When Libel Sinks a Novel

Posted on August 28, 2006

It is extremely unusual for a novel to get dropped because of libel concerns, but it does happen. The New York Times examines the case of a dropped novel about a woman (who bears a striking resemblance to the millionaire American Girl founder) decided to clean up her alma mater's hometown and infuriated the town's residence. Fearing a giant lawsuit, W.W. Norton dropped the promising novel when the author refused to delete references to the main character owning a doll company similar to American Girl. The novel is now being serialized in Harper's Magazine.
This summer, Harper's Magazine has been serializing a novel for the first time in 50 years. A plot-driven satire about a manipulative doll-company millionairess who buys and renovates much of a small college town in upstate New York, John Robert Lennon's Happyland lends itself to publication in installments. But why it's appearing in Harper's and not in book form is one of the more intriguing publishing stories of the season.

The novel was originally under contract to W.W. Norton, but the publisher and author parted ways at the 11th hour, Lennon says, after Norton got cold feet about potential legal trouble. In outline, but not detail, the novel's protagonist, Happy Masters, is strikingly similar to a real woman: Pleasant Rowland, the founder of the American Girl line of dolls, who has been financing the renovation of properties owned by her alma mater, Wells College, in Aurora, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region. Since 2001, Rowland has converted two 19th-century houses into inns and opened three restaurants in the heart of the lakeside town, stirring up contention: some residents have been resistant to her zealous and unsolicited attention, others have welcomed the spruce-up. In Lennon's zany, entertaining novel, the megalomaniacal Happy Masters goes even further, strong-arming the town mayor and the beleaguered president of the local all-female college, buying up businesses and even hiring someone to drop bricks off the roof of the college library, injuring two students, to prove she needs to build another.
A renovation-mad Happy Masters running amok in an upstate New York town? What's not to love? It should still be published by a major publishing house.

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