October 2009


I’ve just been writing a review of “Fellow Travellers” by T.C. Worsley for Speak Its Name (review will go up on 25th, not there yet, I’m scheduling them for one a day, which is working out well, I think) and I was struck by the similarity to part of the plot (based on real people and real events) to David Leavitt’s While England Sleeps.

Worsley’s book is based on novelist Stephen Spender and his friends and lovers in the 1930’s.

With a little digging, I found out why it seemed so familiar, when I discovered this on Stephen Spender’s Wikipedia page:

Spender sued author David Leavitt for allegedly using his relationship with “Jimmy Younger” in Leavitt’s While England Sleeps in 1994. The case was settled out of court with Leavitt removing certain portions from his text.

I found this rather interesting, because it’s often a concern of mine about putting real facts about people (changed, obviously) into gay historical novels.  In this case even though While England Sleeps was a work of fiction, no similarity to anyone living or dead, yadda yadda, the facts were similar enough for Spender to insist that the book was changed.

(It should be noted that Spender notoriously censored his own work, changing the line of one of his poems from:

Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have a boy, a railway fare, or a revolution.

to:

Whatever happens, I shall never be alone. I shall always have an affair, a railway fare, or a revolution.)

Which is rather sad.

But my point is that I’ve taken instances of real-life happenings and used them in my books, I’m sure we all have.  I’ve seen other writers discuss the same, and I wonder whether this caution I’m now feeling should only extend to living people?

I personally think it was a bit cheeky of Leavitt to pinch the salient details of Spender’s affair with “Jimmy” (Tony Hyndham) as it wouldn’t have been at all difficult to mangle the facts sufficiently to avoid a court case.

I am gratified at least, that it was settled out of court–and I have no doubt that this was a deliberate move–because it would raise a dangerous precedent which could result in many people complaining that their life stories had been pilfered for fictional purposes.

What do you think? Is there any legal beagle out there who can define the law involved?

Should we all be a little careful when taking facts from life, especially within living memory?

While restructuring Speak Its Name, I found myself on a horns of a dilemma, and would like to throw the subject open to see what people think.

I was about to pull several books for not being “actual history” e.g. dealing with people who really didn’t exist e.g. 14th century Hollywood style King Arthurs or Robin Hood books, and then I noticed, that, with the upsurge of classical book fanfiction, this put characters like Mr Darcy (Pride/Prejudice) and James Fairfax (James Fairfax) in the same boat – that these are books are “historically famous people who don’t exist.”

So, what do you think?  Where does one draw the line?  When dealing with historical characters should they be in their correct time frame?  Would you consider a book about Robin Hood to be history even though he didn’t exist? If the answer to that question is “no” then what about Mr Darcy? What about Hamlet?

Should these go into a separate category such as “Alternative History”?  I know that the Historical Novel Society encompass A.U books such as the Novik Temeraire series, so perhaps I’m worrying too much, but it’s such a new genre, I’d like to get groundlines in place.

Additionally, what about real person slash?  If a character is proven homosexual, such as Wilde, I’d say that that’s no problem, but what about if you speculate that someone is gay or bisexual where there isn’t any evidence?

Thoughts?

I must be getting used to this. I no longer get butterflies in the tummy as I go in through the door of Joe Daflo’s, I’m used to being the second youngest person present and I know that no-one will kill me if I say I write gay romance. I do still have the feeling that they’ll out me one day and discover that I’m not really a writer, but that’s more how I feel about me than how they feel.

Today’s speaker was Jenny Haddon, author, RNA treasurer and generally good egg. She was telling us about the history of the RNA, which celebrates 50 years of existence in 2010. They’ve undergone changes of name, and perhaps of mission, but the present day organisation’s aims are (in their words):

We work to enhance and promote the various types of romantic and historical fiction, to encourage good writing in all its many varieties, to learn more about our craft and help readers enjoy it.
Romantic Fiction covers an enormous range, from short stories through category romance and much of women’s fiction, to the classics. The nature of romantic fiction means that most of these novels are written and read by women. The RNA, however, boasts a number of very successful male authors amongst their membership.

The list of past officers boasts plenty of well known names, and it was the stories about some of these larger than life characters which enthralled us. There was no surprise in hearing tales of people who had Ivor Novello round to tea or ones who didn’t think you were ‘in’ unless you had royalty in your address book. What was more intriguing were tales of the author who travelled abroad to watch operas and came home wearing fur coats and jewels which belonged to Jewish people who were about to leave pre-war Europe (the valuables being, in effect, smuggled in plain sight so that when these émigrés arrived they would have something of value to sell).

Given the present hoo-hah on various fronts (you don’t need to spell that out, do you?) I listened to some of the early history trying to fight a wry grin. Back-biting, power struggles, people unable – or unused – to working together and having consensus decisions, all the familiar elements were there. Author branding and maintaining the image the public expect, the under-appreciation of romantic fiction by the ‘highbrow’ critics – plus ca change? And when Ms Haddon described organising authors as being like herding cats I wanted to shout out ‘Bingo!’

As I keep saying to any UK writers, find your local RNA chapter and hie thee hence. You’ll love it.

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