A novelist wondered aloud to me recently if she should pursue the idea she has to base a new book on some real events – a wonderfully salacious story in the news. What would be the legal complications, she wondered, if she took the story reported by other writers and fictionalized it? Would the reporters claim some kind of infringement? And what about the subjects of the story – could they claim moral upset because it was their story to tell?
I said it’s no problem – just look at the book news. A huge novel this fall is Miriam Toews’s Women Talking, a fictional story that’s inspired by a real series of rapes in a Mennonite community in Bolivia from 2005 to 2009. Toews has a Mennonite background, but does not live as a Mennonite now, and is not from Bolivia. (The men in Bolivia were drugging and raping the women in their sleep; Toews’s story revolves around a fictionalized group of victims' imagined subsequent actions. Her novel is not an exact representation of the real events – and she has changed the name of the place to make this clear – but the inspiration is unmistakable.) Everyone is loving this book and no one is accusing Toews of stealing stories. As far as I know, she has not been sued by any Mennonite rapists. But, I said to my friend, suddenly nervous, check with your agent anyway.
This has always been a question for fiction writers, as novels from the beginning of the genre’s history have sought out news and real events as their inspiration. Robinson Crusoe (1719) was largely inspired by a real castaway. Bleak House (1853) was inspired by at least one prominent legal case in the 19th century; 100 years later, The Crucible (1953) took its plot from the Salem witch trials. Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988) is about the Kennedy assassination; Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996) is inspired by two real murders from 1843; A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014) reimagines the death of Bob Marley; Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008) was inspired by a real cellist; Leïla Slimani’s 2018 bestseller The Perfect Nanny is a novel based on a real tragedy that occurred in New York in 2012. This list could continue for pages.
These authors have always had to worry about both legal and moral repercussions from these fictionalizations: There is always the possibility of libel claims from people who see themselves unfairly represented, or accusations of exploitation by those who feel their story should be private.
You can change names and details all you want, but if someone claims the underlying story is recognizable to any well-read human, and if the portrayal is damaging, they have a case.
In recent years, the terrain is even more fraught because of the ever-stronger idea of appropriation of voice. A real event is fine for an inspiration, but if that narrative is the story of trauma or violence done to people who are less privileged than the author, and if the author does not belong to the traumatized group, the writer will be accused of profiting from the suffering of others.
We have seen this happen recently with several high-profile visual art works, and it happens all the time in fiction too. The Cellist of Sarajevo, for example, angered the real “cellist of Sarajevo,” who wanted some credit for being the inspiration of a bestseller. The larger literary world couldn’t really get itself upset over this indignation, though; it seemed obvious to most concerned that the trick of writing a bestselling novel was actually writing it, not coming up with the idea for it, and that this should be rewarded regardless of who played the cello. The controversy faded away.
In this country, anything concerning Indigenous subjects is even trickier, as the idea of the sacred might be adduced as further reason not to write about the real. Shannon Webb-Campbell, a little-known poet at a tiny publishing house, discovered this after publishing a book of poems that contained – with the most pious of intentions – descriptions of the murder of an Indigenous woman. The dead woman’s family complained that the presentation of the gory details were harmful to them and that this kind of description did not follow Indigenous “protocols.” The publisher pulled the book, the poet cancelled her appearances and both publisher and poet published unconditional apologies. (On the upside: The controversy caused the greatest amount of mainstream press coverage either the poet or the press had ever received.)
So far, no victims of the Bolivian “ghost rapes” – on which Toews’s fiction is based – have publicly complained that their horrific abuse has been unjustly appropriated and exploited by a privileged, literate woman in a foreign country. They wouldn’t – they are still living in Bolivia in isolated compounds. Indeed, their voicelessness in the larger world, and their inability to read and write, is a central concern of the novel.
I am actually curious as to why no one has accused Toews of appropriation of voice – because that’s exactly what her work is. It is a brilliant and moving and humanitarian appropriation of voice.
(You may be thinking there is an elephant in the room here, and its name is Joseph Boyden: What if a writer claims to be of some kind of marginalized ethnicity, gets a lot of respect for telling “his people’s” story, and then it turns out he might not be a member of that group at all? Well that’s a whole different situation. That would be an appropriation of an identity, not of a story. It’s hardly a literary question at all, more of a legal one. Galloway didn’t claim to be the cellist of Sarajevo. Daniel Defoe never claimed to be shipwrecked.)
Toews herself does have a tenuous identitarian claim – her Mennonite background – but I don’t think that is what allows her the authority to give voice to these brutalized women. (Nor is she making a big deal of that identity.) It is that she writes so beautifully and imaginatively. The world is in fact hugely grateful that someone who wasn’t there is telling these women’s stories so eloquently.
Because, you see, telling other peoples' stories is what novelists do and have always done.