Friday, February 18, 2011

Ablene and Aibileen

In a stunningly ironic development, this morning's papers bring the news that the author of the best-selling novel The Help is being sued by a maid in Jackson, Mississippi, for allegedly using her name and physical description without permission.

Why so ironic? As those who've read The Help know, its plot hinges on the publication of a book that is a thinly disguised portrait of a group of middle-class white women in Jackson as seen through the eyes of their black maids. Much of the tension in the novel comes from wondering whether those white women will recognize themselves in the book, and what action they'll take if they do. Only--this being the South in the early sixties--the maids who have told their stories are worried more about lynchings than lawsuits.

Ablene Cooper, the maid who is suing author Kathryn Stockett for supposedly portraying her in The Help, is seriously misguided for a number of reasons. Yes, there's a similarity in names (the character in the book is named Aibileen, which is apparently how "Ablene" is pronounced) and appearance (both Ablene and Aibileen sport a gold tooth). And both have a son who has died. But Aibeleen's story is not Ablene's, nor could it be. For one thing, Aibeleen's experience takes place fifty years ago, when Ms. Cooper (who is 60) was a child. For Ms. Cooper to argue that she is somehow "embarrassed" by the racial insults suffered by the fictional Aibileen in the early sixties is so convoluted as to boggle the mind.

One problem is that the book's Aibileen is such a sympathetic, admirable character--unlike most of the white women portrayed in the book-within-the-book--that it's hard to see how the real Ablene can credibly claim to have suffered any injury. According to the Wall Street Journal, one of Ms. Cooper's claims is that the Aibileen character speaks in a "thick ethnic vernacular," which embarrassed Ms. Cooper because she herself doesn't speak like that. Ms. Cooper herself undercut that claim somewhat when she told the New York Times, "Ain't too many Ablenes."

Aside from the vernacular, she has a point. No matter how admirable the character she invented is, Ms. Stockett would have been wise to choose another name. (She apparently knows Ms. Cooper, who works for her brother and sister-in-law, only slightly; the real-life maid Ms. Stockett based the character on, and who was her family's own maid when she was a child, was named Demetrie.) A writing teacher once advised me to change as many details as possible when a fictional character is modeled on a real person: if the real person is tall, make the character short; if the real person has blonde hair, make it brown; and so on. Surely it would have been easy to come up with some other name. But Stockett probably just started writing the book using the name Aibileen, and then the character and the name became inseparable. I know how that is.

But let's leave all that to one side. The basic, and most obvious, point to make here--and the one Ms. Cooper has apparently failed to grasp--is that Aibileen is a fictional creation. That's one essential difference between The Help, which is a novel, and the book-within-the-book about white women in Jackson, which was nonfiction (albeit with disguised names). Even if Aibileen were a lot closer to the real Ablene, Ms. Cooper would--or at least should--face a high bar in prevailing in court.

The fact is, ALL fictional characters are modeled on real people, to a greater or lesser extent. Even if an author doesn't have an actual person in mind, he or she is probably borrowing various attributes of a character from different real people. And even if that's not true, it's likely that a fictional character, if done well, will at least remind some readers of an actual person. Should that person be able to sue? Clearly not. And where, exactly, do you draw the line?

But people can be quick to take offense, or at least to see the opportunity to make some money off a best-selling book. That's why, if you're going to write fiction based on the lives of real people, it's a lot safer to choose people who are dead--preferably long dead. That's what I did in my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, and that's what I'm doing in the one I'm working on now. Not only are they themselves unable to sue, their descendants tend to be flattered rather than offended by an author's imaginative riffs.

I confess to having some trepidation on this score about the novel that's with my agent now. Its setting is contemporary, and let's just say there are a few people who might think they recognize themselves in it if it should ever get published. But in that unlikely eventuality, I hope they'll understand that the characters in the novel are no more "them" than the protagonist is "me"--and also that, in a way, ALL of them are me. They're all bits and pieces of me and other real people and things that just came into my head. In other words, they're fictional.

But who knows? A few weeks ago there was a chilling essay in the New York Times Book Review that told the tale of an unstable man who was convinced that a 1909 novel was a thinly veiled attack on his family, the Goldsboroughs of Maryland. He didn't just sue. He stalked the novelist who wrote it, David Graham Phillips, and shot him six times near his home on Gramercy Park. After the shooting, when Phillips was asked whether he had in fact based the novel on Goldsborough's family, he responded, "No, I don't know the man." They were, perhaps, his last words.

So if my novel doesn't get published, I can at least console myself with the thought that I won't have to worry about armed stalkers. Unless they're zombies, risen from the dead. Now THERE's a plot that would probably make the editors at major publishing houses sit up and take notice. Maybe I should give it a whirl.

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