Another literary scandal – another author with a fabulous advance turns out to be so brilliant she unconsciously memorises whole passages from books she read years ago and accidentally rewrites them into her own astoundingly successful novel.
Timely, too – just around the tenth anniversary of my personal favourite, The Helen “I Only Pretended to be Anti-Semitic” Demidenko Scandal.
Radio National’s Lynne Malcolm caught up with her recently (now a lawyer in Queensland who goes by the name of Helen Dale), and – surprise, surprise – she still can’t see what all the fuss was about.
Lynne Malcolm: I’d just like to go back to your awareness about what you did. How did you feel about the possibility that you deeply hurt some people that were involved in that era of history, that it was offensive to people—you mentioned to me before the reaction that partner had to reading your book. It’s not an easy book.
Helen Dale: It’s not a nice book. No. I didn’t set out to write a nice book, and I don’t believe you can, about that particular period in history. People do not have a right to be free of offence. It’s something that I’ve thought about very seriously over a long period of time. If a book offends you, don’t read it. If people were offended, they were probably offended, rather than by anything that I’d particularly written, by some extremely thoughtless and careless media reporting. The way the media constructs something like this is—you get this situation where a complex issue is reduced to a brawl where you get the two most extreme positions, and yes, sure, someone’s get offended. But people can’t go around saying you’ve offended me, therefore you need to be quiet. In a fight, in a knock-down, drag-out fight between freedom of speech and freedom from offence, for me, freedom of speech will win every single time. In that sense I’m Dworkinian. Freedom of speech is a right; rights are trumps. Rights trump everything else.
Lynne Malcolm: Is there any aspect, though, that you feel a sense of remorse about, or do you regret anything—do you feel you’ve made any mistakes?
Helen Dale: Oh, I regret writing the book.
Lynne Malcolm: Why?
Helen Dale: Oh, from the get-go, but that’s more an issue of economics, opportunity and opportunism on my part. The idea that you can make a living as a writer in Australia is completely nuts and I should never have done it …
I don’t know why I’m still astounded. My only hope is that I never get into trouble with the law in Queensland.