plausible scenario, but then again something like that is plausible at any college unfortunately.

Bernadette Gardner and Jennifer Colgan said...

Jen, I'm always afraid of using real names. I would hate anyone to think I patterned a character after them [even if I did!].

Oddly enough, I have received reader mail asking me I knew a real person by the name of one of my heroes.