When Book Reviews Kill
David Graham Philips
From The New York Times:
It’s easy to imagine how a novelist might use a real person as a basis for a fictional character. It’s equally easy to imagine how such a person could notice the similarities and perhaps become offended. After all, the fiction writer has pledged an oath to serve a calling higher than mere feelings. Why should F. Scott Fitzgerald worry over the sensitivities of Max Gerlach in creating Jay Gatsby?
Bruised egos and frayed friendships often follow the publication of a novel. In a 1949 letter included in a new edition of his correspondence, Saul Bellow described how acquaintances “draw off into coldness and enmity who’d have kinder feelings toward me if I were a photographer of dogs or a fish-expert.” Sometimes there are lawsuits, although they are notoriously difficult to win. In a case brought against Joe Klein and Random House by a woman who believed she was the model for a character who has an affair with a Clintonesque presidential candidate in Klein’s “Primary Colors,” a New York court ruled that superficial similarities were not enough: the depiction “must be so closely akin” to the real person claiming to be defamed that “a reader of the book, knowing the real person, would have no difficulty linking the two.” After all, who says the minor socialite Gerlach, just one of many candidates, really was the model for Gatsby?
Thankfully, few fictional representations are so offensive to their (reputed) models that actual violence ensues. The notable exception — perhaps the most spectacular crime in American literary history — took place 100 years ago this month when Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough expressed his supreme displeasure with what he believed was the depiction of his family in the novel “The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig” by pumping six bullets into its author.