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The Writer's Rights
(Excerpted from an article by Donald Margulies)

How the Leavitt / Spender Case Helped Inspire a Play
"Six months ago a famous writer accused me of stealing his life. As a result, I lost six months of mine." -- David Leavitt, New York Times, April 22, 1994

In 1993, an American novelist named David Leavitt published a book that drew its inspiration from a man its young author had never met. Stephen Spender, the poet laureate of England, was in his eighties and nearing the end of life when his and Leavitt's paths fatefully crossed. His 1950 autobiography, World Within World, dealt in part with a tempestuous relationship the youthful Spender had had at the time of the Spanish Civil War. When Leavitt, hailed as a precocious talent in his own country, used that episode from Spender's life as the basis for his novel, While England Sleeps, Spender was appalled, and a bitter, cross-Atlantic literary battle ensued, resulting in an out-of-court settlement in the venerated poet's favor and the withdrawal of the book from England. [All copies of Leavitt's original book were destroyed, and a new version was published, after receiving Spender's approval.]

As it unfolded, the newspaper accounts of this literary imbroglio began to feed my own writer's imagination. The controversy seemed to me a perfect illustration of the "anxiety of influence" the critic Harold Bloom had theorized. I began to view this seemingly petty skirmish between two writers as the ageless battle for dominance between the old and the young, indeed as a contest between life and death. Many questions arose: How does experience translate into art? Who owns a story? When does emulation become appropriation?

While I found these items intriguing at the time, a play did not immediately declare itself; my plays rarely do. Instead, these ideas swirled about and gestated in the form of some cursory notes. A few years later, when a theater commissioned from me a new work, I remembered my fascination with the Leavitt-Spender incident and wondered if it might provide fodder for a new play. In order to distance myself from the facts of the actual case, I decided to focus on two women rather than two men; and instead of the writers being strangers to one another, I chose to raise the dramatic stakes by making them quite close, indeed, by placing them in the same living room.

Who is right about rights?

Mr. Leavitt may have hoped that his appropriations would remain undetected. Indeed, he seems to consider it a piece of great hard luck that I should ever have hear of the existence of his book, and explained in reply that "he had originally composed" an acknowledgement, "but had been advised by an in-house lawyer at Viking to omit the reference." He has tried to maintain that he used "the facts" of my life rather than my book itself. However, as the English writer James Fenton pointed out in his review in the Independent, "What is being tampered with here is an achieved literary work"; he advised Mr. Leavitt to withdraw "While England Sleeps." "An author has a right to chuck his own book in the bin", Mr. Fenton wrote. "That's what I would do. Quickly." Since this more honorable course of action was not taken, I brought a suit charging infringement of copyright. -- Stephen Spender, New York Times, September 4, 1994
I found Spender's affidavit an immensely disturbing document. Its crux was a "schedule" listing 17 instances in which, in his opinion, the plot and text of the two books dovetailed. I could not deny that the novel used the Spender book as a source; on the other hand, the "schedule" struck me essentially as a legal fiction, in that its careful listing of parallels had nothing to do with the experience of actually reading the two books. Yes, these 17 parallels existed; but they constituted only the smallest percentage of both works. They had been picked with legal tweezers out of a narrative that was as intricately woven as a Persian carpet. -- David Leavitt, New York Times, April 22, 1994




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