Justice

A novel way of doing things

Ian Brown January 28 1980
Justice

A novel way of doing things

Ian Brown January 28 1980

A novel way of doing things

Justice

Ian Brown

“In view of a recent tendency to identify characters in fiction with real people, it seems proper to state that there are no real people in this volume . . . ’’—disclaimer in Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not

"Do I look paranoid?" asks Ian Adams, uncurling gently from one of two chairs in his office near Toronto’s newly refurbished Rochdale College, and the answer is obviously no. Having relinquished a reputation as one of Canada’s most accomplished journalists some six years ago— his books include The Poverty Wall and The Trudeau Papers—the calm, mustachioed 42-year-old now writes novels about spies and conspiracies. Good ones, too; tales spun from fear and real events that simmer a reader’s paranoia. His latest book, End Game in Paris, which was published in November, concerns intelligence officers and takes as its point of departure the death of a person in Paris shortly after the October Crisis. “I used to have this idea that people could change their ideas ... if you gave them information . . . but it really doesn’t work that way,” Adams observes quietly, pulling his words, as usual, carefully from the air about him. “People have all this information inside themselves. I think fiction allows you to work on that information, on the images that people have in themselves, in a way that is extremely personal.... If you can get into the kind of writing that raises those kinds of questions, it can have a much more powerful effect.”

It is one of the things Ian Adams has thought a lot about recently. Last February, in what appears to be the first libel suit in Canada to be brought against a work of fiction, Australian resident Leslie James Bennett, 59, a former intelligence officer in the RCMP, alleged that the central character in Adams’ book, S, Portrait of a Spy, was modelled on him and that he was made out to be a traitor. The case has been stalled for months at the pretrial, examination for discovery stage because Adams refuses to name his sources, but the lawyers were ready to argue the point last month when the North American publishing industry received some chilling news: the U.S. Supreme Court had decided not to review a California court decision (thereby letting a precedent stand) requiring best-selling author Gwen Davis and her publisher, massive Doubleday & Company, to pay a Californian psychotherapist, formerly known as Mr. Nude Marathon, $50,000 for having libelled him in Davis’ 1971 novel, Touching. “I think it’s one of the most destructive and wrong-headed decisions that any court has made in the area of First Amendment rights,” says Townsend Hoopes, president of the Association of American Publishers.

The origin of the Bennett lawsuit in Canada is an intriguing story on its own, but the question in the minds of Canadian novelists and publishers— and film-makers and poets and actors— is far more basic to their survival as meaningful commentators: how susceptible is fiction to Canada’s obscure libel laws, and—more importantly—how susceptible should it be?

Unfortunately, the line between fact and fiction is as vague as a September breeze. Bennett claims S is clearly his double: both had asthma and illegible handwriting, for instance, and both wore grey baggy trousers and tweed jackets in the office. But the most telling incident in the book is the resignation of S after intensive interrogation by security officers in Ottawa who suspect he is a triple agent. Bennett resigned from the RCMP in 1972—several months after he was interrogated in a “safe house” in Ottawa (he later disclosed that the RCMP had questioned his loyalty). He had worked for the RCMP since 1954 and had two years to go until his official age of retirement. In 1973, the Toronto Star published a story claiming Bennett was “Canada’s Philby”—in other words, a KGB agent. Bennett later denied this in The Toronto Sun, whose editor, Peter Worthington, may or may not be one model for Hazelton, a character in S who edits a “tits and crime” Toronto tabloid.

Adams and his lawyer, Paul Copeland, insist that S is strictly a fictional character. But no matter who wins the lawsuit, Leslie James Bennett may already have proven the effectiveness of at least the threat of libel in the hands of anyone seeking to preserve the status quo in Canada. As soon as Bennett’s writ was issued, Gage International Publishing Ltd., the publisher of S, stopped distribution of the book for a few weeks, even though it had sold 12,000 copies in its first two months on the market; paperback and film rights worth some $22,000 have been cancelled. Adams faces a nightmare of legal expenses—$6,500 so far, a sum that could climb to $60,000 should the case make its way to the Supreme Court.

“It scares publishers into not publishing books,” says Marian Hebb, lawyer for The Writers’ Union of Canada and once a book editor herself. True enough: though Doubleday in New York eventually gave Adams a $20,000 advance on End Game in Paris, Gage wouldn’t touch the book. “You have to be very, very careful about the books you publish,” admits Ron Besse, Gage’s president. “If we got another book like S, we would be very careful about it... . The moment you do get involved in legal action you lose the profit on three or four books of fiction.” Even as established a publisher as Jack McClelland of McClelland and Stewart insists that “the protection to a person who is not in the public eye ... is a legitimate thing... I think the right of the individual to privacy is more important than the right of the author to say what he wants to say.”

The real question, however, is whether the individual’s right to privacy isn’t dependent at some deeper level upon the opportunity to say what he thinks—at least in fiction, if not in fact. “What is fiction?” asks Hebb. “A novelist has to draw on real life and real people or it’s unbelievable. Any fiction writer is drawing on his own experience of life.” That has been the case as long as there have been writers saying what they think and authorities trying to suppress them; and from Plato through Pope to best-selling potboiler writers (who, if they are fictionalizing a real character, like a former president’s wife and want to protect themselves, usually mention the real character by name in a cameo role as well), fiction has been the ultimate sanctuary from which one could always tell at least some disguised version of the truth. But the tradition of literary freedom has little weight in an increasingly conservative, economically pinched society. Says Paul Copeland: “Clearly the fact that it’s a novel isn’t sufficient defence .... One of the arguments there is that you should do your fictionalizing a little better.” But a question that may still be decided in the writer’s favor more often than not is whether the person who believes he has been libelled decides to go to the expense and trouble of suing in the first place. Hebb notes that it may depend on “how foolish the person who sues is willing to look. Because he tends to look like an ass.”

None of which has made Ian Adams very repentant. He works away at his ideas on the subject as he works away on a new project, a novel drawn from his bout of persecution. “I think a journalist should write about what is going on in society; a novelist should raise questions as to why it is going on,” Adams says. “The law seems to be saying that novelists shouldn’t have any right to make judgments about what is going on around them . . . .What’s next?—You can’t make a movie about pollution or you can’t write a song about oppressive employers?” To say nothing of its effect on literary quality, separating truth from fiction and fiction from truth may only narrow our understanding of both. Hemingway explained it best when once asked why he chose to work with representations of fact rather than facts themselves. “Why be puzzled by that?” replied the Brief One. “From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive...”

With files from Terry Poulton

Terry Poulton