By Mark Alpert
Happy Fourth of July! Although many beaches are closed this year and many fireworks shows have been canceled because of the pandemic, we can still read and write. In the spirit of the holiday, let’s talk about what freedom means to writers.
When I was in elementary school, my fifth-grade teacher introduced me to a useful rule that summarized American freedom and its limits: “My freedom ends where your nose begins.” He understood that the raucous students in his class often felt a strong desire to punch one another in the nose, and he wanted to make it clear that the U.S. constitution doesn’t condone this kind of behavior. The general rule is applicable to adults as well, although I guess in the age of the coronavirus we should probably update it to “My freedom ends where your nasal airways begin.”
American writers are blessed with the freedom to write about anything. The First Amendment protects us against government censorship, and the courts have steadfastly ruled against virtually all attempts to block the publication of books and newspaper articles. Such attempts at prior restraint are anathema in our democracy; a century-long series of Supreme Court rulings have reaffirmed that the government can’t preclude the publication of anything unless it would surely cause “grave and irreparable” harm to the American public.
But what about defamation? Although government officials may not be able to stop you from publishing your book, can the targets of your criticism hit you with a libel lawsuit afterwards? Fortunately for writers, defamation suits are rarely successful. The 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan established the current rule: if the plaintiff in a defamation suit is a public figure (usually defined as anyone involved in public affairs, including politicians, business leaders, and celebrities), he or she must prove that a false defamatory statement was made with “actual malice” — that is, the author or publisher either knew the statement was false or recklessly disregarded the possibility that it was false. It’s very difficult to prove reckless disregard (as opposed to proving mere negligence), so this court precedent shields authors as long as they’re trying to be truthful.
Personal aside: when I was a reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser in the 1980s, the newspaper’s libel lawyer was Rod Nachman, who had represented Sullivan in that landmark Supreme Court case. (L.B. Sullivan was a Montgomery police commissioner who’d sued the Times over inaccurate statements in an advertisement that ran in the newspaper in 1960.) Although Nachman had been on the losing side of the legal battle, I was awed to be in the same room with the man. Who could give us better legal advice about libel than the lawyer who’d worked on the case that had defined modern libel law?
For fiction writers, though, there’s another side to the story. Although novelists may have the freedom to write about anything, their readers have the freedom to ignore it. Your manuscript can be as wildly experimental and outrageous as you please, but no literary agent or editor will read past the first few paragraphs if the prose is baffling and the plot is nonsensical. Like all other Americans, fiction writers must respect the limits to their freedom, and those limits are defined by the tolerance of their readers.
It’s difficult to present hard-and-fast rules for novelists seeking to get published, because for every rule there are many exceptions, writers who managed through sheer brilliance to create dazzling books from unpromising premises. But I think most of the advice for beginning writers can be boiled down to two basic restrictions that authors should try not to violate if they want a sizable audience:
1) Don’t confuse your readers.
2) Don’t bore your readers.
At first glance, you might assume that following these two rules would be a cinch, but in practice it’s not so easy. In the writer’s mind, the characters of the novel may seem fascinating and the plot may seem crystal clear, and these convictions are often so powerful that the writer may not even recognize failure when he or she produces a manuscript that’s completely lacking in fascination and clarity. The best way to prevent these failures is to share your work-in-progress with honest, astute readers who are good at pinpointing problems. They can show you the passages in your book where the words on the page aren’t conveying what you intended. And over time you’ll learn to internalize that constructive criticism, so you can minimize the problems in your first drafts.
Once you get the hang of the rules, you’ll realize they’re not so limiting. The novel is perhaps the freest literary form, offering wider horizons than the short story and sidestepping all the theatrical considerations that constrain screenplays and other dramatic works. But even in poetry, which was governed for centuries by conventions of rhyme and meter, the best writers were able to use the age-old rules to express an infinite variety of emotions.
So I’ll end this post with William Wordsworth’s famous sonnet about finding liberation within a rigid rhyme scheme:
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.