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Diction and information usage: author's ethics and responsibility to the reader

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Old 03-02-2010, 06:20 AM
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Default Diction and information usage: author's ethics and responsibility to the reader


First off, I posted this in in the scribophile forums. I wouldn't link it if it wasn't for an interesting difference of opinion on the subject, therefore I recommend it for a read: http://www.scribophile.com/forums/in...m=2&topic=2192

Here is the post itself:

As an author, I'm always self-aware of my limits. It is, of course, plain to state that an author should write about what he knows; therefore, I find that my knowledge is constantly hindered by boundaries of something undiscovered - whether it be for the purposes of alluding, further description, or in terms of merit alone.

However, I feel it is my obligation to extend my abilities at all times, for myself and for the reader. To not put forth your 'A-game' in every sentence is self-defeating. This, to me, can lead to ambivalence concerning the ethics of writing.
Take diction for an example: do you find the perfect word, even if you haven't used it before, or do you stay away from a practice that may be considered less than creditable?

With that in mind, what of information? Is reading a wikipedia page on something enough to allude to that particular subject, or even to go on in further detail about it? Could this be considered cheating the reader based on the fact that it is such an accessible site for knowledge, therefore loses any impact to be taken seriously? What then is acceptable in your opinion, and what is the extent of information that should be learned in concordance with how it is used? Is reading a book enough to allude to something, or is simply reading a couple of sentences valid?

The balance here is what I'm talking about. Obviously we can't know everything, and we have to make things up, or bend facts, as we go to fit our stories. How have you dealt with this issue, and what is your stance? Some may find it pretentious to limit oneself in accordance with the unwritten 'rules' of writing; to posture to the reader that you are some unerring entity, and above such measures as to seek help against those unspecified rules, of which certain practices would be deemed unfelicitous to the percieved appropriate character of said entity. (Take this very post as an example. To me, I posted too many questions in a parochial fashion unfitting to my taste, which damages my reputation.)

Another interesting thing to note is that of time. Time seems to ferment the idea that you have a sound basis of knowledge on a subject. So, even if you know very little, but have known it for awhile, I believe that person would be more inclined to use it over something that was just learned.

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Old 03-02-2010, 01:09 PM
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Let me make sure I understand your points and questions before I respond to them. Let me know if I misinterpreted anything.
  • First, you believe you should write what you know ("It is, of course, plain to state that an author should write about what he knows"), and you're frustrated by always coming upon something you don't know and need to research ("I find that my knowledge is constantly hindered by boundaries of something undiscovered").
  • Second, you believe you have an obligation to yourself and your readers to put forth your best work. Allowing second best work through "can lead to ambivalence concerning the ethics of writing," in your words.
  • Building on those beliefs, you have a couple questions about how to apply the principles you see and how far a writer's "responsibility" goes.
At this point, I think it's only fair to say that some of the things you take as given in the start of your post are not given at all. For instance, I don't "write what I know". I write what interests me. I am a woman, but my main character is a man. I have wonderful relationships with my siblings, but I write about strained ones and misunderstandings. I also write fantasy and make up whole worlds. I don't "know" those things. I often do a lot of research and learn in the course of writing something, but that's because I'm interested, not because I think I have to "know" it to write it.

Further, you speak of writers having ethical responsibilities to readers. Okay... but you suggest that those responsibilities include using the best words, doing research, and writing well. While I can think of several cases where ethics and responsibility attend on writing, I don't think they are bound with the very mechanics of the art. If writing well is a moral duty, does that mean beginners are committing some crime against readers? If trying to write better is an imperative, does that mean those who are satisfied in their skill level are doing wrong? What if I write because I enjoy it? What do I owe my readers? Do you think musicians or artists owe anything to those who partake of their art?

I think of the relationship between writer and reader differently. It's more of an at-will association than anything else. My favorite author writes because she loves to. I read her work because I love to. If she decided tomorrow to stop writing and leave a series unfinished, I'd be disappointed, but it's her right to stop. If she decided that she was tired of exhaustively researched historical novels and wanted to write cheesy bodice-rippers, she could. I'd be disappointed, but she doesn't owe it to me to maintain her old style. Conversely, I don't owe it to her to read. If her work no longer pleases me, I'll just stop.

Ethics and responsibility are pretty big concepts. I don't think they relate to writing fiction anymore than they relate to writing symphonies or painting pictures. The art exists because it pleases the artist to make it. It sells (is read, listened to, looked at) because it pleases someone else to buy (read, listen to, look at) it. Excellence and dross are alike in this: someone's willing to make it for those who appreciate it.

Where responsibility and ethics come in is when there's more than fiction involved. Text-book writing gives you the responsibility to be accurate and unbiased. Journalism comes with a host of ethical questions. Writing a political essay or pamphlet burdens you with responsibility. But I think such responsibilities come from your goal, not the means you use to get there. Responsibilities also come when people have no choice but to read your work. Writers of warning labels, appliance assembly instructions, laws, street signs, etc. have responsibilities to be clear and concise. But again, that's because of the goal of the thing. Fiction doesn't have those goals.

If it helps to look at it from a different art, consider painting. Suppose you want to sit in a field and paint trees or something. You don't owe it to anyone to use quality canvass or just the right shade of paint. But if you're being paid to paint a portrait of someone, you have responsibilities. They come from the contract you have, not from the act of painting.

Originally Posted by MatthewD View Post
The balance here is what I'm talking about. Obviously we can't know everything, and we have to make things up, or bend facts, as we go to fit our stories. How have you dealt with this issue, and what is your stance?
In my stories, I always try to find the right word, the best way of expressing something, and the most accurate information. But I do that for myself and my own standards (and because I major in the minors, sometimes), not because I think it's an ethical concern. If I ever get published, readers will read because they want to, or not read if it's not their thing. That's on them.

In my life, I try to maintain the same standards, but my reasons are not related to the actual craft of writing. I tried to write this post clearly because I want to communicate. That's not about the writing, that's about social goals.
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Old 03-04-2010, 07:52 AM
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This question doesn't matter. People will continue to write however they please, and it's a moot point since no one shares my opinions.
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Old 03-04-2010, 11:26 PM
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Who says?

Originally Posted by MatthewD View Post
I feel it is my obligation to extend my abilities at all times, for myself and for the reader.
One's obligations and ethics are a largely personal viewpoint, but on the above point we're in accord. If you're not constantly moving forwards, you're going back.

Beyond that, my personal obligation as I see it is to write the truth, using emotional honesty, and to hopefully say something that people want to hear.

As for ethics... I have to agree with HoiLei here. They have no place in writing beyond your own personal views.

You have no responsibility to the reader, beyond possibly giving him a reason to turn the page and read on. The reader certainly has no responsibility to you.

Are you aware of Barthes' theory of the 'dead author'?

To the reader, you are dead. You are divorced from your work, you have no part in it once it is written. No matter what message or meaning you sought to impart in your work, they have no meaning beyond the reader's own interpretation. The truth of your work is in their perception, not your intention.Therefore your ethics and obligations go out the window, because your book is judged and measured by the reader.

Example?

I wrote a short a few years ago that sold to a fairly respected literary mag. I wrote (what I thought was) a touching love story between two damaged people that was ultimately doomed.

It got reviewed by the Tangent Short Fiction Review. They said:

This story deftly combines desperation, yearning, and loneliness into a chilling tapestry of modern horror.

Modern Horror? Where did that come from? But that's the thing. I wrote it as I saw it, they read it as they saw it. Neither viewpoint is wrong except that, from the reader's perspective, mine obviously was.
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Old 03-05-2010, 07:35 AM
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I think when people say write what you know, its taken with a grain of salt about what we can and can't know within reason. I write stories with Angels and Demons and all manner of mythical beasts. I, to my knowledge, have never met any of these creatures but I (try to) write them in a way that makes sense and paints as semi-realistic portrayals using what we do know in the real world and what we understand to a point. That is, I seek to make the supernatural mesh with our world.

I tend to write stories set in places I have been or I have studied extensively, I think if you're going to write a story in Louisiana you should know there's no mountains and thus not mention them. If you're writing about a guy who uses guns you should know a little about them. On the contrary though if you write with confidence and present reasons and bend the world you're writing in to your own, you can do anything with in reason as long as its written right.

Originally Posted by Mike C View Post
Modern Horror? Where did that come from? But that's the thing. I wrote it as I saw it, they read it as they saw it. Neither viewpoint is wrong except that, from the reader's perspective, mine obviously was.
Modern Horror? What did you do to those poor people

And does it make you mad or do you just think its good as long as someone enjoyed it?
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Old 03-05-2010, 09:20 AM
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Originally Posted by MatthewD View Post
This question doesn't matter. People will continue to write however they please, and it's a moot point since no one shares my opinions.
Insufficient data; you only had one reply at that point!

Originally Posted by Mike C View Post
I wrote a short a few years ago that sold to a fairly respected literary mag. I wrote (what I thought was) a touching love story between two damaged people that was ultimately doomed.

It got reviewed by the Tangent Short Fiction Review. They said:

This story deftly combines desperation, yearning, and loneliness into a chilling tapestry of modern horror.

Modern Horror? Where did that come from? But that's the thing. I wrote it as I saw it, they read it as they saw it. Neither viewpoint is wrong except that, from the reader's perspective, mine obviously was.
I'm reminded of Don McLean's non-explanation of American Pie: "You will find many 'interpretations' of my lyrics but none of them by me. Isn't this fun? Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence." --Don McLean

Perhaps authors should do the same. We attempt to convey something, but readers, approaching it with entirely different minds (inevitably!) will take something else away. Sometimes they'll be close to our intention and other times very far away. That's okay.

When I hear American Pie, I don't think of McLean as a "dead songwriter", but nor do I think his intention was the only way to understand the song. It means what it means to me. When other people read my stuff very differently than I intended it, I find that interesting. Sometimes I like their interpretations better!
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Old 03-05-2010, 10:53 AM
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Originally Posted by CTK View Post
Modern Horror? What did you do to those poor people
See for yourself: http://mikecoombes.ktf-design.com/ht...ange_love.html

Originally Posted by CTK View Post
And does it make you mad or do you just think its good as long as someone enjoyed it?
It doesn't make me mad. It amused me if anything. And I'm with Barthes; it's my job to tell the story, it's the reader's job to give it meaning.
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