Thursday, June 28, 2012
Libel laws: I could still be sued and lose everything
Sixteen years ago, I wrote a novel called A Vicious Circle, and in consequence nearly lost my home, my reputation and a great deal of money. Today, a national petition asking for fairer libel laws will be handed into 10 Downing St by the science journalist and TV producer Simon Singh. Both of us have fallen foul of this country’s illiberal and outdated libel laws. He was trying to expose bad science; my novel was satirising bad criticism.
When I wrote the book (my third), between 1992 and 1996, I was interested in using the tropes of certain Victorian novelists I particularly admire, such as Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray and Balzac. Its complex plot is essentially concerned with two young women, Mary and Amelia, in love with the same ambitious man, Mark Crawley. When Mark chooses to marry the rich Amelia, Mary attempts suicide; but then gains revenge by transforming herself into a journalist as heartless as her ex-lover. A reworking of Balzac’s Lost Illusions, it was, I hoped, of interest and entertainment.
However, in the summer of 1996, I learnt that my new novel, then circulating in proof form, had been accused of libel by a literary critic, and former boyfriend of mine, called David Sexton.
Then, as now, the British libel laws were exceptionally punitive, not least in placing the burden of proof on the defendant. The merest hint of it is likely to get a book cancelled. This is what happened to me.
Originally commissioned by Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin), A Vicious Circle was about much more than the literary scene. It was also about maternal passion, about a friendship between a woman and a gay man, about the collapse of the NHS, and about the vulnerability of newspapers to corrupt swindlers such as Robert Maxwell. It was a satire, written in a literary style. It was not a roman à clef.