Reading Ann Patchett’s beautiful ‘Commonwealth’ (2016) raised once again the question of who owns a story.

There is a character who is a writer in this superbly balanced novel which ranges from the 1960s to the present day and encompasses betrayal and adultery and death, and important things like love and acceptance, heartbreak and forgiveness. (This sounds overblown and pretentious but it is so, so beautifully done). He is a great writer, this character, and one of the children of the novel, now a little bit grown, tells him about the summer her brother died. The events become the centre of his next best-selling novel.

Is this theft? Or is this okay? Other characters are hurt when the novel within the novel is published.

I was much exercised by this question of who owns a story when I read Alex Miller’s ‘Lovesong’ (2009) in which another writer feels he has every right to use a family secret he learns about the owners of the pastry shop he frequents. Both this secret and the ‘Commonwealth’ secret involve a child, which maybe, or maybe not, makes the ethics even more problematic.

So I ask myself, as a writer, should I be prepared to take and use any secret from family or friends if I thought it would make a good story?

Apparently the answer to that is yes.

A 2012 article about the Irish writer Colm Tóibín haunts me:

“Tóibín explains that he once told a class that “you have to be a terrible monster to write. I said, ‘Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have told you, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you. You’ve no right to be here. If there is any way I can help you get into law school then I will. Your morality will be more useful in a courtroom.’”

The French writer Emmanuel Carrère has clearly thought about this question deeply in terms of the arguably less fictionalised genre of memoir. Is it okay to use other people’s stories if you are as stringent on yourself? In a recent New York Times interview he likens this to the (real life) statement made by General Massu of the French Army, who was accused of torturing men in Algeria during the war. Massu said he’d used the electric prod, powered by a generator, on himself, and ‘It hurts, but not worse than that.’ But, the whole point is if you do it on yourself you have control. You can control when you stop. However:

‘When you write about others, there’s a huge responsibility. For my part, I have used the generator on people other than myself. And that bothers me. I don’t like that idea. I’m not a good man, unfortunately. I would like to be a good man. I admire goodness and virtue most. But I am not very good. I am, however, very moral. Which is to say I know where goodness is, and badness. I do not believe that literature gives you the right to immorality.’

I am very glad I read ‘Commonwealth.’ The novel will stay with me for a long time. As will this question.

 

 

 

Ready to draw the line? Image from wikimedia.

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