Collateral Damage (Fiction Ethics #3)

Oops… thought that was protected.
(image by Nathan Dumlao, via Unsplash)

This is the third of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

Yesterday, we talked about what it means when your friends and acquaintances read your fictional writing, and make assumptions about what you, the writer, must think. Most of our friends haven’t been to MFA programs to study how fiction works, about the difficulties involved in crafting the boundaries between the author, the narrator, and the protagonist, not to mention all the other characters. No, I think that most people read essays and news articles and stories all with a similar presumption of verisimilitude. In an essay, the author and the narrator are (almost always) identical; in fiction, not so much. But that’s a distinction not always evident to a lay readership. 

Vampires notwithstanding. 

I mean, if a story is outlandish enough—vampires, a long-haired girl trapped in a tower, a man who turns into a wolf every so often—it falls into the realm of fairy tale, on the obvious far side of our truth/fiction fence. If a story happened 150 years ago, or 1,500 years ago, we can do the arithmetic to understand that it must not be the author’s memoir. But anything shy of those blaze-orange literary rangefinders leads our readers to place the truth/fiction fence wherever they will, often too close to the documentary side of the property. 

Maybe fiction should come with a surveyor’s certification, naming exactly where the boundaries lie. An author’s affidavit about exactly which details are real and which are not, and what those definitions imply. That signed confession would satisfy our voyeuristic motives for reading, the reality-TV crowd, and thus truncate what fiction is actually for.

Anyway, people read my stories, and they think things about me. That’s merely annoying. I signed up for that. The hazard, and one that happens far too often, is that they think things about my family as well. If these characters do these things, then clearly I do these things as well, which means that my family does… well, whatever seems to be implied by the story.

And that’s a step I cannot bear.

Let’s go back to Peter Ho Davies and the recent book A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, which we touched briefly upon yesterday. It’s a story about a family making the decision to terminate a pregnancy, and then subsequently to have another child, and all of the emotional weight that both decisions imply. The story is told by the male half of the couple, “the writer,” perpetually unnamed. That’s fine, but Peter—the author, if not “the writer”—is not a free agent. He’s married, and has a child. He’s made the decision to tell “his family’s story,” and hints broadly that it’s autofiction, drawn but amended from his life.

Read the opening clause of that sentence again. “He’s made the decision to tell ‘his family’s story’…” His wife did not make that decision, nor did his son. But they will bear some of the weight of his decision.

Now, in part, bearing the weight of a partner’s decision is a normal part of any working life. Half of the couple gets a job in Toledo, and the partner moves alongside and tries to build a life in this place she or he might not have chosen for themselves. But as difficult as that can be, it’s not nearly as personal and vulnerable as having to bear someone else’s definition of who we are and what we did and what we thought. Peter’s wife is a professional in her own right, with colleagues and friends who now all see her differently than they had before the book. She may not have been fully out to all of her friends about the difficult family decisions she’s had to make. But boy howdy, she sure is now.

Even if it’s not true. Even if the wife in Peter’s book is not at all the same person as the wife in Peter’s house. Even if they’re utterly and wholly distinct, she now bears every reader’s “knowledge” about who she is and what she believes and what she’s done and what she thinks. She has become, for us, what our reading leads us to believe about her.

I want to come back to this idea of outing. Politically and culturally, it stems from the practice of naming a public figure as gay when they would have preferred a different level of privacy over that identity. But we can think of it more broadly as any external release of information about us, without our control or agreement.

In our social-media, geolocated age, we don’t think as carefully as we might about privacy. But privacy is one of the most fundamentally personal decisions we can ever make. We decide what information about ourselves is shared, and with whom. We might tell our best friend about that time when… but we wouldn’t want all of our neighbors or work colleagues to know about it. The core of privacy is that we get to decide what to disclose about ourselves, and with whom, and the understandings we jointly come to about what they can do with that knowledge. People tell us sensitive things only because they trust that we will not broadcast them, or use them as currency, or as instruments of harm. My clients tell me things that you will never know. My friends tell me things that you will never know. 

And the fundamental, and never-discussed, element of the writer’s family life is that the writer’s family—without any agreement, without any discussion, without any deliberation—has lost control of their privacy, has lost control of the shaping of their own narrative. The reader’s frame, whatever that might be, is now added to the evidentiary record of the family’s life, even if the reader’s frame may not be warranted by the actual facts of the matter.

Again, as the writer, I signed up for that. So somebody writes (as they have) “And boo-hoo for Childress not getting to spend his life sitting on his ass at a university collecting a nice salary + benefits. I am crying my eyes out just thinking about it.” Or someone else writes that “Childress says that Jews, women, blacks, other races, cripples, and sexual deviants (who together make up the majority of today’s students) don’t belong at university.” <spoiler alert—I said no such thing, in fact the opposite. But stupid people gonna stupid.> Being attacked and misread is an inherent part of being read at all. But my family signed up for none of that, and they’re as likely to be misread as I am, even when they’re not part of the story at all. They entered into no agreements about what they would or would not disclose, how they would be seen and by whom. They have been outed, regardless of whether or not the new story about them is warranted.

Maybe it’s time to write stories about vampires. 

But that would be a guarantee that I’d stop writing. I’m drawn to write about the familiar, helping myself understand the layers beneath the surface. When I was teaching, the very best thing a student could ever say to me was “I’ve seen that a thousand times, but I never thought about it before.” That’s the highlight-reel moment—not merely that the student was seeing this instance anew, but that they now knew that every phenomenon could be broken open in the same way. I want my readers to have that same experience, of recognizing that the quiet lives around them may have far more depth than we’re shown. 

When I wrote my dissertation/first book, about the town I called Curtisville, I had several people from all over the country approach me afterward and ask, “is Curtisville really <fill in their own city here>?” And after a couple of those, I started to answer, “If you think it’s about your town, then it is.” Because really, the goal wasn’t to have them understand some random little city on the Redwood Coast; the goal was to have them wonder whether their community marginalized its teenagers in the same ways.

So too with fiction. The purely entertainment motive of fiction is to look at the strange specimens on display. That’s what the Real Housewives franchise is about, for instance. We’re not asked to reflect on our own lives, just to look at theirs. The larger goal of fiction is to have us look inward. To say to ourselves, “I wonder if my friend is struggling in similar ways. I wonder if there’s something I could do to get unstuck. Maybe I can be brave enough today to try to be vulnerable, maybe there’s reward in that.” It’s that dedication to reality, though, that leads readers to the presumption that the work must be thinly disguised documentary, and that with a little effort, they can pick out the players behind the costume. And the power of fiction becomes, simultaneously, the danger.

As you can probably tell, I don’t have a definitive resolution to this question. I wish that Solomon would deliver me, but no. It’s my own responsibility, every day, to determine how my work affects myself and my family and my friends. I’d look forward to hearing how you deal with those same questions.

More tomorrow.

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