This is a fascinating mystery story. As someone who loves books and has worked in publishing, I have long been perplexed by the massive sales of leaden conspiracy ‘thrillers’ (as I have to write it, being really very ungripped) and of pseudo-histories.
These are strange alien artefacts in the literary world. They appear to be books, having the same physical manifestation. Yet the words in them have no rhythm, and make no sense, the world they portray is all surface, all banality: all invented, but paradoxically without imagination.
The familiar book, grounded in fact or rich in fiction, sells (mostly slowly) to an audience that comes back for more books. These… I need another wordname… reads are bought in vast numbers by people who do not otherwise read. You see them swarming on the tube, at bus-stops, in advertisements as book-club special offers, everywhere. And then they are gone. Where?
Few have the life-span of a book, it seems. But where do they go to die? They are seldom seen in second-hand shops. And why are they so successful when they are plainly so inbred?
The genus is so narrow that there’s always been some doubt in my mind whether it is two species or one. Now a strange court-case may inform us on that matter (if not why the infernal things are so popular). It appears that two of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a “non-fiction” work of non-history, are suing in the High Court the writer of a fictional read called The Da Vinci Code for copyright infringement.
If the author of a history book were to sue an historical novelist, then we would expect it to be on the ground that passages of text were quoted without permission. For use of expression, not content. There is no copyright in facts.
But weirdly that’s not what is going on here. Jonathan Rayner-James QC for the plaintiffs said:
HBHG is a book of historical conjecture setting out the authors’ hypothesis. The authors’ historical conjecture has spawned many other books that developed aspects of this conjecture in a variety of directions. But none has lifted the central theme of the book
Which is what Dan Brown is accused of.
What could make “historical conjecture” original work capable of copyright protection? Only that it bears no relation to history, it seems to me. Can it really be the plaintiffs’ case that the novel is not novel enough, because their read – sold all over the world labeled ‘non-fiction’ – is in fact a fantasy?
If that is their case, and that case prevails prevails, then I am interested to know what the publishers of HBHG, HarperCollins who also published The Da Vinci Code and are joint defendants, might do. Did their contract with the plaintiffs contain that standard apotropaic against libel, a warranty from the author that “all statements purporting to be facts are true”? The consequence for the pseudo-historical read as a genre could be interesting.
Extinction of the species would be too much to hope for, I suppose. But for once a thriller has me gripped.