An author who claims to write for posterity must be a bad one. We should never know for whom we write.” – E.M. Cioran
In my first post on this blog, I asked, “What is Ethical Writing?”
That answerless question begs another. This one comes from an essay by Joan Didion, titled “Why I Write.” Gleefully, she admits stealing the title from George Orwell:
“Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this: I I I. In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”
Ms. Didion’s prose is no doubt genuine, heartfelt, and provocative. But is her thesis correct? What we write is an imposition—that’s what she said. Is this a moral or an ethical thesis? Does it matter? That’s a worthy question.
I think she posed it to prompt us lesser writers to pay more attention to the words we use, and focus at least broadly on how our words impact readers. If our writing goal is an “aggressive” act, it imposes that characterization on the reader, who might be a pacifist. If our diction operates as a “secret bully,” then it invades the reader’s “private space.” And if we intend, by publishing what we write, to impose our sense of right or wrong on the reader, then we must ask ourselves, is this ethical?
Importantly, if Ms. Didion is right, only the writer can answer the question. There are no ethical word police lurking around, ticket-book in hand. There is no structural review in place. Unlike Congress, writers do not have an Ethics Committee before whom our ethical dalliances might be sanctioned. Congress has an ethics committee, one that rewards re-election to those whose dalliances are thought minor if an election is close at hand.