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Writer’s prerogative

August 13, 2010

Nicole Krauss is one of my favorite authors. If you haven’t heard of Nicole, chances are you’ve heard of her husband–Jonathan Safran Foer. He’s the author of Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (tied with To Kill a Mockingbird for my favorite book of all time) and Eating Animals. Nicole has two novels out, both of which I highly recommend:

The History of Love

and

Man Walks Into a Room.

But I recently stumbled across a short story she wrote for the New Yorker that addressed a quandary I’ve been in for quite some time.

Nicole’s short story, “The Young Painters,” is about a woman who goes to a dinner party at her friend’s home in New York. As she’s preparing to leave the party, she notices a painting hanging in her friend’s home that she can’t resist asking about. Her friend tells a tragic story of the painting’s history–one that involved the gruesome death of two of his childhood friends. The story haunts her after that night–and as a writer, she eventually ends up using the story and embellishing it for a piece she publishes in a magazine. Despite her success with the story, she can’t shake the guilt she feels for using her friend’s real life history (she never asked his permission or told him it was being published), and struggles with the issue of a writer’s prerogative. Is it OK for her to take the story and add her own details? He did, after all, tell the story in front of a host of party guests. And it’s a work of fiction. Then why does she feel a wave of adrenaline come over her when she stumbles into her friend years later? I’ll let you read the story for yourself to find out what happens 🙂

But I wanted to explore this issue of a writer’s rights. Do you think what the writer in the story did was OK? How would you feel if it were your own story unknowingly published in a major magazine? I really don’t know how to answer the question. I was trained in journalism, not fiction–so I’m having major ethical qualms with taking someone’s story without asking them, telling them, or verifying the facts. On the other hand, I think it’s probably safe to assume that most works of fiction are adapted from some story the author heard somewhere. I don’t have an answer right now, but look forward to exploring this more.

What do you think? Have you ever written a story of fiction based on people you know in real life? Did you ask their permission?

P.S. Stephen told me that a friend of his refuses to read any blog that doesn’t incorporate a picture–so I’m going to do my best to have visual aids whenever possible!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Farnam permalink
    August 13, 2010 12:37 pm

    I was so looking forward to telling you that you misspelled prerogative. After so many humiliating scrabble fiascos, I was certain this was my time to point out an oops on you. Alas, turns out I not only can’t spell the word correctly, I don’t even pronounce it correctly.

    Maybe someone will write a short story about the humiliations of man forced to live his life with the misguided idea that he can spell words correctly most of the time when in fact he’s working on about 75% accuracy.

    As for the writer’s dilemma, I say make it fiction, not a documentary. Fictionalize the story, don’t take it word for word. If this did not happen a lot, I think there would be little interesting fiction written.

  2. Tracy Everbach permalink
    August 14, 2010 2:58 pm

    This is a fascinating quandary. My gut instinct is that it is ethically wrong to appropriate someone else’s story without telling that person. He may have told the story in front of a group of people, but it was not in public and he is not a public figure. He had a reasonable expectation that his story would remain his own. If the author profited at all from this work, I think she should share it with her former friend. I would say the same if she had reported as a journalist. It would be ethically wrong for her to take a story told at a private party (not a public event) and write a news story about it, unless the person was a public figure of some sort. The law is clear that unless one willingly thrusts oneself into the public eye (or posts something on Facebook-ha), a person has an expectation of privacy.
    P.S. Your brother is funny. (Dan is your brother, right?)

    • August 14, 2010 11:48 pm

      That was my gut instinct too. It’s very subtle, but troubling for some reason. Something about taking advantage of a person’s assumed privacy for secret personal gain seems wrong to me. Thanks for weighing in!

      Oh, and Dan is my dad. 🙂

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