Ethics and the Writer

This article, "Ethics and the Writer," was presented by our new member Christopher Vanier when he served as a panelist at the Paris Writer’s Workshop this past June.

           Invited by my friend Dimitri Keramitas, director of the workshop, I had the pleasure to be part of the above “ethics” panel discussion. Our moderator was Nicola Keegan, and the other panellists were Anjali Mitter Duva (an Indian-American writer) and Alexia McKenzie (a Jamaican writer). What follows is my contribution, an extended version.

I am a memoir writer, creative nonfiction, and the ethical aspect of my writing is closely linked to legal and publishing constraints. How can you write honestly about real people without offending and – more important – without provoking legal action against yourself and your publisher?

The dilemma of the writer, especially of memoir, begins when he is trying to organise his story around a conflict – no conflict, no story. The conflict might lead to fights, broken love affairs, gritty conversations, wrongdoings, courage, hatred, fear, or much else. But about who? Can you write something painful about friends or family? If the writer gets stuck here, he is lost. Forget the others! Let it all out! So, we revise it and revise it. And it’s fun! Maybe we let others read it, but not the persons concerned, not at first.

Then comes part two of the dilemma. With luck, the story is interesting and the writer finds a publishing route – magazine, book editor, even self-publishing. His story is about to be unleashed on the world. Suddenly, alarm bells ring. The publisher informs the memoir writer that the characters he has named must give their permission to publish their part of the story. Or else there may be legal action against writer and publisher.

For my first memoir book, Caribbean Chemistry, I was dealing with UK law, but French and American law have similar constraints. I had spent six years writing the book when Kingston University Press explained to me the implication of libel laws, privacy protection, and legal process. They requested that I obtain permission from all my characters before going any further. Egotistically, I had assumed I could write whatever I liked provided it was true. Not so. I had to obtain agreement from my characters, even if I had faithfully described their behaviour. Ethics requires not hurting anyone, even if the facts are correctly reported. Except perhaps for public figures like priests and politicians! All the “daring” sequences in my book started working against me. How to reconcile reality with people’s sensitivity? I noted 106 characters in my manuscript, and their feelings about their role might range from agreement, annoyance at errors of interpretation, anger, or even the menace of legal action against me.

At any rate, my publisher was taking no risks. He put my manuscript on hold. I started analysing my population of characters. First, were my characters alive or dead? My memoir related boyhood forty years earlier, and somewhat to my relief (!) I found that only half of them were still alive. I divided the surviving population into family, friends, acquaintances, and officials. For a memoir writer, family is often the most cantankerous group, so I sent my manuscript off to my brothers and sister. I was lucky – apart from a few criticisms of inaccuracy – they accepted their role. Acquaintances and officials had so small a role that they had no grounds for disapproval – in fact, they liked their names being mentioned. My big problem was with “friends”, those at school with me, my co-rascals.

As an example, one contentious incident involved cheating in official the overseas UK Higher School Certificate exam. This was in 1958. I had two friends, Bernie and Donald, who were going to take an advanced Physics exam with me. We had studied the theoretical matter reasonably well but our Physics teacher, the school Headmaster, had had no time to explain practical experiments to us. He was Bernie’s personal tutor, and two weeks before the scheduled exam, he felt that Bernie was going to fail. So, wittingly or unwittingly, the Headmaster revealed the exam question (an electricity experiment) to Bernie. Then, feeling it to be Bernie’s unfair advantage, he called all three of us to his home and gave us the same information, under the seal of secrecy. We all passed the exam, though not by much.

Forty years later, I broke the seal. Then, I had to locate Bernie and Donald who had changed islands in the Caribbean. I sent them copies of relevant parts of my manuscript. Bernie replied that he didn’t remember the incident but that I must change his name. I proposed taking him out of my book entirely, but he objected strongly, asking to be named in the chapters in which he had a “good” role. This I did. Donald was even more complicated. He remembered the exam incident but said that a name change would not be enough. He was fond of the Headmaster and could not accept a slur on his name. If so, I had to obtain the Headmaster’s permission. But by that time, this person was long-retired, over-80, and had emigrated to Canada. It took me weeks to locate him. Thankfully, when finally contacted, he wrote that he had complete confidence in what I had written (though he hadn’t had time to read it!), and I was able to transmit his authorisation to Donald and my publisher.

I won’t detail the multiple other permissions I was obliged to get, sufficient to say that I had to change five names and remove one character and one incident entirely.

Knowing all this, what strategy should a memoir writer adopt to avoid clashes? For a recent story, based on events less than a decade ago, the memoir writer can’t rely on the disappearance of his characters. He can eliminate problematic scenes from his story, but too much of that will make it insipid. In some cases, he can anticipate problems by making name changes in the original manuscript before going to a publisher or asking permission from the troublesome characters. But beware, a simple name disguise may not be enough. When describing a sexy teenage love affair in my book I changed my girlfriend’s name to Dolores and gave her an artificial Spanish background. There were no publishing problems and my girlfriend remained silent but my classmates were not fooled. 

This suggests potential difficulties for fiction writers. Many will base their story on real persons and real events while pretending that it’s all their imagination. If the reading public can see beyond the disguise, and someone feels unduly exposed, there may in theory be legal attacks, even though it was supposed to be fiction.

The memoir writer does have other ways to avoid hurting people. The conflict that makes his story is not necessarily a case of the narrator fighting against other characters. Many good memoirs concern the narrator fighting against himself or battling against his physical environment – no needless victims. But overall, as journalists know well, it’s not always easy writing about real people. Scientists and lawyers have a mission to discover the truth and nothing but the truth. A memoir writer must stick as close as possible to the truth as he sees it, without causing pain or embarrassment to his characters. It’s often a tough balance between a more dramatic story and trampling on someone’s privacy.


Popular Posts