You didn't know this was Ethics Week here at Crimespace, did you?

Okay, so far we've examined the ethics of practices that might interfere with authors making money. (I admit to being utterly bemused by worrying about losing a sale instead of losing a culture of readers, but I digress.)

Let's turn our attention to something else: Is it ethical to make entertainment (and money) out of the suffering of others?

Let's propose a scenario: You're giggling with a friend at a cafe about ways to kill people and a woman at the next table leaves in furious tears because her sister had been murdered and she's upset and offended that you think it's so damn funny. How do you respond?

Or - you write a bestseller inspired by the headlines about the war on terror in which your intrepid hero battles the odds to thwart another attack on US soil and, the day after the movie based on your book is released you grab your newspaper from your porch, flip to the entertainment section, and are delighted to see it's number one at the box office. Yes! Then you glance at the front page and find an angry crowd set fire to a local mosque.

We often say crime fiction satisfies people's yearning for justice. It also apparently satisfies a yearning for vicarious and painless violence that has a happy ending. Is it ethical to make money by exploiting that fascination for violence and providing a false sense of resolution?

Please discuss these matters at your earliest convenience.

Yr. most humble servant,
Lucy Fer, J.D.
Devil's Advocate

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We often say crime fiction satisfies people's yearning for justice. It also apparently satisfies a yearning for vicarious and painless violence that has a happy ending. Is it ethical to make money by exploiting that fascination for violence and providing a false sense of resolution?

Well...depends on how it's handled. One way you're Shakespeare, the other you're Nancy Grace. Overall, though, it's fiction. But to use your example, Barbara -- I don't think a thriller writer is responsible for a mosque bombing any more than a heavy-metal band that sings about suicide is responsible when a screwed-up teenager shoots himself in the head and leaves a Pee-chee folder scrawled with the band's lyrics as his suicide note.

Tangentially related: I think the reason that some people reacted so very passionately about the last 10 minutes of The Sopranos is that they were denied just what you're talking about. Their expectation for some ultra-violence and their expectation of resolution were both denied. Of course, the second wasn't entirely true, but people's expectations were confounded, and the result was fury.
Yeah, Bill did that in King Lear. Pissed me off. ("She lives! oops, she's a goner. Hey, but wait, I think ... oh, maybe not. Hey, she's breathing...!" Will somebody give that old man a sedative?)

Like you, I can't buy blaming an article of popular culture for violent acts; that's a very slippery slope, and causation is too complex. But still, I think if you're going to use people's emotional response to make things happen in a story, I think it's only ethical to try to get it right. If you're merely feeding an appetite for excitement by using, say, a social scapegoat, then I think you should consider the effect on the scapegoat.

Earlier this week I heard Tracy Kidder speak. He mostly writes non fiction (plus a few short stories). He mentioned at some point that an editor once told him "you have to make some things big and other things small" as you decide how to shape a book and choose what to focus on. A student in the audience asked if that was honest. Kidder said that writers always have to make choices, but a good writer is guided by an urge to get at the truth - even in fiction.

And it can have consequences. Harriet Beecher Stowe's popular fiction had an impact on the civil war. The big bestseller before Uncle Tom's Cabin was The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (supposedly a memoir but essentially fiction); it was seen as a justification for burning Catholic convents. If we're going to say books can do good, we have to recognize they can do the opposite.

I wouldn't push it legally, though, since I'm fond of the concept of free speech.
Is it ethical for a defense attorney who knows her/his client is guilty to instill reasonable doubt and help put a miscreant back on the street?
Is it ethical for a police force to focus on one suspect to the exclusion of others, when the perpetrator may be in that group?
Is it ethical for a writer to exploit human misery to sell books?
As Lenny Bruce once said, "The Lone Ranger and Jonas Salk made their reputations from human misery."
Although I loathe rap music, I am sympathetic to the claim that it doesn't cause human misery, but just reports on it. There are paintings of the crucifixion. Do they exploit misery?
The sorry history of humanity is replete with savagery and horror. If you don't like it, avert your eyes. It will be there anyway, you just won't have to deal with it.
a) Yes. A defense attorney needs to provide the best possible defense because our system depends on it; he or she is defending our system of justice as much as the client.

b) No. The job of the police is to find out who committed a crime and to support the prosecution of that person by obtaining evidence to do so. Most cops are far more interested in putting the right person in jail than they are in making a case against someone who may not be guilty. (I'm less sure about prosecutors, since it's their job to make a case and they work with what they've got.)

c) It depends. If the purpose of the writer is to sell books, entertain readers, and in so doing sheds some light on the savagery and horror we're capable of, then it's not unethical. If the writer is totally uninterested in reality, but invents some horror and savagery that sheds no light on anything (except perhaps, inadvertently, the pleasure we take in horror and savagery) then I'd say it isn't ethical. Not that I'm saying they shouldn't write those books; I'm just not interested in reading them.
These questions were rhetorical, but thanks for the answers anyway. I was trying to indicate that common perception of ethical behavior may be at odds with reality.
Everyone is entitled to a defense, even O.J. and Dick Cheney.
And, writers should be able to write about anything, regardless of how upsetting or tasteless the content is. The only cure for the problems of free speech is more free speech.
D'oh! I thought it was a quiz :o)

I agree on free speech. And if Lucy Fer files any lawsuits, she ain't getting any amicus brief outta me.
There are paintings of the crucifixion. Do they exploit misery?

It's a matter of interpretation. The crucifixion (as in the crucifixion if Christ) is about the ultimate sacrifice, someone choosing to die in your place. It is a reminder of the price of sin and (according to Christian beliefs) the depth of God's love for mankind.

However, I consider it quite different than listening to someone in a victim support group describe their feelings about being raped and using that in my latest book.
That's a mixed batch. I'll just comment on a few:
I'm not sure what is meant by a writer exploiting misery. The writer may have a high and noble purpose. Not everyone does this to sell books. As a rule, you can tell who does.
The bit about rap music is the usual apologetic crap. As we have learned the "artists" do a good deal more than report crime. They live it.
And the crucifixion teaches about suffering, sacrifice, evil and good, and -- if you believe -- about salvation. The depictions of the crucifixion are meant to help people deal with their own pain.
The sorry history of mankind is absolutely full of horror. We should never avert our eyes. But we should also see the wonders of human achievement in the past.
If it's about their violence and bloodlust and that's what drives them to read, isn't it fueling the fire? Why do we consider porn gateway material, and suspect when found in the possession of convicted pedophiles? Cops don't say, "Oh good, he's just looking at kids instead of touching them."

Such a line of reasoning also presumes people read to vicariously kill/rape/commit crimes.
I don't write crime fiction so people can release their urges to do violence. I hope I write it in part so that I (and perhaps readers) can figure out some of their responses to violence. I also hope I tell a story in a way that is entertaining.

Do you consider poetry's job to be aesthetically pleasing, but not to have any particular purpose beyond that? Does crime fiction have a different purpose than poetry? (I'm not asking that rhetorically; I'm really curious what you think.)
Oh, I get it--this Devil's Advocacy thing is strictly a one-way street.

Said who? We're not allowed to raise points about your points in the discussion? That sounds to me like it's being suggested the conversation ends with your point... either because you're beyond question or because... I don't know why. But why join in in a discussion is you don't want people to engage you? Cheers, then.

Barbara: Poetry can be soul food. I say 'can be' because not all poetry speaks to all people, but it captures the essence of human emotions and insights and speaks to me in a different way than other forms of writing. Perhaps it is the ability of a poet to convey in a few words a keen insight, its quotable nature, that separates it. And of course, as someone fascinated with communication theory, I'd advocate 'the medium is the message'. Poetry, by its form, lends itself to concepts, values and sentiments. Books, by their form, lend themselves to stories and in-depth analysis. That's not hard and fast, it's just touching on a superficial example of why one thing is more suited to certain content than another.

Or, as Neil Postman put it on page 7 of Amusing Ourselves To Death:

"Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complext to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axion. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content."
Mmm, soul food...

Wait, you meant that kind ...

I think both formats lend themselves to making meaning, differently.

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