CHAPTER 11: The Ethics of Writing

CHAPTER 11: The Ethics of Writing

Writing has long been thought to be of therapeutic value and, in many ways, cathartic. I have found this to be true myself, but I also believe that the processes involved are some of the most powerful in the human experience, and, therefore, may also be destructive when used naively or cruelly. The power of the written word has its source in the forces that create the universe. I believe it has the power to transform human existence. It behooves us all, as writers, to be careful how we use this power.

Since much of the novelsmith’s inspiration comes from the collective unconscious and enters the story in the form of archetypes, it will be instructive to listen to what Carl Jung had to say about them and ethics:

In itself, an archetype is neither good nor evil. It is morally neutral, like the gods of antiquity, and becomes good or evil only by contact with the conscious mind, or else a paradoxical mixture of both. Whether it will be conducive to good or evil is determined, knowingly or unknowingly, by the conscious attitude.

In this way the work of the artist meets the psychic needs of the society in which he lives, and therefore means more than his personal fate, whether he is aware of it or not. Being essentially the instrument of his work, he is subordinate to it, and we have no right to expect him to interpret it for us.76

With this statement by Jung in mind, when all is said and done, the author must evaluate his work for moral content and revise it accordingly, realizing that in its genesis, the work was amoral. After learning that a boy used one of his novels as a model to kill one of his fellow students and hold his class hostage, Stephen King expressed regret that he’d ever written the novel. We, as conscious, moral human beings, must realize that every human act contains within it the connotation of ethics. An author is responsible for what he dumps into the world.

Years ago, I backed off from a horror novel I had started. Something just seemed wrong about it, although I do not believe all horror is bad, and even believe Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to be one of the most important works of modern times. We should all keep an evaluative eye on the spirit we serve.

This really reflects back to the contract the author makes with the reader as a part of the Grand Illusion, as discussed in the chapter on narration. Remember that the reader has suspended disbelief. For the reader, this is a state of innocence and ethical vulnerability. The author has a moral responsibility toward his reader since the reader has voluntarily disarmed himself. Of course, the reader also has a responsibility to himself to question the ethical stance of any story, whether fiction or non-fiction.

In ancient times, the Greeks believed that ingenuity came from an even older religion, that of the Titans, and even more specifically from rebellious Prometheus. The Zeus religion, which replaced that of the Titans, was based on wisdom, a higher form of consciousness. Wisdom carries with it the connotation of ethics, whereas ingenuity does not. Wisdom comes from a broader context that results from an ironic stance, a view of the subject matter from a higher perspective. The fact that irony carries with it a taste of the divine, as we discussed back in Chapter 5, indicates that this is where it starts to take on ethical connotations.

The author has already played his big cards in the beginning by the selection of Premise and narrative stance. At the end of the work, the novelsmith must assume a more adult role, and use what wisdom he can muster to control the ethical content of the work. Ultimately, Jung is correct: no one can tell what impact a work will have on the world, and the author must have a sort of faith that a higher order is involved.


(a) Write a paragraph on the morality or immorality of your Premise. (b) Make a list of the possible ways your novel could be interpreted morally. (c) Write a paragraph on why you believe the world will be a better place with the publication of your novel.