Contemporary Fiction Writing in a Cultural Vacuum

As my novel sits with its publisher, being checked and line-edited, several interesting issues have come up, which have brought home exactly how badly fear of lawsuits have eroded our ability to place our fictions within realistic cultural landscapes.

My novel is called Beautiful Losers.  This is the title of a number of novels, including a famous one by Leonard Cohen and a documentary film directed by Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard. But none of these are relevant. The title comes from a song by an obscure 80’s band called Clock DVA (you can listen to the song here.) Luckily, and strangely, titles are not covered by copyright.

But I wanted to pay homage to how much the song inspired me, in terms of atmosphere, so I opened the novel with a quote of the lyrics:

oh beautiful losers
you never seem to win
there’s something weird about your bitter erotic sin
you were so perfect
why did it end that way?
Beautiful Losers, Newton & Turner, 1982, from the album Advantage, Polydor Records)

The novel is set in the alternative scene in Vancouver in the 1980s. The inspiration for and the atmosphere of the story really centre around a club called ‘The Luv Affair’ and the music of the period.  The novel was peppered with snippets of lyrics that act as musical / literary mnemonics for the reader. At the beginning of one chapter, my characters are getting ready to go out for a night of clubbing.  I opened the chapter quoting from the old Iggy Pop track ‘Funtime’.

Baby, baby, we like your lips
Baby, baby, we like your pants
All aboard for funtime.
Funtime, Pop and Bowie, 1977, from the album The Idiot, RCA Records)

Finally, there were just some scattered cultural references. At one point, Sebastian, the delicious omnisexual member of the threesome is trying to persuade Shira, the narrator, to take the day off by telling her that her boss is a sweet guy and was, in his time, a notorious slut.  It’s rumoured, he says, that he fucked Mick Jagger.

Sebastian stopped singing down the line at the top of his lungs and said: ‘You have the world’s nicest boss, Shira. Don’t lie. I heard the whole thing. Come on. Everyone knows Michael Fredrickson is an old queen! He’s a sweetie. Rumour has it that he fucked Mick Jagger back in the day, you know.’

Wow. That was news to me. I thought my gaydar was pretty good, but obviously I was wrong. Then I stopped to think about it. ‘Bullshit, Sebastian. He lives with a woman who bakes granola cookies.’

There was an evil chuckle on the other end of the connection. ‘That doesn’t mean shit in my world, girl.’(from Beautiful Losers, by Remittance Girl)

So, imagine my surprise when the publisher comes back to me, telling me I need to take out all the lyrics and all the references to people in the real world.

It’s not that they believe the lyrics cause the songwriter any intellectual or commercial harm.  Nor do they really believe that Mick Jagger is going to be upset that a fictional character passes on a fictional rumour, that another fictional character may have slept with Mick Jagger. (And I do have to wonder whether, had the fictional character ‘rumoured’ to have slept with Mick Jagger had been a woman, would the threat of libel be as pressing?)

Everyone’s so damn scared of lawsuits, and so cognizant of just how long it might take to obtain permission to reproduce the lyrics, they’d rather not bother or take a chance. It’s easier to ask me to simply cleanse the fiction of any real cultural references – no matter how silly and clearly fictional.

So I did what they asked.

But it occurs to me that this paranoia of legal complications means that published works of fiction are going to be artificially stripped of any real cultural references.  Out of fear, writers are forced to culturally decontextualize their stories.

Celebrities and the media organizations that profit from their existence get to use their images and personas to populate our visual and auditory world on TV, Newspapers, Posters, the Net, when it suits them for their careers. Songwriters get to impose their work onto us without permission in elevators, department stores, in advertisements, etc., but we are not allowed to reflect back the cultural landscape that results from this in our fictions. We are drowned in a sea of promotional messages everyday so we might be parted with our cash. But we have to pretend that none of this enters into our psyches or forms part of our everyday reality.

On the other hand, it seems conveniently permissible to mention any number of branded consumer products in fiction. Novels like Fifty Shades of Grey, Bared to You, and American Psycho (just to name a few) are stuffed full of designer labels the heroes and heroines wear, drive and consume.

How convenient.

The laws regarding intellectual property are not there to protect *us* at all.

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