Monday, August 24, 2009

More on Ethics in Fiction

Guy Gavriel Kay has just written in the Guardian about the issue of conscripting real people into a fictional role. He follows up A.S. Byatt's essay, which I recently discussed, and also points to another essay by Anthony Beevor, more about the willy-nilly appropriation of historical fact to create 'faction'.

Kay calls the habit of writing from the interior world of another person an "ethical dilemma which has seeped – like a toxic substance, unnoticed – into fiction, even at the highest levels". He acknowledges the fact that many of these books are well written, enjoyable, and highly regarded. But the problem seems to him to be one of privacy; a person, even if dead, has a right to their own existence, their own interior life, which shouldn't be co-opted for another person's novel. I agree, very strongly, as you may have figured out from my last comment on this topic. He goes further in the comments to his piece to explain that the use of real people should be limited to those forming the backdrop to the novel, and the narrative voice be the writer's own creation. He himself gets around this problem by writing fantasy, in which his characters and settings may be inspired by real life people or events but are clearly not purporting to be the truth of those people's lives.

As he says, when writing about someone real who has already died you may be able to avoid libel laws, but does that make it ethical? There were some great comments to my last post, bringing up different aspects of this discussion, and it was very interesting seeing another essay in the Guardian. I can see it is a widely contested issue!


  1. I guess I come down on the side of writers' freedom to write about whatever they want, but I do understand people who don't want to read fictionalizations of real people. I just get uncomfortable at the idea of limiting what writers can do. Interesting problem!

  2. Dorothy - you bring up a vital point; can authors be limited in what they choose to write about? I agree, there should be the freedom to write about whatever they want; but I am still not quite comfortable reading one person's thoughts put in another person's mouth.


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