“What can be said, lacks reality. Only what fails to make its way into words exists and counts.”
Ron Hansen’s essay, “The Ethics of Fiction Writing,” is provocative and dead-on:
“The first principle of the medical doctor’s Hippocratic oath is: above all, do no harm. And I think that applies to the fiction writer, too, presuming his subject is worthy of such caution. In fact, most book contracts from major publishers require a guarantee from the author that the prospective manuscript’s contents will not cause injury: will not, for example educate the reader on constructing a firebomb from hair gels and shaving cream, or give lessons on how to hotwire a Cadillac – though such information is possibly available on the internet.”
His essay underscores the ethical writing bankruptcy now plaguing the Internet of all things, which definitely includes writing. His central theme nails publishing fakes on the Internet and the phenomenon called “sock puppetry, in which some writers assume false identities in order to post positive comments about their own work, or enlist friends and family to post a bevy of five-star reviews of their latest book on Amazon.com.”
Fake news is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. This false information is mainly distributed by social media but is periodically circulated through mainstream media—it’s so popular, particularly with some politicians, that it has its own Wikipedia page. Twitter is both the mega-church and the Walmart of fake news—it is so lucrative that it posts a wanna-be solution. The Guardian calls it the “liar’s dividend.”
Russia, when accused of faking its news (and ours), unfurled its own fake news bill in the Russian Parliament. The fake news crush is politically driven. But the ethical challenge for fiction writers, outside the political morass, is very different. We are not scrutinized because we are supposed to make things up. We label it fiction. Our readers know we’re faking that gunfight at the not-so-ok-corral. They know Angus Witherspoon never existed and that his horse, Tucson, never climbed that fictional mountain called Ten Shoes Up. However, we have ethical challenges and we sometimes fail to measure up.
When we write fiction, it must be fair, honest, and accurate. It must be original, even if some ideas, notions, descriptive tone, meaning, and focus came from other ethical writers. Plagiarism is our mortal sin, but we have venal ones too—cryptomnesia and intentional fabrication. In my opinion, fiction writers must make two decisions before keyboarding that first line in a novel. How much of the novel is actually true and whose truth is it to reveal? These days, historical fiction creeps into most novels. So truth in fiction is our ethical dilemma.
 Ron Hansen is Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University. He teaches creative writing and literature in the English Department. Kenneth Manaster, SCU School of Law, contributed to his essay.
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