Publication Details

Shady Cosgrove, WRIT101: Ethics of Representation for Creative Writers, Pedagogy, 9(1), Winter 2009, 134-141. Published by Duke University Press.


Medicine, journalism, law: these are courses that require students to take classes in ethics. They are compulsory subjects in areas where, upon graduation, students are trained to work with “real” human subjects. It may sound outlandish, but what about creative writing: should creative writers be expected to study the ethical implications of their craft? Certainly many teachers incorporate dialogue about representation into class discussions, but I would argue that prose fiction writers in the academy have escaped scrutiny in the ethics debate because the subjects under analysis — characters — are not real. I will argue here that the effects of these characters (and indeed other aspects of narrative) can be quite real to readers and, due to literary history’s privileging of realism, it is imperative to the craft that students consider an ethics of representation. In an attempt to tease out this issue, I will discuss notions of truth in fiction, the role of creative writing within the higher education context, and, finally, practical strategies teachers can use to bring discussions of representation into the prose fiction classroom. I subscribe to the Collins Australian dictionary definition of ethics as “the philosophical study of the moral value of human conduct and of the rules and principles that ought to govern it”; however, this is not an essay on ethics per se, but rather on how discussions of representation and practice can be incorporated into the classroom. I take the literary academic Jane Donahue Eberwein (1981: 606) as a starting point when she says, “Great books allow us to confront the problem of failure, the anxieties evoked by change, the ambiguity of moral choices.” I wonder: if creative writing programs are training students with the hope some of them may write “great books” that allow such confrontation, how do we as writers and academics ensure they can thoughtfully negotiate issues of representation?



Link to publisher version (DOI)