Thursday, 6 October 2011

Who owns the virtual teaset?

A few months ago, I started a book group with some friends. Yesterday we met to discuss the fourth and far and away the most popular title so far: Kathryn Stockett's The Help. In fact, so much did we like it that we've made a date for us all to go and see the film together next month.

For anyone who has been living at the bottom of a hole for the last two years, The Help is a first novel by White American Kathryn Stockett, who was brought up in the South, largely by Black maids. It is set in the early '60s and features one brave young White woman who has lost contact with her Black maid in mysterious circumstances, which no-one will explain to her.

Skeeter wants to be a writer and has a slender contact with a publisher in New York City; all she has to do is come up with a commercial idea. Gradually a project grows of getting the  Black maids in Skeeter's community to talk about their lives. The "book within a book," called just Help, has to be published anonymously, or the maids would certainly lose their jobs. But the truth begins to leak out.

It's a wonderful book, told in the first person by several voices, prime among them Aibileen Clark. It was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic and very popular in book clubs. Then one Ablene [sic] Cooper, who is the maid to Stockett's brother's family, took out a lawsuit against the author, claiming she had stolen her name and appearance. You can read the Controversy about The Help.

But the case was dismissed in August because of the statute of limitations. Cooper was very upset, calling Stockett a liar and saying "she knows she did it."

This is reminiscent of the Bookseller of Kabul controversy although that book was presented as non-fiction by author Asne Seierstad.

What is so awful about this case is that the character in the novel, Skeeter, knows she has no book without the testimony of the maids and pays them an exact equal share of the advance she gets and any future royalties. Ablene Cooper must have brought her $75,000 compensation case at least partly because no such arrangement was made with her. (I assume).

It leaves a bad taste even though I still love the book.

So what has this to do with tea sets? It got me thinking about who owns the events in someone life. Margaret Drabble and her sister A.S.Byatt famously have not got on very well for many decades although there has been a certain civilised rapprochement in recent years, with Drabble attending Byatt's 70th birthday celebrations.

But something that seems to have fuelled their mutual animosity was An argument about a tea set
I have another writer in my family, my daughter, Rhiannon Lassiter We are both as parasitical and predatory for stories as any professional novelist but we have a gentlepersons' agreement to check with one another about who uses what.

Many is the time she has told me a story about someone and I've said, vulture-like, "Can I have that or are you going to use it?" The answer is usually no but that's fine.

But should I be asking the person who experienced the event, owned the tea set, as it were? Neither Drabble nor Byatt owned the real set; it belonged to their mother. But she didn't write about it. Both sisters owned the memory of it, different memories, as were those of their mother. So who had the right to write about either?

In my view, anyone who can! As it happens both of these women are expert novelists and writers of non-fiction and their contrasting viewpoints would be of interest to their readers. In the novel, The Help, it is obviously that the maids would never have dreamed of writing their stories, had no publishing contacts and there would have been no Help without Skeeter. And yet she was scrupulous about dividing her profits with them.

Does it matter that the fictional Skeeter was writing reportage and the real Stockett was writing fiction? These are murky waters.

I have one writer friend who suggested once we should have a writers' exchange of family stories so that those who used them in novels would not be identifiable as sources by said families. We haven't done it but it's an interesting idea.

And I have a hunch that Cooper will get her own book deal and that the product will sell. I'd be interested to read it. But will it prove who owned her story? We shall see.


Anne Cassidy said...

This presupposes that a story exists independently of the writer who writes it. They are simply a conduit for a clump of information that is already there in the world. Surely it is the writer who makes the story giving it words and characters and structure. I have said to people in various writers' groups that i ran that no one in the world can tell a story in the way I can (or you or anyone else) no one has my life experiences, my thoughts, feelings world view etc. A good writer can tell the story of a trip to post a letter and make it good.

Stroppy Author said...

A thought-provoking post and an important issue, BookMaven.

I would say that no one owns the past; everyone owns their own memories of it. But there are points where it is not civilised or kind to exploit those memories. I would not write a story that harmed someone I cared about, or seriously harmed even an enemy. But we all have different standards and different ideas of integrity and some people will no doubt feel cheated by an act that the perpetrator considered acceptable.

Jan Markley said...

Interesting post. Everyone remembers the past from their unique pov with all their incumbent baggage. I agree with Anne's comments. People will see themselves in the characters even if it's not them - everyone thinks I'm writing about them all the time! The Help is on my to be read shelf and I can't wait to read it. I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter at the Bologna SCBWI Symposium last year!

Nicky said...

I wouldn't write about my family or friends either which is one good reason for sticking to fantasy. I did feel miffed though when another writer wrote up a real life incident in which I had been involved - it doesn't stop me using it, but her misrepresentation really irritated me. However I am obliged to accept that even though she wasn't involved, she has as much right as I have to tell the tale.

Kathryn Evans said...

Funny isn't it? That story slightly tainted the book for me too - though I don't know why - we all pinch bits of peoples lives - perhaps it was the wholehearted lifting of even the name that was a bit too much - and yes, the actions of Skeeter threw Stockett's into contrast - especially when she wrote her!
I too loved the Help - though interestingly felt the mystery at the heart of the story was never really solved - yes we find out what's happened but that story is never really explored - the one thing in the book that disappointed's a great book club book - fabulous to discuss.

Katherine Langrish said...

Haven't read it yet, don't know if I will, agree with Kathryn the similarity of the fictional and real names seems a bit close to the bone.

karen said...

I'm one of the people who hadn't heard of this novel, but I've just ordered it for my Kindle. I'm hungry to read something that isn't children's fiction so thank you for the recommendation and thought-provoking post.

Kelly Robinson said...

I write a lot of non-fiction humorous essays, which frequently feature my family. No one has ever complained --in fact, they're usually ecstatic whenever one is published. That said, I'm careful not to drag out family secrets or write about anything more embarrassing than spilling beet juice on a white nightgown.

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