Ethical Implications Of Internal MonologS

The use of internal (interior) monolog by creative nonfiction writers has been, and continues to be, the most hotly debated issue in the battle over how far we should go in applying fiction's techniques to nonfiction. Journalists worry most about the use of internal monolog because it appears to overlap too much into fiction, thereby lowering its credibility in the mind of a skeptical reader. It is the most creative technique used in creative nonfiction in that the writer invents.

Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, who have been using this technique longer than most, say that they use it cautiously and responsibly. They maintain that it is not pure invention, as it is in fiction. They always write it only after completely immersing themselves in the mind of the person they're writing about. They get into the person's mind through interviewing in great depth; observing how the person interacts with others over a long period; working out of letters the person has written and received; using diaries, journals, and anything else that enables them to believe that they can speculate responsibly about that person's thoughts on a subject. They are sure that what they do in writing an internal monolog is ethical because they have dug so deep.

Readers may worry about how much of an internal monolog to believe because of the way it sometimes appears on the page. Like fiction's internal monolog or stream of consciousness, the monolog is often in italics; sentences are often incomplete or interrupted by random, disconnected thoughts; and, especially in Wolfe's case, the punctuation may be eccentric, bizarre, unique, and visually exciting.

Some creative nonfiction writers choose not to write internal monologs, believing them to be too far over the line into the territory of fiction. John McPhee, for example, never uses it, saying that a writer cannot get into another person's head. To him, to imply through internal monolog that the writer has entered and is reporting intracranial happenings borders on the unethical.

In the hands of the inept or unscrupulous, internal monolog is an easy device behind which to hide unethical writing. The beginning writer is best advised to stay away from internal monologs to avoid unintentionally lapsing into unethical writing.

EthicaL Implications of Composites and Fabrications in Pursuit of the Larger Truth

A fiction writer very often creates a character by combining facial features from someone the writer knows, a limp from another, and a deep-cracked voice, totally out of his or her own imagination. Creating composite characters is not only acceptable and ethical behavior for the fiction writer, it's expected.

However, when the journalist or creative nonfiction writer creates a composite character and puts that character forth as real, the writer violates the rules of ethical conduct for nonfiction writers. When a writer creates a composite scene made up of bits and pieces of actual scenes or settings, he or she also violates the ethics of the profession. Again, the fiction writer does this all the time to create a more interesting, more dramatic scene or setting and it's expected. Creative nonfiction writers sometimes do it with the same motivation—but in their case, it's unethical.

On June 18, 1984, Wall Street Journal reporter Joanne Lipman wrote in a front-page article that Alastair Reid, writer for the factually scrupulous New Yorker magazine, had for years been creating composite characters and places, and had been publishing them in that magazine as nonfiction. After the Wall Street Journal article broke, the New York Times, Time magazine, and all the other major newspapers, magazines, and radio and television broadcasts jumped on Reid and his New Yorker editor, the highly respected William Shawn, who spoke up for Reid. Now, they seemed to jump a bit more gleefully than one would expect, probably because the New Yorker, more than any other publication, had regularly boasted consistently about its scrupulous and hardworking fact-checking department and the magazine's general devotion to accuracy and truth.

Alastair Reid said to reporters that he had spent his career since the 1950s creating composite characters and scenes, all in a sincere effort to get at "the larger truth." Time magazine, on its "Essay" page of July 2, 1984, reported that Reid had said, "A reporter might take

EtHical coNsidEratioNs / 227

liberties with the factual circumstances to make the larger truth clear." Essayist Roger Rosenblatt went on to write that Reid was wrong in assuming that "larger truth is the province of journalism." He added that "where the larger truth is sought, the answer is where it's always been: in history, poetry, art, nature, education, conversation; in the tunnels of one's own mind."

Reporter Lipman complained that in the December 2, 1961, issue of the New Yorker, Reid had written in his piece "Letter from Barcelona" about a "small, flyblown bar by the harbor, a favorite haunt of mine for some years because of its buoyant clientele." Well, New Yorker readers loved that flyblown bar, and he says he received letters from people swearing that they'd tracked it down. Unfortunately, Reid now admits that the bar by the harbor doesn't exist—although he insists that it did at one time, but not when he was writing about it, and the conversations he said went on in it actually went on in some other place—in some cases, just in his own head.

The attitude that gets Reid into trouble was conveyed in the statement that "whether the bar existed or not was irrelevant to what I was after." He said that he is always after "the poetic whole," that he's like a poet in his concern for conveying the image rather than the mere facts. Coming to his defense, fellow writer for the New Yorker Paul Brodeur said that he himself figures that quotes are accurate so long as they "don't do violence to the intent of what was said." Reporter Lipman wrote that "Brodeur himself subscribes to a form of creative journalism."

William A. Henry III wrote on Time's "Press" page on July 2, 1984: "To critics, it did not matter than Reid's deviations were largely inconsequential. Any departure from fact is the first step on a slippery slope toward unbelievability. Facts are what people can agree on. Truth can be determined by each reader."

Reid, Shawn, and Brodeur may have genuinely been in pursuit of a greater reality, a larger truth, when they created and published their composite characters and scenes, but when a writer gets comfortable with using that fiction technique on inconsequential matters, couldn't he or she slip easily over into using it on more consequential matters and thus truly violate professional ethics? The consensus of professional writers seems to be that we should not use composites or fabrications of any kind, even for the most inconsequential matters, thereby staying well within the ethics of the profession.

Janet Cooke, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote a story, "Jimmy's World," which won a Pulitzer Prize. A problem of journalistic ethics, and a clear case of it, developed after she received the award. Jimmy, it was discovered, was not a mere composite; Jimmy was a total fabrication of Janet Cooke's imagination. In its embarrassment, the Post returned the Pulitzer Prize, and Janet Cooke resigned. Her letter of resignation, published in the Post, said that "'Jimmy's World' was in essence a fabrication. I never encountered an eight-year-old heroin addict. The September 28, 1980, article was a serious misrepresentation which I deeply regret. I apologize to my newspaper, my profession, the Pulitzer board, and all seekers of the truth. Today, in facing up to the truth, I have submitted my resignation."

Because the story was so well written and contained such believable dialog and concrete details, her editors went along with it even without corroborative evidence in lieu of the principals' identities. They said they had, at first, no reason to suspect her of fabrication. It was a fascinating, if terrifying, story, and they felt it had to be told.

The Washington Post provides its reporters, writers, and editors a guide to ethics in writing for that paper. "Standards and Ethics" is very detailed, having evolved out of the simple set of principles first laid down by Eugene Meyer when he bought the paper in 1933. These statements for ethical writing could apply well to any nonfiction writing—and perhaps particularly to any efforts toward creative nonfiction:

The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth can be ascertained.

The newspaper shall tell all the truth, so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world.

As a disseminator of the news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman.

What it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as the old.

The newspaper's duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owner.

In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifice of its material fortune if such course be necessary for the public good.

The newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.

These Principles are reendorsed herewith.

EthicaL Implications of the PLain StyLE

One of the most disquieting pieces I've ever read was one by Hugh Kenner, the highly respected author of books about contemporary literature. His article in the New York Times Book Review (September 15, 1985), "The Politics of Plain Style," made me clip it out, highlight line after line, and read it time after time. I'm sure I can't do justice to this wonderfully disturbing article, but I'll try to provide its essence.

I found the piece disturbing because I thought at first Kenner might be saying that all the advice I've given in this book might lead my readers into unethical writing—hardly my intent. I do find some comfort in the fact that such world-renowned writers as John McPhee, George Orwell, Joan Didion, and E. B. White have all counseled us to "write plain." Even Jacques Barzun titled his excellent and practical book on rhetoric Simple & Direct—another way of saying, "Write in the plain style."

Kenner said that the plain, unadorned style began about two hundred years ago in reaction to the previous "high styles" that were esteemed in proportion to their ornateness. The plain style came with the "arrival" of straight, nonpolemical, nonpolitical journalism in newspapers. He says that "the hidden premise" in this new, plain style was that "a man who doesn't make his language ornate cannot be deceiving us." This is the speech of merchants and artisans who handle things and would thus handle words with equal uprightness and honesty, not like the wits and scholars who handle only ideas— and thus are not to be trusted too highly.

Then comes the terrifying premise of his article: "Handbooks and copy editors now teach journalists how to write plainly, that is, in such a manner that they will be trusted. You get yourself trusted by artifice."

His point, apparently, is that there's something artificial about writing clearly. Therein lies my concern. Is it a problem in ethics if you deliberately disguise the fact that you're trying to persuade a reader to your way of thinking by writing with plain words, plain images?

He reinforces this notion by writing: "The plain style feigns a candid observer. Such is its great advantage for persuading. From behind its mask of calm candor, the writer with political intentions can appeal, in seeming disinterest, to people whose pride is in their no-nonsense connoisseurship of fact. And such is the trickiness of language that he may find he must deceive them to enlighten them."

It took a few readings of the article to leave behind my first interpretation, that we should not use the plain style because it's potentially deceptive—that it only feigns honesty. Finally, I realized that his real message was for the innocent reader, not the honest writer. I had missed the point on the first several times through, but he had made it clear four paragraphs from the end:

It is clarifying to reflect that the language of fiction cannot be told from that of fact. Their grammar, syntax, and semantics are identical. So Orwell passed readily to and fro between his two modes, reportage and fiction, which both employ the plain style. The difference is that the fictionality of fiction offers itself for detection. If fiction speaks political truths, it does so by allegory.

That is tricky, because it transfers responsibility for what is being said from the writer to the reader____

I guess this all boils down to two points for us to remember. When we're writers, use the plain style, but understand its potential power to deceive and write honestly; and, when we're readers, be aware and wary of any style, by any writer. Anthony Brandt's column for Esquire, "Truth and Consequences: For a Writer Telling the Public What It Has to Know Is Only Half the Battle" (October 19, 1984), ends with an admonition that could serve us all:

I've learned to pull in my horns. I've learned discretion, I've learned to doubt myself more. I advise my reader to do the same. Beware. Doubt me, doubt my brethren. That way lies the healthy skepticism that will keep us all, readers and writers alike, relatively honest.

You have an unspoken, unwritten, implicit contract with your reader, a contract to tell the truth—whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction. In fiction, you must stay true to the story, which is different from nonfiction, where you must stay true to the facts as you know them.

0 0

Post a comment