Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Ethics of Fictional Material

When I went to Alaska to collect research my first novel, I made many efforts to avoid what Uwem Akpan (Nigerian Jesuit priest whose stories have appeared in The New Yorker) refers to as colonizing another's world by fictionalizing it. I walked where my fictional character would walk. I took photographs of the undergrowth in case I needed to describe it. I measured how long it would take my character to drive into town.

I eavesdropped, and I paid close attention to those around me without always broadcasting what I was doing, but I made sure my fictional characters were conglomerates of a lot of different elements. Plus, I sought to imagine my way into the motives of the characters/viewpoints I disagreed with well enough so as to represent their opinions and motives somewhat graciously.

Many people told me I was being overly particular, but I wanted to do it right so that both natives and Outsiders would get an interpretation of Alaska that was bigger than just my interpretation of it, while containing my interpretation.

And then I met academic ethnographers, and took a communication class on field research and participant-observation. I now know I have been but a babe when it comes to the ethics of observing and representing human behavior (at least when it comes to academic non-fiction under the purview of the human subjects review board).

My question is this: should any of these extra layers of ethics be properly applied in the world of fiction research, in a modified form? For instance, when it's possible, should I be letting people know about my writing project when I'm observing them? Might there be any reason to review what I do with people's stories with everyone I chat with about a topic related to my book while I'm working on it? Might taking conversational fodder, observations, etc. and using it as raw material for one's novel at any point be properly called theft? If so, what would that point be?

Any thoughts from you writers and readers?

(Oh, and to make sure I give appropriate attribution, thanks to Robin and those in COM 682F for being part of the germination of this post.)

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