In his autobiography, A Sort of Life, Graham Greene famously said that there was a ‘splinter of ice in the heart of a writer,’ which allowed them to contemplate tragedy in a dispassionate way and turn it into art. Such self-possession might well repulse people who don’t write.
Ethical considerations must bother many writers: how can we write about tragic and distasteful subjects, without being moved? Are we monsters who exploit unhappiness? Revealing family secrets, even if it’s done in veiled fictional form, could be seen as a shocking betrayal.
Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz reckoned that “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” In recent years, Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard has published a series of six autobiographical novels, titled My Struggle, which have dissected his relationships with family members and friends, leading to deep hurt and rifts. The morality of what he did is open to question—what price fame?—how far is a writer prepared to go in selling his soul down the river?
An ex-girlfriend who he knew for four years, was referred to by the anonymous name of Gunvor in book five. She said, in a newspaper interview: “It was as if he said: Now I’m going to punch you in the face. I know it’s going to hurt, and I will drive you to the hospital afterwards. But I’m going to do it anyway.”
He’s not the sort of person to strike up a friendship with unless you fancy seeing your character shredded on the pages of one of his books!
Any author writes to achieve a certain private emotional satisfaction and to take a stance on difficult aspects of life. We hope to produce a reaction in the reader, while not revealing too much about ourselves, which demands abstraction. I’ve written about some repulsive crimes in my novels, including murder, kidnapping, rape, torture and slavery. I do so, to make points about the state of society, rather than out of a morbid relish for the agony and pain caused by the criminals; some readers may like my stories for those reasons, but that’s out of my control.
I’ve become upset by some of the dreadful atrocities I’ve researched, so much so, that I broke my big toe!
But, it would be remiss of me to write as if I was upset, for the story wouldn’t ring true. My detective protagonist’s response to the crime he’s investigating may well influence the reader. Enough space has to be left, for the reader to decide how they feel.
I deliberately hold back from giving too many gory details, but I’m sure that I’ll offend some people who’ll suggest that I’m exploiting real-life victims in a cold-hearted way. As the old saying goes, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.”
Nevertheless, there are moves afoot in publishing to make books politically correct, through the use of sensitivity readers.
This sounds like a great way of producing homogenised writing, where none of the characters does anything that’s likely to offend anyone, no matter what their race, gender, sexuality, politics, disabilities or ethics. No story will be too hot or too cold, and nor will they be ‘just right‘ (thanks Goldilocks) they’ll just be lukewarm and insipid.
A certain amount of coldness, even political incorrectness and moral ambiguity is essential to bring a chill to the reader, to make them react, to want to know what happens next, to read on….
How cold-hearted are you, when you write?
Do you worry about what people will think about you?
Does your conscience do battle with your desire to tell a story?
Have you ever read anything that made you wonder if the author was a psychopath?