The ethics of writing

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Silenia

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I write mostly SpecFic, so it's less of an issue for me--folks aren't likely to think "oh yes, between monsters, magic/futuristic tech and made-up worlds, races, languages, faiths and cultures, this one specific character? Yeah, that's totally meant to be true-to-life, and those events must be exactly how things went down".
 

Friendly Frog

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Which leads me to another question: how is it even possible for someone to write a story, based on hearsay, that is so accurate that it is clearly identifiable as a certain person by everyone who ever knew the couple in question? Couples where the man is a lot older than the woman are a dime a dozen, as are dysfunctional relationships in general. I haven't read the book myself, but are the details so lurid and unusual that it stands out from all the other stories that have been told about couples with unequal power dynamics? How much of this couple's story was the author privy to? That's something that seems odd to me about this case.
From what I can gather, the writer heard the story from an ex-partner first but then turned to the social media of the other involved party to research and copy the further details for their story.
 

lizmonster

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This is how internet pile-ons happen. We are all, including myself, reading between the lines of what's actually been said.

AFAICT, the story author admits to basing parts of the story on a relationship she was told about by a mutual acquaintance. She also admits to going to social media for some concrete details about background and location.

I do find myself drawing my own conclusions, but they're not really relevant here. Ethically - yeah, in my opinion this was an overstep, and a sloppy one. How much harm was done is arguable, but IMHO (based on what has been said on the record) it's not even close to actionable. And no, ethics shouldn't depend on who can sue you, but it's a crude way of measuring social impact.
 

Lakey

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It’s funny—I just finished reading a book, Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent, which touches on some of this. The narrator writes a novel which is accused of being a roman a clef and gets pulled from publication for that reason. The way the narrator tells the story, she had all but finished the book before she met the guy who accuses her; he steals the manuscript, begins acting out portions of it, and incorporates other portions of it into his friends’ memoirs, which he is helping them write. Anyway the novel is full of observations about the narrator’s (and presumably Spark’s) process, about how she takes people and events from real life and transmogrifies them for incorporation into her fiction. All quite timely and relevant to this discussion.

In Roupenian’s case, it seems particularly salient to me that the most important parts of ”Cat Person”—the distressing sexual encounter and the misogynist treatment of the protagonist—were not taken from her accuser’s life. It seems generally understood that the male character in the story does not at all reflect the character of the real-life guy. And so Roupenian did not write a story about that woman; she wrote a story about someone in a relationship with a person whose character was much more negative.
I point this out because Albedo’s post kicking off this thread says things like:
the 'subject' is left with entire audience of the New Yorker's fiction section, at least, believing an untrue version of her life.
I mean, I’m confident that the readers of the New Yorker’s fiction section (and I don’t just say this because I am one of them) know the difference between real life and fiction, and don’t just believe things to be fact that appear in the magazine under the Fiction heading.

None of this is to say that Roupenian did the right thing here. She probably should have changed those little details more than she did, especially as they were not the core of the story but rather characterization details; the same points of characterization could have been achieved in a different way. (Although it’s possible she had no idea the story would go as far as it did.) But it seems a little farfetched to conclude that somehow the general reading public ever believed that every detail in it is literally true and about two specific real people. Indeed, one of the reasons why Cat Person was such a sensation is that so many people found its core events (those specifically not taken from the accuser’s life) incredibly familiar and relatable.

The fact is, as the Muriel Spark novel explores, writers do borrow details from real life all the time. You can conceive a continuum between what’s ethical and what’s not, with a lot of grey area that depends, case-by-case, on multiple factors that you can’t possibly know about any particular writer or any particular story.

For instance, a friend of mine once told me something that happened at her sister’s funeral that I would have loved to use in a funeral story that I was writing at the time. I didn’t use it, because my friend did not want me to, and I felt the incident wasn’t mine to use. But what if I had been at that funeral and witnessed the incident myself—would it be okay then for me to put the incident in a story? What if I had been at the funeral but had never met the deceased woman—was only there, say, as moral support for my partner who had been her college roommate? Or, what if instead of hearing about the incident from my friend or witnessing it at the funeral, I’d overheard people talking about it on the subway? Would it be fair game then? Everyone will have different boundaries about this, and will draw the line at different places in different scenarios.

So even if Roupenian crossed a line here — and perhaps in her own eyes and in the eyes of her accuser she did — there’s not an absolute standard that you can apply to say “X uses are ethical; Y are not.” Writers have always, and will always, borrow people and events from real life, with more or less masking. People have always, and will always, cry foul when they think they have been portrayed. (You can go read about Mary McCarthy’s The Group if you’d like to see a really juicy and well-documented instance of this sort of controversy.) All we can do, I think, is search our hearts and make the decisions that feel right to us in each particular case.

:e2coffee:
 
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Albedo

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This is a fascinating debate, and the breadth of opinion on it (and the level of criticism of Roupenian in the community, whether you think it warranted or not) makes me doubly convinced that ethics SHOULD be taught to writers. I'd still like to hear from anyone who has gone through an MFA, or an MCW, or other similar program, whether it's a part of it. Of course formalised ethics in an MFA wouldn't capture everyone who makes a career in writing, but those types of programs are supposedly hugely influential on the field as a whole, and it would be the natural place for them, over, say, panels at conventions.

One thing I'd come back to is the question whether a non-fiction telling would be as unethical. Well, that depends on the event, but there's an obvious public interest in a frank non-fiction account of, say, the predatory actions of a real life abuser. There's no inherent public interest in a fictional portrayal of such events. That's not to say it couldn't be highly worthwhile on other levels, but the non-fiction writer telling a true account of bad actions is doing something fundamentally different to the one writing a story. Neither's actions can be interpreted in a vacuum. The public interest would trump any perceived right to privacy in a real-life account.

Of course, a non-fiction writer could theoretically write salacious trash of zero public interest, as well.

EDIT: So could a fiction writer. Not that I'd know anything about that.
 
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Friendly Frog

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I think a lot of fields would benefit from having an ethic course in the teaching, and not just writing. But it is not always easy to determine which bits should be required. I had ethic courses in both my bachelors and this over 3 years but what I recall from it was mostly philosophy, which is nice and all, but was seldom tailored to the actual field. And if in the one course that it was, learning about the different philosophies on humans and environment is still not as practical as 'don't pollute and this is what you do to avoid it.'

Like in business school no one ever said 'don't embezzle', which in a way, should be common knowledge! -but no one ever came out and actually said it. Certainly not in the ethics class. And learning in the law classes what punishments embezzlement carried if you were caught can hardly be considered an ethical lesson.

So what should ethical lessons for writers entail? is likely a question that will not have an easy answer.
 
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Albedo

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I think a lot of fields would benefit from having an ethic course in the teaching, and not just writing. But it is not always easy to determine which bits should be required. I had ethic courses in both my bachelors and this over 3 years but what I recall from it was mostly philosophy, which is nice and all, but was seldom tailored to the actual field. And if in the one course that it was, learning about the different philosophies on humans and environment is still not as practical as 'don't pollute and this is what you do to avoid it.'

Like in business school no one ever said 'don't embezzle', which in a way, should be common knowledge! -but no one ever came out and actually said it. Certainly not in the ethics class. And learning in the law classes what punishments embezzlement carried if you were caught can hardly be considered an ethical lesson.

So what should ethical lessons for writers entail? is likely a question that will not have an easy answer.
I think we all agree there are certain cardinal sins in writing. Plagiarism, for one. It'd be interesting to try to come up with an ethical framework for why plagiarism is actually bad. We all know it IS, but can we say WHY, in a simple way? Is it theft? Is it fraud? Where's the boundary between plagiarism and reference?

There's lesson one. I don't know what's in lesson two, but we figure out why plagiarism is bad, we can probably expand on the framework we've created, and examine the issues about copyright, fair pay for authors, and so on. Probably going to have to cover the basic industry stuff before we get to the real controversies. Luckily, for those, a mother of an ethical case study has presented itself in the Cat Person saga.
 

lizmonster

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I am bouncing very, very hard off the idea of this being taught in school. Not because teaching ethics is bad, but because most writers don't have MFAs, and I strongly resist the idea that they should. Fiction writing, at least in the English-speaking market, already has a massive, massive class problem, which intersects with its massive, massive racial problem, which intersects with its massive, massive gender problem. Primly debating the teaching of ethics in a classroom environment, IMHO, only makes those issues worse.

Are we really debating the teaching of ethics here? Or are we debating how to "educate" people who might disagree with us on this issue?
 

Friendly Frog

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Erm... I didn't think the discussion was about writers needing to be 'educated'? (I know I ain't.)

I was under the impression that this was more along the line of 'if you're going to teach writing, there might be more than just the technical know-how to consider, like ethics? And is there anything like that being taught now?'

At least, that was where I was coming from...
 

Cobalt Jade

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Well, if I was a character in someone else's short story, and it was partly about my experiences, and the author admitted to me that it was, and said story was turned into a book and a movie deal, you can be damn sure I'd be phoning a lawyer to get some of that money.
 

Chris P

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I think we all agree there are certain cardinal sins in writing. Plagiarism, for one. It'd be interesting to try to come up with an ethical framework for why plagiarism is actually bad. We all know it IS, but can we say WHY, in a simple way? Is it theft? Is it fraud? Where's the boundary between plagiarism and reference?

There's lesson one. I don't know what's in lesson two, but we figure out why plagiarism is bad, we can probably expand on the framework we've created, and examine the issues about copyright, fair pay for authors, and so on. Probably going to have to cover the basic industry stuff before we get to the real controversies. Luckily, for those, a mother of an ethical case study has presented itself in the Cat Person saga.

We're getting off topic here, but plagiarism is theft of intellectual property. If I built it, I should own it. It's theft in the same way someone steals anything else I make. Where I've seen it in nonfiction, it also deprives the developer of the idea the opportunity to utilize (and profit from) the outcomes. Eli Whitney didn't make much money from the cotton gin because he was unable to defend his patent, which some say wasn't completely his idea to patent anyway. In a classroom it also allows a student to attain the product (grade or degree) without demonstrating they have put in the effort or have an understanding of the material. It's something for nothing that was not offered.
 

lizmonster

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Erm... I didn't think the discussion was about writers needing to be 'educated'? (I know I ain't.)

I was under the impression that this was more along the line of 'if you're going to teach writing, there might be more than just the technical know-how to consider, like ethics? And is there anything like that being taught now?'

At least, that was where I was coming from...

I'm sorry to be reactive. The idea of degrees, or even workshops, somehow being "necessary" for writers is a hot button for me. I think they can be marvelous things, but when they're venerated too much, more people get locked out of a profession that's already pretty homogeneous. I did not mean to be a jerk, and I apologize.

The meta-question here, I think, comes down to the same thing that gets debated on a lot of fronts: what sorts of writing should writers avoid? Where's the line between exploitation and fiction? That's a reasonable debate, I think...but personally, I don't see this particular situation as some massive, outcry-worthy test case. I think the story author should have taken five minutes to swap out the real-world details for fiction. I'm also having trouble seeing it as an unforgivable sin (like, for example, buying a book onto the NYT bestseller list, which is entirely legal but--IMHO, at least--insanely unethical).
 
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Roxxsmom

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This is how internet pile-ons happen. We are all, including myself, reading between the lines of what's actually been said.

AFAICT, the story author admits to basing parts of the story on a relationship she was told about by a mutual acquaintance. She also admits to going to social media for some concrete details about background and location.

I do find myself drawing my own conclusions, but they're not really relevant here. Ethically - yeah, in my opinion this was an overstep, and a sloppy one. How much harm was done is arguable, but IMHO (based on what has been said on the record) it's not even close to actionable. And no, ethics shouldn't depend on who can sue you, but it's a crude way of measuring social impact.
A big question I have is WHY all the details must be there in such, ah, detail in a fictionalized story. In general, authors change names, places, even time frames to protect the identities of anyone, or of any event, that provided fodder for their imagination. Is a specific detail needed for a given narrative arc?

Example: If I wanted to write a novel taking place at a contemporary community college (I don't--I much prefer writing speculative fiction set in an alternative world or the future), would it have to be in my own town, or could it be a different town, or even a fictitious one? I could certainly make up the name of the college and not use a real one.

And if a given "colorful" colleague or student or "difficult" administrator was inspiring something central to the plot or story, I would definitely change their names and identifying characteristics, not to mention blurring or fudging other details to make the situation less obviously derived from reality. And would the details of that colleague's or administrator's personal life be relevant to the story at hand, or could they be changed? Do the names and genders of a colleague's partner or children even matter to the story? Does the fact that they even have a partner or kids (or not) matter at all? Does the design of a particular tattoo the character has matter? Well, I've got a colleague who has his (incredibly adorable) research animal species inked on his arm, but he's hardly the only biologist I've known who has done this.

I guess it is sort of a case by case thing. If the environs and social/political landscape of my city of residence were important to the story and characters, it would be harder to hide (renaming our local community college district "River City Colleges" wouldn't likely fool many people at all familiar with the area). Of course renaming Thirsk "Darrowby" didn't fool the locals in Alf Wight's (aka James Herriot) fictionalized memoirs (that borrowed heavily from real people and the experiences of colleagues, as well as his own. I'm trying to recall if there were any scandals or lawsuits over his books, but if there were, they were not highly publicized. I think one of his colleagues was a miffed at the (actually downplayed, according to some accounts) portrayal of the character he inspired as over the top and somewhat manic, but as I understand they patched it up. Anyone who has read these books likely knows which character to which I refer :)

I guess I don't envy writers of contemporary fiction these kinds of dilemmas.

I agree that writers shouldn't be "required" to study these matters. I don't think there's any practical way to do so anyway. One doesn't need to have a particular degree, or even to attend workshops or conferences, to be an author. All one has to do is write something and either find a publisher, or nowadays, publish it oneself. Commercial success is another matter, but it's certainly not limited to writers who jump through conventional hoops either.

But this doesn't mean that discussions of the ethical side of writing wouldn't make for interesting discussions that could provide better clarity for some writers, at least. I remember attending a talk on the treatment of mental illness in fiction, and I found it enlightening, even though it was by no means prescriptive (just some things it might be good to keep in mind to avoid common cliches and pitfalls that can be hurtful or misleading).
 
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lizmonster

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A big question I have is WHY all the details must be there in such, ah, detail in a fictionalized story. In general, authors change names, places, even time frames to protect the identities of anyone, or of any event, that provided fodder for their imagination. Is a specific detail needed for a given narrative arc?

It's been a while since I read the story, but going by the Slate article, it's the protagonist's job and hometown, and the age gap in the relationship, that were taken from real life. The rest - including the duration and nature of the relationship itself - was fiction.

On the one hand, that makes it worse, because it would have been trivial to change those things, and it wouldn't have changed the nature of the story at all. On the other hand, I can imagine the laziness involved around details that weren't relevant to the story.

Any other thoughts I have on the situation are speculation.

But this doesn't mean that discussions of the ethical side of writing wouldn't make for interesting discussions that could provide better clarity for some writers, at least. I remember attending a talk on the treatment of mental illness in fiction, and I found it enlightening, even though it was by no means prescriptive (just some things it might be good to keep in mind to avoid common cliches and pitfalls that can be hurtful or misleading).

I got a fortune in a cookie about 30 years ago that said "Never whisper what you would not shout." I find that pretty solid advice for writing: if you're going to base a character on a real person, either you should be OK with that person reading what you wrote, or you should go to whatever lengths necessary to make your character unidentifiable.
 
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Albedo

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Erm... I didn't think the discussion was about writers needing to be 'educated'? (I know I ain't.)

I was under the impression that this was more along the line of 'if you're going to teach writing, there might be more than just the technical know-how to consider, like ethics? And is there anything like that being taught now?'

At least, that was where I was coming from...
This is it exactly. If MFA programs claim to turn out whole writers, then ethics absolutely should be a mandatory component of the education they offer. If it isn't, that worries me. What I saw on social media was a number of fairly big name MFA authors jumping on critics of one of their own, with a whole lot of condescension for anyone not in the serious author club, for not understanding that Roupenian's actions are how real writers do it. Or worse, claiming the writer of the Slate piece was being provocative (for, um, finding out they were the subject of a New Yorker short story, I guess.) It wasn't edifying. Roupenian personally apologised, but a lot of her defenders just insisted there was no problem, there couldn't possibly be a problem, and if you had a problem you were ignorant of the craft.
 
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Friendly Frog

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I'm sorry to be reactive. The idea of degrees, or even workshops, somehow being "necessary" for writers is a hot button for me. I think they can be marvelous things, but when they're venerated too much, more people get locked out of a profession that's already pretty homogeneous. I did not mean to be a jerk, and I apologize.
No worries. :) Hot buttons have that tendency to set us off. I was just worried I was missed context I should have known.
 

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I believe it's okay to write about real people, or an amalgamation of a few people to make one character. True life is stranger than fiction, they say, so why not use it in your story. I think a lot writers' ideas come from real people, real scenarios. I like to take one idea, or one person's strange hobby, whatever, and embellish.
 
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Great post. Thanks for starting the conversation.

I just read the story, and can't escape the feeling that the world is probably better because it was written. Good for Kristen if she got a 7 figure advance. She deserves it, along with all the success that is sure to follow her.

If the dude character is based off a real life person, that real life person (I think) needs to show how he was damaged as a result of its publication, and that only he could be considered to be the person the character is based off of.

I'm pretty sure he can't claim damages if he went out and told everyone the character is based off of himself and then suffered damages.

I know the OP isn't talking about legal liability though, but rather ethics. From my POV, truth is independent of someone else's emotions. From my perspective, the character and his behavior is a universal representation of many dating experiences young women encounter this day and age.

It is a beautiful story, really.
 

Tazlima

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From my perspective, the character and his behavior is a universal representation of many dating experiences young women encounter this day and age.
But that's just it. If the story is so universal, why on earth would the author decide to apply it to real people?

I feel like she did the thing exactly backwards. If you're going to borrow from real life, borrow real actions and events and hang them on original (or at least unidentifiable) characters. Heck, even actions and events often need to be obscured somewhat to conceal, or at least provide plausible deniability of, their origins.

Instead, she took existing "characters" (real life people) and bedecked them with fictional actions and events. They were so clearly identifiable that when the piece first came out, the article writer's friends were asking if she or her ex had written the story under a pen name.

If the "existing characters" were fictional, the piece would be considered fan fiction, and wouldn't be publishable without changes to obscure the source material (e.g. "50 Shades of Grey" started as "Twilight" fan fiction). Surely a real-life individual, someone who's not remotely a public figure, should have at least as much right to their identity as a fictional character?

The author of "Cat People" made a point not only to include those identifying details, but likely researched this woman to get more details about her life. (I suppose it's possible the boyfriend provided all that information, but as he's characterized in the article as reluctant to advertise their relationship because of the age gap, it seems unlikely). That research, to me, eliminates the possibility of their inclusion being simple carelessness/laziness and crosses the line into malice.

When the story was accepted, she could have said then "wait, this is actually going to reach a wide audience? Let me just change some details real quick before it goes to press."

She didn't.

I just can't see any way this is defensible. The author knowingly published libelous "friend fiction" (thank you, Bob's Burgers, for that perfect phrase).
 
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Unless I missed it, I find it interesting that the essay doesn't say how the guy died, or whether he had an intimate relationship with the author. If they had, and his death was the result of suicide, that alters my initial reaction to all this.
Clearly, there's a deeper story here than the essay and the short.

Part of the reason why the piece is so highly regarded, though, I think is because of how authentic it feels. The character, the setting, the relationship, etc. Maybe she should have given the guy a different look so he could deny he was ever the dude she wrote about. But, I'd be afraid of taking away too much else at the expense of the story and what it says.

I've got my WIP under review right now. It's a story about a guy that resembles me at a younger age in war. In my story, the protagonist's character arc leads to the death of his mentor. In reality, it happened pretty much the way I wrote it. I've been trying to reach out to the son to get his insights on the novel and the mentor character that represents his dad (who the book is dedicated to). This discussion just makes me want to try harder to connect with him and his family...
 
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