A new novel about tennis that offers an uneasy mix of fiction and reality asks the question, To what extent is fiction protected from libel?
“Trophy Son” by Douglas Brunt (alias Mr. Megan Kelly) tells the story of a fictional tennis prodigy who’s the victim of a stage parent. But at some point, it apparently veers into reality as one character, fictional trainer Bobby Hicks, accuses Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray of using performance-enhancing drugs.
Needless to say, this is all anyone’s talking about. Brunt’s response has been somewhat disingenuous.
“I didn’t set out to write some book on performance-enhancing drugs,” he said. “As a matter of plot, it’s a small percentage and sort of a side thread to the overall sacrifice these athletes make in any sport.”
If that’s the case, why use it at all, and why name actual players when you have no proof that they have used performance-enhancing drugs?
The cynic in me thinks it was merely to sell books. In my sports novels, I’m judicious in my use of real-life people. In my new novel, “The Penalty for Holding” (Less Than Three Press), the second in my series “The Games Men Play,” protagonist Quinn Novak, an Indonesian-American quarterback, admires President Barack Obama, because he sees him as a man who succeeded in straddling two worlds – black and white, just as Quinn tries to bridge the Indonesia Obama grew up in with the America Obama presided over. I wouldn’t presume to have Quinn speculate about the former president beyond this. And the NFL I present is entirely fictional, right down to the team names, even though Quinn grows up a Yankees fan.
In my tennis-swimming novel, “Water Music,” the first in “TGMP” series, the characters live in a world of my creation. And while parental and national expectations figure into their challenges, they are mainly driven by the pressure they place on themselves.
The joy of fiction is that you make it up. It’s also the relief of the genre. Though it’s difficult to prove libel in America – you have to prove malice – a lawyer for tennis’ top players could argue that Brunt played fast and loose with the truth.
Regardless of whether he was reckless, the truth is that the internet age doesn’t discern between fact and fiction. People will read Brunt’s book and assume real top players are using performance-enhancing drugs.
Or at least readers may be curious enough to buy it. Which may be the whole point.