Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Fiction and the Ethics of Writing

by Miriam Schulman

Author Ron Hansen suggested in a talk on "Fiction and the Ethics of Writing" that the Hippocratic Oath's promise, "First, do no harm" could be applied to writers as well as to doctors.

Hansen, whose books include Atticus and Mariette in Ecstasy, addressed the harm writers could do to the reputations of others. But as writer of historical fiction such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Hitler's Niece, Hansen was particularly concerned with the harm writers could do to the truth. Americans, he argued, have such a poor grasp of history, that he considers it "malfeasance" to distort the historical record any further.

Pointing to such recent truth stretchers as James Frey, whose "memoir" A Million Little Pieces caused a furor when its distortions were revealed, Hansen offered this advice: "If you're in any doubt about whether what you're writing is a memoir or a novel, it's a novel."

Hansen also discussed the recent case of JT Leroy, purportedly a former homeless addict and hustler who had been prostituted by his mother and redeemed himself through writing. In reality the author was a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert.

What made "Leroy's" book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, a hoax rather than simply a book by an author using a pseudonym? Hansen allowed that pseudonyms have a venerable tradition in literature-sometimes allowing the underrepresented to break into genres where they were not normally welcome, such as women science fiction writers or men romance writers. But he argued that the book's fame was based "not only on its literary merit but on its claim to be a memoir."

He pointed out as well that Frey's manuscript had been rejected by a number of publishers when it was presented as fiction and only accepted when he reclassified it as a memoir. That demonstrates, Hansen said, that "the merit of the book was not as a work of fiction."

In developing an ethics of fiction, Hansen recommended the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Among other questions, he proposed authors ask themselves:
Would you be annoyed if this book were written about you?
Is this book motivated by vengeance or truth?
Is this book art or a "tawdry, meretricious" attempt to make money?

Miriam Schulman is communications director for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

October 2006


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