The Ethics of Depiction
Perhaps the best approach to making the case for a formalized Philosophy of Fiction is to focus in on the value of dissecting depiction as an ethical concern. A series of these blog posts will be designed deliberately around the ethics of depiction. I see this particular area to be a reservoir of value to be added to the MFA experience. To have outright discussions on the ethics of depiction in a creative setting will allow authors to engage with the social, cultural, political, and moral implications of their work. In turn, their approach to future writing will inherently consider the impact of the decisions they make with character description, dialogue, voice, and other culturally sensitive areas.
The aim is to establish a depth of consideration in the choices we make as authors, taking into account the significance of fair and accurate representation, even within a fictionalized world. Further, we want to avoid a creative atmosphere where the rule of the gatekeeper supersedes the importance of artistic experimentation. In other words, if there are boundaries to what we are “allowed” to write, who sets those boundaries and do they hold any merit? The most obvious and common example, due to the much-needed diversification of the American literary canon, appears when an author of a particular demographic (e.g. straight white male) attempts to depict a character from a seemingly “opposite” demographic (e.g. queer black female). Problems arise when we attribute more significance to ascriptive identity than the specific message being conveyed by individual authors. The reality is that many authors will avoid depictions of the unknown because the convenient adage write what you know seems to imply that a person cannot know something outside their experience, which is just straight-up bullshit. What is knowledge but learning about the things you don’t know, experiencing the things you haven’t yet experienced, etc.?
The point of literature is to explore those very experiences through your specific lens, from your unique and individualized perspective. Toni Morrison famously stated that “the ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” It is our duty as writers, then, to step outside of our experiences into these very distinctly unknown places. In truth, these imagined depictions have the potential to bridge cultural perspectives, especially if they are well informed, but that potential can very quickly be ousted by the nature of offense culture. A forum in which the ethics of this dilemma are discussed deliberately will equip emerging authors with a more informed imagination, one already primed with considerations of how these depictions may or may not rub a reader the wrong way, and if so, whether that serves any larger purpose or is just meant to offend, disrupt, or stoke anger.
The Pedophile Paradox
One of my most memorable conversations outside the workshop took place at an Irish bar in Boca Raton around the beginning of my second year in the program. The question was posed by my good friend, “What if I want to write a story about a pedophile?” I think the common reaction to this is, Why? Is there any particular reason, or are you just trying to be provocative? This is a valid question and one that deserves some extrapolation. How the author answers this question determines the justification for the story, which I prefer to view as a measurement of intention. If the author answers in bad faith, that is, if they want to write a story about a pedophile because they think it will get them more readers or establish them as a “taboo writer,” then perhaps there is less justification for the story.
So let’s assume the author has good intentions, or at the very least is acting in good faith: they want to explore the traumas of this character’s past in shaping them as a pedophile, for example. How the author depicts this pedophile becomes extremely important, and the ice is incredibly thin. Convincing your audience to empathize with a pedophile can be more than upsetting, but perhaps there is an important cultural conversation to be had about the nature of pedophilia, one that is most easily discussed through the filter of literature. This is what I’ve deemed The Pedophile Paradox largely because the nature of fiction is such that, while some of the most important literature skates on the thinnest ice, that is not what makes it important. Rather, importance derives from the discomfort extracted from a reader by engaging them with challenging human truths. Discomfort, paradoxically, can be a signal of offense, but also one of insight.
In the creation of a formalized Philosophy of Fiction, I believe the Ethics of Depiction will serve as one of the most beneficial courses, allowing writers to measure these types of paradoxical creative decisions closely. Certainly there are depictions of pedophilia that should be shunned, obvious as that may be. But this does not change the reality in our world that pedophilia is a serious, persistent, and global problem, sickening as it might be for some audiences. The example of pedophilia is one of many I will analyze throughout this series, but the most useful in arguing for the formalized Philosophy of Fiction. The value this would add to the MFA is one focused on writerly development through direct confrontation of unknown perspectives. Without the proper guidance, these conversations will ostensibly veer into politically driven debates, identity-fueled arguments, or even outright screaming matches, which is why it’s best suited for a formal classroom environment where a knowledgeable and skilled instructor can gracefully guide these conversations into something healthy, useful, and productive.
It is because I gained so much from the MFA program that I advocate for this inclusion: creative writing workshops are havens for free speech and expression, for creative collaboration in the purest American sense. The workshop acts as a cultural melting pot and should be a bastion for informed debate between disparate perspectives. The purpose of these deliberate discussions is to avoid uninformed representation by giving writers a platform to measure their understanding of cultural or social realities against how these things are depicted in their work. Most importantly, a writer will be better prepared and more inspired by having considered the larger implications of their individual literary choices. The Ethics of Depiction and a larger Philosophy of Fiction are meant to do just that: supplement authorship with new perspectives and a consideration of the unknown.