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The Ethical Problem of Truth in Literature

“My father wrote the story called ‘The Hartleys’ in which a little girl — who’s obviously me — goes on a family ski trip,” author Susan Cheever told The Writer’s Chronicle back in 2005. Although every detail mirrors the trip Susan took with her family, including her famous father, author John Cheever, one significant detail differs: the little girl dies.

That, for me, was far more traumatic than if he’d written a nonfiction piece about that ski trip in which he talked about his fears for the little girl. To me, the fiction is much more dangerous, much more painful for the people who it may be based on, than nonfiction. In nonfiction, at least the writer has some obligation to tell what really happened… That’s why, when a student says to me, ‘If I did this as fiction it wouldn’t hurt the people so much,’ I say to them, ‘You are wrong. It will hurt them more. Because you as a fiction writer have more power.’ 

Susan and father (image courtesy of Signature)

Cheever’s opinion that fiction is more hurtful than nonficiton is fortified by reading her father’s work and personal experience writing her own works – much of which hinges on delicate family matters, or simply matters that her children or others close to her don’t want their names stitched too. Even with name alterations, selective details that avert larger family narratives, and author techniques that can relay the sentiment of a painful story without pointing fingers, writing can hurt those close to you. Fiction can carry the weight of real life experience, and non-fiction, even when tethered to facts and numbers, can veer off from reality or become skewed by time and opinion.

Writing the truth and not hurting others is not easy matter.

What, if any, is the writer’s responsibility to protect those they write about, directly or indirectly? For Susan Cheever, the balance between writing a personally honest perspective and leaving family relatively unscathed is transparency. “They need to know that they are being written about and ideally they need to be comfortable with your portrayal of them,” she continues in the interview.

For others, the answer is different. Frank McCourt would not publish his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, until his mother passed away, and many, like Judith Barrington, speak of memoir and nonfiction with warnings and omens: “People’s lives are more important than my words.” Characters – even fictitious ones – are subject to being mistaken for real life individuals, and people generally have a sometimes vain, sometimes deadly accurate, nack for seeing themselves in an another’s work. This is problematic for both writers and close friends and family.

Author Krista Bremer, in the 2012 Writer’s Panel Conference,suggests that toeing this fine line requires scrapping the and/or argument, and selectively choosing only the most significant disclusures –  “neither allowing the continuation of abuses through silent condoning nor using words as weapons against those who may have hurt us.” In tune with Bremer’s remarks, it seems to be a general truth that writerly motives gravitate towards expressing, explaining, re-telling, ‘ironing-out’, and healing – but not hurting.

Despite the aftermath, hurt is less frequently the intended goal. Ultimately hurt is a hard one to avoid; writing, and art forms tend to be selfish in nature. They tell ‘my’ story, with ‘my’ words – as they rightfully should. The Glass Castle wouldn’t be nearing as breathtaking or heart breaking without Jeannette Walls providing us with the full visceral breadth of her parents, nor would The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, Allison Smith’s Name All the Animals, etc. Painful disclosure is often necessary for culling the empathy factor from readers.

In the case of nonfiction and memoir, it may be even trickier. There are, within these genres, truth rules and guidelines that writers are expected to follow, but the issue of memory makes truth a fickle thing to pin down. The lifespan of a fact is never a certain thing. Memories get warped and twisted with time, especially when they are traumatic memories.

Stable facts, like dates and events can better bind subjective experiences to objective frames, but even within these parameters there is much that can be incorrectly remembered, forgotten, or supplemented with false memories – taking another’s memory and adopting it as your own. Drag over any psych book on memory and the issue of honesty gets a whole lot harrier.

The hard pill to swallow is that there’s really no right or wrong way to approach ethical responsibility in narrative. There are however, a few underlying themes: tact, research and honesty – things every good writer should aim to employ. For the sake of a personally truthful (and healing) story as well as creating believable characters that aren’t just ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but full of nuance, accounting for another’s perspective is also critical to relaying your own. I know, sounds counter intuitive, but addressing a character’s full being, even if the author still carries scorn for the individual, forces the writer to address circumstance, character motivation, influences, and intentions – things that bring a shade of doubt to the writer’s perspective of the character, things that humanize the character, things that bring closure.

When in doubt a, disclaimer in the preface seems to save a lot of writers. An acknowledgement that so and so has been altered, such and such reconstructed and so on, preserves the emotional rawness of the story while (hopefully) protecting real people and reminding readers that the multi-perspective capital T Truth can never be told.

Image courtesy of Outside the Bestway.