There was an interesting article a few weeks ago in the Australian papers citing a legal case in Western Australian wherein the Western Australian State government had frozen the bank account of an author who had co-written a book with an ex SAS soldier who had previously served time for a series of bank robberies he’d executed to fund the Karen Liberation front (a movement fighting Burma’s current military junta). The book told the SAS guy’s story, so one assumes it’s based in fact. The bank account of the co-author – Kingsley Flett – contained his publishing income and the West Australian Director of public prosecutions froze the account because the state was claiming the account contain monies that were proceedings of a criminal activities – in other words money made from telling the story of real bank robberies.
Extraordinary – apparently there is a clause in Western Australia (differing from the rest of Australia) that gives the state government a freezing order if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that property is crime-used or crime-deprived. I guess this now applies to intellectual property – the case has opened up a whole can of worms and threatens other writers of crime (based on actual events) as well as the surrounding publishers/production houses that profit off such series – this is only if it gets through the Australian Supreme Court. The publishing director of Penguin, Australia (hello Bob) has made a direct appeal to the Premier of Western Australia as he should, but it did make me think about the ethics of such masterpieces as Capote’s In Cold Blood as well as a plethora of other excellent movies, books and TV series all based on actual crime stories.
Personally, I never knowingly write something based on someone’s experience – and, somehow, the notion is too limiting as a fiction writer. But that doesn’t mean the government has the right to prevent others from doing so. Is this just another sideways step toward censorship as driven by the Christian Right? Ironically Australia has a literary history based on the glorification of maverick bank robber/revolutionary figures – Ned Kelly withstanding and the extremely morally ambivalent figure of the Australian hit man Chopper Read comes to mind – God knows how much money his book, movie, TV, appearances and spin generated, not to mention launching the career of one outstanding film director.
I suspect it is both absurd and impossible to control the muse wherever it may spring from, but the move does indicate a worrying trend of government attempting to control artistic expression. I’m thinking about the Bill Henson controversy last year, when Kevin Rudd announced that he had found the veteran and internationally renown photographer’s work pornographic (the Australian Henson does hauntingly beautiful depictions of pubescent sexuality – that are not pornographic in my opinion – more dreamlike and strangely reminiscent of one’s own awakening in a metaphoric way). Next to the latest wave of New British Art – Emin, Hirst etc, Henson is positively conservative, but hey, this is the country that banned D.H. Lawrence up until the 1950’s – which is why the trend is worrying.
The notion of an artist gleaning inspiration from real life events whether they are violent, criminal, or violence legitimised by politics (i.e. war) has existed ever since cave men scratched depictions of hunting on the cave wall. I’m thinking of the National Theatre’s wonderful production of Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage (written in 1585 and based on Virgil’s play) I’ve seen recently, in which Aeneas the central character (an Trojan) gives an graphic and totally compelling eye-witness account of the siege of Troy – a monologue which was actually inspired by the French Saint Bartholomew’s massacre – the massacre of the Protestants by the Catholics in Paris (as depicted in the movie Queen Margot). This was an event of his times that fired Marlowe’s imagination enabling him to create a totally believable experience of war – still moving people today. I would argue that Marlowe’s monologue is ethical because in no way does it encourage violence or war- but instead operates as a graphic warning about the horrors and senselessness of such events….