As Writers, do we Exploit Human Suffering for the Sake of Art??

“There’s a fine line between turning human experiences into fiction,” author Philip Baruth writes,”and taking advantage of human suffering for art.” Baruth is a Vermont college professor, state senator, and author of The Boswell Brothers (Soho), an historical thriller. His novel is largely told in the voice of James Boswell’s younger brother John, who has recently been released from an asylum for the insane, and who carries a pair of tiny pistols that each fire a single golden bullet. John is stalking his brother, who in turn is “stalking” the great 18th-century author Samuel Johnson, in order to record his every word and deed.

In Boswell’s case, the somewhat solipsistic Johnson didn’t seem to mind being followed, any more than most of us object to being interviewed. Like that long ago ancient mariner in Coleridge’s poem who is compelled to tell his tale of woe to anyone who will listen, we blurt out our tales of suffering and feel better for the telling–a sort of catharsis.

But does that make it all right for us, as writers, to use someone else’s traumatic story in our books? Only recently Vermont mystery writer Archer Mayor made his annual trip to our local bookstore with Three Can Keep a Secret, in which he describes the havoc that Tropical Storm Irene made in our fair state, and how its flooding waters opened up decades-old mysteries. In Mayor’s mystery, Waterbury State Hospital closes (as it did in real life) during the flooding, and a wrongly hospitalized mental patient escapes. Then a grave in a nearby cemetery washes out and a casket breaks open, revealing only a pile of rocks. Mayor wanted to “pay homage to the disaster that hit Rochester, Vt,” he said, where some fifty graves washed into the White River during the storm. Yet he changed his locale to avoid emotional trauma to any affected readers.

But when the book came out, a state Republican rep, a longtime advocate for the mentally ill, objected strongly to the premise that a person could have been wrongly hospitalized at the state hospital for decades. “Having no  other symptoms that an independent psychiatrist wouldn’t recognize,” she maintained, “is playing to a kind of public assumption that just doesn’t exist anymore.”

Mayor’s response to the above was that he wasn’t indicting Vermont’s mental health system, he was merely using a “specialized circumstance. ..I’ll guarantee you in every single book I’ve ever written there have been people who objected to it,” he told a reporter. “It is not, as I see it, the job of the writer of fiction to be held responsible for every single individual’s advocacy. You simply can’t do it.”

Reading about this incident, I recalled with a measure of guilt my own middle grade mystery, The Pea Soup Poisonings, in which my two young sleuths steal into that same hospital to help an elderly aunt, wrongly admitted, and in a highly emotional state of mind–to escape.  Fortunately for me, that Republican rep had not read my kids’ novel. But was I exploiting something here? What about the two fictional inmates in my book who shared a room with the kidnapped aunt and wanted to be freed as well? Was I using their angst for the sake of suspense and a touch of humor in my novel?  The fact that my book won an Agatha only increased my sense of trespass.

For my mystery Stolen Honey I interviewed an Abenaki woman whose family had been caused enormous anguish during the horrid 1930’s Eugenic Project, in which gypsies, Abenaki Indians, poor French-Canadians and other so-called “degenerate” persons, many of them simply semi-illiterate folks, were rounded up and sterilized. I told that woman’s story–though I told it slant. Even so, was it an exploitation?

We writers deal with traumatic events every day in our personal lives, as well as in the lives of others. And like Coleridge’s ancient mariner and Samuel Johnson’s shadow Boswell, we feel compelled to record them. “Society as a whole does what individual artists do,” Baruth says: “they use (my italics) stories. They use fiction.”

Does that really make it all right?



20 Responses

  1. Of course it’s all right. It’s what fiction writers have always done. The real exploitation is in journalism and reality shows.

    • True, Lev. But at times I worry when the occasional reader complains. I guess it depends on the degree of “exploitation.” The reality shows, yes!

  2. What Lev said. In spades. Fiction writers should have the courtesy to change names of people and places when there are survivors to hurt, but there’s bound to be a resemblance to real situations if the writer is any good. As Robert Graves said, “There is one story and one story only that will prove worth your telling.” Your conscience speaks well of you, though, Nancy. Writers should be conscious of the possibility of exploitation.

    • Well said, Sheila, and thanks.There is always the possibility of hurting someone and at times I think I might have. But of course it’s our right to use the material at hand and express ourselves. As Lev and Phil Baruth declare, “It’s what we do.”

  3. I think of the muck-rakers like Upton Sinclair in The Jungle who were trying to right social ills. Many writers have tried to do that. I don’t think it’s exploiting tragedy but more like trying to do something serious and constructive with fiction.

    • Good point, Jacquie. Creating social justice is all part of our writerly mission. And not being cowed by the naysayers.

  4. Nancy, I read with interest the comments and agree with them. Sad events are part of our lives and I believe we as writers do what we can to right some wrongs or at least make them more understandable

    • Yes, Betty, clarifying and making the problems/traumas understandable is vital. Maybe, as you suggest, we can right some of the wrongs. Or at least try.

  5. Thanks for giving voice to a related issue I think about all the time, Nancy. Even when I “choose” who the killer is in a cozy mystery—am I sending some kind of message if the accountant did it? The caregiver? An Italian? Do we then have to introduce a good accountant, caregiver, or Italian?

    • Another slant to this subject I hadn’t wholly considered, Camille. Our choice of villain is a telling one. Politicians and lawyers should be fair game, but what about native Americans and people of ethnic religions/races of one kind or another. We want to make the individual paramount, but readers don’t always see it our way. And how boring to always introduce the “good/nice” guy!

  6. Great subject! I agree with Lev. And I recall a quote about the duty of fiction writers to shine a light on society.Like the muckrakers, the sensitive (and sometimes the guilty) will react with anger, but the subjects needs must be addressed.

    • I like to think, Kathy, that we writers “shine a light” on society, Or try. And you’re right. We have to brush aside the angry readers with their self-appointed, selfish (I dare say) concerns.

  7. Of course it’s all right. As Lev said, it’s what we do. With suitable restraints to protect the truly innocent and suitable disguises to avoid libel, naturally. I think of Jody Picoult, who wrestles with moral questions that have no right answers and makes us think about them through fiction. Fiction is one way we get to the deeper truths about this wacky world we live in.

    • Thanks, Nikki, and beautifully expressed. Ah:”suitable disguises to avoid libel”–there’s a problem we all face, as Archer Mayor did in his latest book. But we must strive for those deeper truths.

  8. Nancy, this continues to be a difficult problem for me. I’ve semi-abandoned one writing project for this reason. Semi, meaning I may go back to it if I can find a way to write the story in good conscience. I say this without making judgements–we all need to find our own comfort levels in choosing what we write.

    • I hope you will go back to that writing project, Anita. I know it’s hard–particularly if the subject is dicey or controversial, but there must be a way around. Sometimes time itself is a help and will lessen the magnitude of the problem.

  9. It’s not just all right, it’s essential. It’s our job to show life and lives. All artists interpret reality, translating it for the viewer, the reader, the listener. If we’re crippled by guilt we can’t do it. I agree with Lev about the reality shows. Blech. Journalism can exploit, but it doesn’t have to.

    • Get rid of the guilt,Shelley, yes. Something I’ve struggled to do ever since my John Knox Presbyterian upbringing that instilled guilt in me. (I’m now a Unitarian Universalist and its liberal leaning helps. You’re right that to ‘tell it straight out’ is essential for us or we’re nothing.

  10. Such a good question, Nancy! I’ve not used anyone’s individual story in a way that makes me squirm, but I remember saying here over a year ago that I had to make my way through some ethical minefields to write what I had in mind. Could I by putting fictional murder into an all-too-real setting, however fictionalized, do harm to the reality I care about? I came down on the side of writing it. For one thing, I don’t flatter myself that I have that much influence. For the other, I agree about telling it straight out.

    • True, Sara–a wise rejoinder. I haven’t enough influence/fame either to thwart a vindictive attack on my person, but there is the occasional reader who will take offense at a situation or character in one of my books and I feel bad. But after taking a vow to quit being controversial and return to the sweet side of life–I inevitably ride off again into the fray!

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