Critical Introduction to Literature

Reflection

Critical Introduction to Literature was a very interesting class that covered a wide variety of themes and works of writing.  I found the class to be intellectually stimulating and I found some of the in-class discussions engaging and sometimes even humorous.  Of the selected writings we read this semester, the work that stood out to me the most was King Lear by Shakespeare.  The fact that I got to watch a live-action version of the play featuring the great Ian McKlellen probably helped influence this choice–but that’s not withstanding the quality of the story itself, tragic though it may be.  The ending of the play struck me as quite tragic and I’m definitely part of the crowd who wished the ending turned out better concerning the king and his daughter.  The theme of the play was not surprising to me due to the expectations given to the class (and the context of the unit:  Tragedy).  I wasn’t attached to the work for any reason beyond it’s compelling story and did not share anything in common with the characters.  Although I thought the bawdy  humor of the court jester quite amusing and it’s a side of Shakespeare’s literature that you don’t see in high school.

I found the types of papers we wrote in class to be quite fun to write.  I didn’t have high expectations when starting the class but was surprised to find that I enjoyed comparing and contrasting the works that we did.  The themes we explored were topics I never really explored in writing before and I was surprised the amount I had to say with each paper.  It’s not an uncommon experience for students to come across paper topics that are drudgery to write–as an understatement.  With those papers you fight for every word and you barely make it over the minimum page count.    These essays, however, practically wrote themselves for me.  As with writing most essays, there is a degree of connection that is established with the works chosen.  To begin, we had a great deal of leeway in the themes chosen and the works we decided to compare with one another.  This alone allowed me the freedom to choose studied literature that I had some attraction to.  At that point, between the paper topic and the chosen work, it’s merely the practice of spewing  (perhaps not that unpracticed) opinion and then backing that opinion up with quoted and cited text.

In the end, I found Critical Introduction to Literature to be a worthwhile English class and it definitely helped expand my horizons as a student.  I feel I gained a greater appreciation of fiction (and nonfiction) and improved my skill of critical analysis of writing and I would take the class again (if I were to tell my past self which class to take).

 

The Ethics of Nonfiction

Literary journalism presents ethical dilemmas not found in other forms of nonfiction writing.  Technical writing and traditional journalism rely on reporting the facts and nothing but the facts with a concentrated effort to remain impartial and objective.  Creative nonfiction, through the literary style and opinion of the author, can stray from objective, documentable fact and instead become more fiction than nonfiction.  Ethical questions concerning creative nonfiction tarry around ideas of accuracy and privacy.  Given that writers are human beings and human beings are fallible, creative nonfiction skirts the edge of the truth, more so than technical writing.  It is one thing to gather information and report neutrally and quite another to gather information and color it with narrative and character development.   Given the relationship of the writing and with actual people, it’s certainly questionable to apply subjective narrative to actual events and actual people and then maintain an illusion that what is written is the truth.

Stemming from this, creative nonfiction has a number of questions surrounding the rights of the people portrayed.  Is it right of the literary journalist to use stories of other people and further, profit from other people’s dirty laundry?  Often it’s not the glamorous, heroic stories that get written; instead it’s the stories about tragedy, heartbreak and vulnerability.  A writer should always consider the wishes of the people they write about, particularly if it’s about a subject that could be regarded as delicate or private.   Do characterized people have a right to address errors or writer biases?  Is the writer obligated to give those people a chance to redress parts of the story they don’t agree with?  If a writer is part of the nonfiction they write, are they excluded from such obligations?  Can we ask if the nature of writing nonfiction itself excuse the writer of responsibility?  After all, it’s the readers that ultimately give a writer’s stories value and power.  Is this type of literature simply a symptom of the humanity’s desire to gossip about one-another and a writer who wants to pay the bills merely following through a pre-determined course?

Can some of these ethical problems be thrown out the window because of the story itself?  Some stories can become so high profile that many facts become public knowledge, particularly if intimate details are part of a public trial.  A writer doesn’t need permission for information that is public knowledge.  It’s one thing to dig up interesting secrets about people and telling them and another thing altogether to retell stories that are relative common knowledge.   To expand, some stories could involve people whose actions are difficult for people to digest, where the story itself is a dissection of the human condition and arguably offer some sort of greater enlightenment which could be grasped through the process of the creative narrative.  If other people can benefit from the misfortune of someone else (particularly if they’re participants of the creation of that misfortune), does that excuse the writer from ethical or the moral obligations of not telling it?  Can entertainment value be a good enough reason?  Do the ends justify the means?

In this paper, two essays will be analyzed and considered for how they might apply to the nonfiction ethics debate. Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and Repeat After Me are nonfiction essays where the writers took creative license while reporting actual stories.  In Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, Joan Didion explores and retells the story of Lucille Miller, a woman convicted of the murder of her husband.    Repeat After Me by David Sedaris is a personal reflection by the author concerning interactions he has had with his sister and a part of his life when he was living with her.  Contrary to Didion’s work, it is written in first person and has a more personal, informal tone.

Both essays feature their own different ethical conundrums.  Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream could be considered unethical given the form of how it is written.  Written as a third person narrative, there are some ethical considerations to be made about whether it’s appropriate for a human being to assume the role as partially omniscient narrator over real-life affairs and further, profit off of the tragedy of the people involved in the case.  Repeat After Me could be considered unethical given the author’s liberal use of other peoples’ more intimate details in his storytelling, often without express permission.  Sedaris’s essay triggers interesting questions concerning the ethicality of writing about people who have, at one point or another, requested for stories to be excluded.  However, as someone who takes a major role in his nonfiction work, is he exempt from the obligation of the people who writes about?  While a writer should, at least to some degree, consider the feelings of the people they write about (if not for any reason but respecting them as a living, sentient beings), should they always listen to and respect the wishes of other people?

How a nonfiction essay is narrated plays a major part in whether it follows an ethical straight-and-narrow path.  Joan Didion, during the process of creating a compelling and interesting story, opted to write the essay as a third person narrator.  The essay is written with a mix of researched facts and subjective opinion.   The problem with writing in that style is the blurring of facts with opinion while maintaining a pretense of impartiality (it’s categorized under nonfiction which implies truth) is that it is misleading to the reader.  This passage shows this type of writing from Didion in action:  “The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by way of the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place:  not the coastal the California of subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalypts windbreaks and works on the nerves (Didion, 1).”   This paragraph has some objective details such as where the San Bernardino Valley is and how fast the Santa Ana winds blow through the passes.   However, the disembodied narrator describes San Bernardino with no small amount of subjectivity.  Described as being “haunted” by the Mohave and how the hot dry Santa Ana wind “works on the nerves”, it’s a vivid description painted for our imagination.  But, given how this is a work of nonfiction, it must be considered in the context of accuracy.  Is this the opinion of the residents of San Bernardino or of Didion?  Are the people in the city on edge because of the weather?  Would there be people in San Bernardino who would disagree with how she described the area?  The words she chose: “alien”, “haunted”, “devastated”, “whines”, “works on the nerves” all have loaded meanings and likely have different visuals for every person who reads it.  To some people, San Bernardino would probably be described as the exact opposite of how she describes it yet if they read it based on her account, they might be misled into believing someone’s opinion of San Bernardino is actually who it is.

To add to this, describing Banyan Street, the place where Lucille’s husband is killed, Joan Didion writes:  “Like so much of this country, Banyan suggests something curious and unnatural. The lemon groves are sunken, down a three- or four-foot retaining wall, so that one looks directly into their dense foliage, too lush, unsettlingly  glossy, the greenery of nightmare; the fallen eucalyptus bark is too dusty, a place for snakes to breed.  The stones look not like natural stones but like the rubble of some unmentioned upheaval (5, Didion).”  The language Didion uses to describe the road and San Bernardino implies an almost supernatural feel, as if the land itself was an accomplice to the events that take there.  Therein lays the ethical question of the matter.  Arguably the role of a nonfiction writer is to relate the truth, to explain accurately things that have happened.  When too much creative license to taken, it can skew the narrative until it eventually becomes less facts and more fiction.  Given in the essay Joan never quotes residents talking about the environment in such a sinister way, it is probable to believe that these are Didion’s personal impressions of San Bernardino.

In contrast, David Sedaris writes his essay as an informal first-person narrator.  Writing as himself, he relates his story relaxed and personably.  “The note reflected a growing hysteria, its subtext shrieking, Oh, my God, he’s going to be alone in my house for close to an hour! She left her work number, her husband’s work number, and the number of the next-door neighbor, adding that she didn’t know the woman very well so I probably shouldn’t bother her unless it was an emergency. ‘PPS. She’s a Baptist, so don’t tell her you’re gay’ (2, Sedaris).”  The expectations that stem from David’s writing are different given how he narrates the story.  Unlike third person narration which implies a greater knowledge of the whole truth, first person narration brings us to a place not too dissimilar to how we think every day.  We innately understand that what’s being represented is how Sedaris perceived them and that it’s probably not the perfect truth.

Next, another ethical question that arises with creative nonfiction is whether an author has the right to publish intimate details of real people they learn about and interact with, especially when it’s at the expense of those people.  When an author researches their essay, is it okay to publish character details that could be described as unflattering or embarrassing?  When Joan Didion or David Sedaris publish an essay, these details are possibly read by hundreds of thousands of people and are seared into their memories.  Arguably this can define a new truth, even if the opinion of the author was wrong in respect to other people’s opinions of the depicted person.  Both essays toe this line of ethicality.  Didion represents both San Bernardino and Arthwell Hayton unfavorably.  A reader who has never been to San Bernardino probably would feel discouraged to visit, regardless if her opinion was correct or not.  This could have had real economic implications on the people of the city, particularly if the city relied on tourism for revenue.  Even if the characters deserved every word written about them, do the people indirectly affected by the story deserve possible punishment?  Further, Didion pulls no punches in regard to Arthwell Hayton.  “Some people around San Bernardino say that Arthwell Hayton suffered; others say that he did not suffer at all.  Perhaps he did not, for time past is not believed to have any bearing upon time present or future, out in the golden land where every day the world is born anew.  In any case, on October 17, 1965, Arthwell Hayton married again, married his children’s pretty governess, Wenche Berg […]  The bridegroom was in black tie […] the bride wore a long white peau de soie dress and carried a shower bouquet of sweetheart roses with stephanotis streamers.  A coronet of seed pearls held her illusion veil (27-28, Didion).”  Didion implies that Hayton did not get what was coming to him, that he escaped from the ordeal unscathed—something that would probably be untrue after Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream was published.  Writers should consider the implications of attacking other real life people’s characters in their works.  With an audience of tens (if not hundreds) of thousands, an indictment given by an author could have real-life consequences.  It is not far-fetched to believe that Hayton, having been described as not suffering enough, could have had some of Didion’s readers harass him–be it through insults, bullying, ostracization or violence.  It’s very likely that he received hate mail after the story was published (something that is common with high profile cases).  This issue, further, could spill onto people who associate with or are related to Hayton.  His family, his friends and even colleagues very possibly were harassed over the depiction of his character in the story.

Sedaris struggles with the problem of representing people he knows within his essay.  He even acknowledges that there is a problem.  “I’d asked her the same question, and she’d said, ‘Oh, fine, you know.’ She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it. In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family’s started to see things differently, Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they’re sick of it. Our conversations now start with the words, ‘You have to swear you will never repeat this.’ I always promise, but it’s generally understood that my word is no better than Henry’s (446, Sedaris)”.  David Sedaris understands that he isn’t trusted because he betrays the trust of the people he knows.  “This is to say that I read stories about my family. After the: reading, I answered questions about them, thinking all the while how odd it was that these strangers seemed to know so much about my brother and sisters. In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending that the people I love voluntarily choose to expose themselves. It’s a delusion much harder to maintain when a family member is actually in the audience (448, Sedaris).”   “Your life, your privacy, your bottomless sorrow—it’s not like you’re going to do anything with it (451, Sedaris).”  Sedaris aptly shows the ethical dilemma concerning telling stories about real people.  Creative nonfiction writers can sell out people they know using those people’s lives, secrets and their privacy.  Sedaris understands that the people around him are getting a raw deal but rationalizes it as passive consent.  If the people he knew didn’t want to have their stories told, they should cut ties from him or at the very least, not hang out with him as often.  However, this isn’t entirely fair.  People want to have secrets and privacy.  People also want to spend time with their family and friends.  Sedaris seems to paint people into a corner where a relationship with him can cost an embarrassing story or two.  As it seems, many people begrudgingly accept the cost of his friendship (given that at least his sister, despite knowing what he will write about with her life, still continues spending time with him).

This ultimately contrasts heavily against Didion’s work.  Sedaris’s stories feature people who he personally knows and shares connections with.  Didion’s stories are about people she doesn’t know or share any connection with.  If Sedaris is a junkman picking up rusted stories discarded from friends and family, Didion is a vulture tearing stories from people’s carcasses or from the flies buzzing around them. It’s difficult to know the degree of permission Didion gets when telling her stories or who she used as a source for her writings.  In the case of Arthwall Hayton, it’s as possible that she talked to Hayton, as it’s possible that she did not.  In contrast to Sedaris, given his storytelling style, there is a strong idea of who he talked to, what relationship he has with that person, and where he stands in all of this.  If he writes about hearsay the reader generally knows what it is as he reports it as such.

Another ethical dilemma that Sedaris’s type of nonfiction writing introduces is the concept of shared experiences.  If a writer shares an experience with a person or a group of people, how much of a right do they have to tell the story?  If a person part of those experiences wishes for the story to not be told, is that writer ethically responsible to not tell that story, even if that writer contributed an equal amount or more to the “plot” of that story?  Some people probably agree that there is a difference between Sedaris and Didion and their storytelling.  Didion approaches her writer as an outsider, gathering other people’s stories and telling them.  As an outsider, if a person wished for their story to not be told, Didion should ethically consider her right to profit off other people’s lives, particularly if they don’t want their life story told.  Sedaris, on the other hand, is an insider in his stories.  He often is telling his side of the story or retelling a story told to him by someone he intimately knows.  The line of ethics seems to be drawn in the responsibility of the writer to respect the wishes of the people in their stories.  If a writer is directly told not to publish a story that doesn’t involve them by a person who is a major character of that story, it would be fair to believe that the writer has an ethical responsibility to not retell that story.  Further, with a shared experience, a writer should consider the wishes of the people in that story and do their best to respect those wishes—even if at the very least they obfuscate the characters of the experience.

As a rebuttal to some of these ethical problems, it must also be considered how much responsibility a creative writer actually has to following certain ethical guidelines.  Successful creative journalists have an audience that have expectations.  Both Sedaris and Didion have readers that expect them to say and do certain things.  In the case of Didion, Didion is successful because of her narrative storytelling and her subjective entwining of facts with embellishment.  Didion is successful because of her style and as such, her style must be maintained if she wishes to remain successful.  At this point however, is she not a prisoner to her own success?  Even if she wanted to adhere to stricter ethical guidelines, she probably wouldn’t succeed because her writers expect certain things from her.  Any work that deviated from expectations would likely be ignored and fail.  Sedaris is also painted into a corner with his style.  Even though he may feel guilt about his exploitation of his family and friends through his storytelling, he is forced to do so if he wishes to keep working.  His audience wants to hear about his family.

This, of course, gets to the heart of the problem.  Writers of this type of nonfiction are merely fulfilling a need.  Many people enjoy reading and listening to stories that have kernels of truth.  Writing embellished nonfiction would not be profitable if that wasn’t what people wanted to read.  From this want comes to questions about the morality of the work itself–particularly when it comes from the style of Sedaris who is clearly telling a story from his perspective.  As a culture we tell stories about ourselves and other people to one another.  Is the ethical matter of the situation related with volume, profit or skill?  Is it ethical to tell a story to a small group of people but unethical to tell it to one hundred thousand people?  Is the problem stemming from making money?  Of course, the answer probably is different for each person asked this question as ethics is a personal matter.  Some people consider ethics based on harm.  Other people consider ethics based on exploitation.  Some people, like Sedaris, see stories as junk left out, unused, neglected and squandered.  Is it unethical to recycle something unused by someone else (particularly if that person is not being deprived of that resource)?

In conclusion, creative nonfiction writers have to consider the consequences of their writing, particularly if their use of other people’s stories harm other people.  The form of the author’s writing, as well as the content, plays heavily in whether what is written is ethical or not.  There is a line where embellishing the truth turns a story into a lie.  A writer needs to consider if they’re misrepresenting their subjective opinions as hard facts and whether it’s clear to the reader the difference between the writer’s use of fact and fiction.  Further, consideration must be made for the people characterized in literary journalistic works.  When words are written, they may end up carved into the walls of eternity.  A secret told in an essay is available to anyone who reads it.  Portraying someone as mean or inconsiderate can haunt that person until they die, even if they don’t deserve the labels.  These ultimately are the things creative nonfiction authors should think about.

 .