In today’s Independent Jonathan Heawood discusses the case of Åsne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist who wrote a book based on her account of life with an Kabul bookseller and his family, The Bookseller of Kabul, during the relatively early days of the Afghanistan war in 2002.
The bookseller took exception to her ‘low and salacious’ book and sued. Sierstad has offered financial renumeration to offended parties, claims that the family pre-approved her account, and has offered to write a follow up to correct any damage done to the plaintiffs’ reputations. Still they won’t drop and she faces damages of up to £250,000.
Her lawyer is promising to appeal and the case may wind up at the European Court in Strasbourg. But there is no guarantee that the court will defend Seierstad’s right to publish her own version of events. In recent cases, the court has attacked the public interest in free speech and the simple right of authors to describe the world as they find it. This growing trend may deter other authors from writing about real people, even in a fictional context.
What would it mean for literature if all characters based on real people were removed from the record? No Buck Mulligan in Ulysses; no Sarah in The End of the Affair; no Casaubon in Middlemarch; no Zelda in Tender is the Night; no Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House; no Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Ottoline Morrell was cruelly satirised in both Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow and DH Lawrence’s Women in Love. Christopher Robin Milne hated living with the memory of his father’s classic books about a little boy and his teddy bear. Real people are scooped up by writers all the time. Literature does not respect the boundary between public and private; in fact, it is all about overstepping that mark.
The boundary between reality and fiction is porous at best. It’s certainly not a wall of separation that should be legitimised in law.