Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Question of Ethics

Let me pose a question, and you provide the response.

First, the scenario.

A writer composes a piece of non-fiction detailing a rather tumultuous time in his life as a teenager. The major players in the memoir are his parents, an older brother and his brother's girlfriend. The memoir is written in the same narrative non-fiction spirit as, say, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Meaning, it reads like a novel, but is in fact based on truth.

The memoir is not mean-spirited, nor does it aim to vilify or exact some sort of revenge. But it is brutally honest. It does not draw judgments of any family member's actions (e.g., My parents were mean. or My brother was a bad person)

The writer's opinion is that, because it is his story as much as it is theirs, he has the right to write about it, regardless of whether readers may cull from it negative opinions about his family members.

He defends using historical facts about the family by arguing that self-censorship for the sake of protecting people's feelings would be akin to Michelangelo leaving out David's penis so as to not offend members of the East Podunk Baptist Ladies Group.

One of my favorite movie quotes of all time is from Biloxi Blues, a Neil Simon play that was turned into a movie.

Eugene Jerome is the main character, at basic training near the end of World War II. His single most dream is to be a writer. And as such, he keeps a journal. The journal is discovered by fellow privates in the barracks who read aloud to each other what Eugene has written about them. Candid things. Particularly comments about his friend, Arnold Epstein, whom he thinks, privately in his journal, is a homosexual.

When Eugene discovers that his journal has been discovered and read, he begins tearing out the "offending" pages.

That's when Arnold - who could argue had been hurt the most by Eugene's comments - says "Once you start compromising your thoughts, you become a candidate for mediocrity."

So I pose this question:

Does a writer's art transcend all, or are there just some things he should not be allowed to write about because they could potentially embarrass? And if the answer is the latter, then where is the line drawn?

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