Ethics in Creative Non-Fiction

Ethics and morals exist regardless of the literary genre you choose to write. The rules of non-fiction are different from fiction or poetry in that a writer and a reader invest in the belief that the content is real. The writing process has a slippery slope when you begin a ‘true’ story with a lie. Thomas Larson writes of a problematic concept, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story is the claim every storyteller is admonished to believe” (Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs). Authors are conditioned to believe that White lies are acceptable which blurs the lines between fact and fantasy. Informed readers, though, can instantly recognize a scam because of their own experiences. While I can understand why some authors choose to embellish life-like scenes or settings, I do not have the same feeling about lies that change the narrative arc or theme because it serves no purpose to the readers who chose a story based on the premise of truth.

Laura Barton’s article intrigued me because it seems like it best fits the moral imperative in that James Frey felt releasing it as a piece of non-fiction would better serve a purpose in helping others overcome human conditions like personal demons or loss. It is not ethical, but it is not hard to fathom why the writer (or his agent) believed that, as non-fiction, it sensationalized his story. Even after exposure, he sold 3.5 million copies which convey to readers his ability to create exceptional fiction. The fall, however, was fast and far-reaching as his reputation suffered from his fraud. If a book tells your story, you should care enough ethically to retain its integrity by making a note advising you made minor changes. Not a single person who watches a real crime show discounts the story after seeing a disclaimer. Readers accept the need for disclaimers as it is necessary from time-to-time to recreate forgotten dialogue or to protect identities.

Writers must also resist the demands of editors and literary agents in changing the content for marketing and book sales. People forget that the subjects of memoirs, editors, or publishers make executive decisions that often determine the publication of books. I would like to think I would be above it, but the truth is that new writers like me would probably feel the pressure to make the changes by rationalizing they are essential truths necessary for publication. Myers writes, “Essential truth is when the story’s plot, emotional current, characters, and dialogue convey authenticity and “ring true.” (The Ethics of Truth in Writing Fiction and Non-Fiction). The moral imperative to serve a higher purpose by embellishing a story to help others can quickly get lost in an entire book of lies by the pressure for sales. The truth is that sales matter, and no one will know you as an author without them.

Writers must also decide where to draw the line between creative embellishment and out-right fake material meant to sensationalize the narrative arc. Hertz writes, “If you’re bored by a topic, no doubt your reader’s attention will drift off to favorite YouTube videos” (Write Choices: Elements of Nonfiction Storytelling 3). It is a reality that the content must quickly draw in the readers or risk losing them. It puts pressure on authors, agents, and publishers to make them intriguing when the real story is not. It challenges writers to rely on their creativity to rewrite something instead of depending on lies to develop scenes. I can defend a paraphrase to readers, but I can not uphold a lie.

The lesson learned in reading Five Fake Memoirs that Fooled the Literary World, The Man Who Rewrote his Life, and Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs is that writers do not have to lie to take on the human condition. Writers need to weigh the theme, the structure, and the audience they hope to engage and realize that lies can bring hurt, pain, and even loss of faith. It can also be a legal liability when publishing lies and claiming it as a memoir. As Garrity writes, “Telling the unvarnished truth in an autobiography or memoir is no small feat” (Five Fake Memoirs that Fooled the Literary World). Truthfulness in non-fiction will always be more potent than falsehoods if it is a relevant issue to readers.

Writers can stay within the boundaries by making narrative changes from first-person to an omniscient or recreate the scenes by using disclaimers. Writers should always strive to maintain an ethical and moral responsibility to their audiences. Readers deserve a measure of certainty that rogue writers will not corrupt non-fiction. Learning how some writers lie reaffirms my belief in following rules or running the risk of demeaning the very value of each literary genre.


Works Cited
Hertz, Sue. “Write Choices: Elements of Nonfiction Storytelling.” Sage Publications. 2016.
Garrity, Lyn. Five Fake Memoirs that Fooled the Literary World. Smithsonian Institute. 2010. smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/five-fake-memoirs-that-fooled-the-literary-world-77092955/?no-ist. Accessed 16 Dec 2017.
Larson, Thomas. “Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs.” New English Review. 2009. thomaslarson.com/publications/essays-and-memoirs/24-fiction-fact-faked.html. Accessed 16 Dec 2017.
Myers, Linda Joy. “The Ethics of Truth in Writing Fiction and Non-Fiction.” National Association of Memoir Writers. 2013. namw.org/2013/07/the-ethics-of-truth-in-writing-fiction-and-non-fiction-betsy-graziani-fasbinder/. Accessed 16 Dec 2017.

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