The ethics of writing novels about true events is a subject I’ve touched on in previous blogs. I’m returning to it here because Joyce Carol Oates writes novels about true events.
In an article she did not write but was about her, the author posed the question directly: “What is right and what is wrong? What is offensive? These questions often come into play when a writer is writing a fictitious story based on a true event. But where is the line when a writer borrows too much from real life? What happens then? American author, Joyce Carol Oates, writes arguably for both reasons, and consequentially has not only been recognized for it, but was also blamed for the audacity.”
She is one of America’s most revered authors and describes herself as, “transparent, like a glass of water.” Like all authors, she borrows from real-life scenarios. It makes fiction zing and gives dialogue authenticity. Writing fictional novels about real events raises ethical questions. How much borrowing is ethical? Who benefits from it: the author or the story? Who is harmed by it? If the answers are, not that much, the author, and the true story, you have three ethical norms.
The larger ethical question is whether authors have the right to publish novels about real events and real people, without being an insider to the situation. Like all ethical dilemmas, the answer depends on whose axe is being gored (meaning harmed). Does the fictional story reveal true facts that harm the real people in the novel? Are those real people made to seem at fault in the novel, but in truth were not?
The challenge for the novelist is that readers do not research facts. We don’t footnote our fiction, because it is fiction. The danger is that some readers will see the connective dialogue, description, or setting and assume they are reading a true novel. They believe we were insiders because we are using real facts and real people to populate and enhance fiction.
Writers are largely unregulated, unlicensed, and bound only by marketability. There’s no reason we cannot self-regulate, act as though we were licensed, and act ethically, even when writing fiction. We should put readers first.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.
 October 9, 2018—“Do We Cross an Ethical Boundary by Revealing Private Information in Nonfiction Writing?” September 9, 2018—“Is it Ethical to Use a Real Person as a Major Character in a Novel?” November 13, 2018—“Is it Ethical to Write School Killing Stories?” November 15, 2018 “When We Tell Stories Are We Telling Lives?” November 28, 2018 “Do Authors Have Ethical Responsibilities Beyond the Book?”