Academic journal article Style

Making, Taking, and Faking Lives: The Ethics of Collaborative Life Writing

Academic journal article Style

Making, Taking, and Faking Lives: The Ethics of Collaborative Life Writing

Article excerpt

Whose book is this?

- Malcolm X

Although issues of literary ethics may arise in any genre, ethical dilemmas seem to be built into collaborative life writing in ways peculiar to it.(1) With fiction, ethical criticism is usually concerned with issues of meaning and of reception: in the simplest terms, does the text have beneficial or harmful effects on its audience? But nonfiction generally and life writing specifically raise other concerns. Indeed, although Wayne Booth limits his scope to fiction in The Company We Keep, he asks key questions that are perhaps even more compelling for life writing than for fiction: e.g., "What Are the Author's Responsibilities to Those Whose Lives Are Used as 'Material'" (130), "What Are the Author's Responsibilities to Others Whose Labor Is Exploited to Make the Work of Art Possible?" (131), and "What Are Responsibilities of the Author to Truth?" (132). With collaborative life writing, especially, ethical concerns begin with the production of the narrative and extend to the relation of the text to the historical record of which it forms a part.

Ethical issues may be particularly acute in collaborative autobiography because it occupies an awkward niche between more established, more prestigious forms of life writing. On one side is solo autobiography, in which the writer, the narrator, and the subject (or protagonist) of the narrative are all the same person; at least, they share the same name.(2) On the other side is biography, in which the writer and narrator are one person, while the subject is someone else.(3) In the middle, combining features of the adjacent forms-and thus challenging the common-sense distinction between them - is as-told-to autobiography, in which the writer is one person, but the narrator and subject are someone else.(4) The ethical difficulties of collaborative autobiography are rooted in its nearly oxymoronic status; the single narrative voice - a simulation by one person of the voice of another - is always in danger of breaking, exposing conflicts of interest that are not present in solo autobiography. Although the process by which the text is produced is dialogical, the product is monological; the two voices are permitted to engage in dialogue only in supplementary texts - forewords and afterwords - and even there, the dialogue is managed and presented by one party, the nominal author. Insofar as the process is admitted into the narrative, then, it is exclusively in supplementary texts, and generally as a chapter of the writer's life. Though critics are not in a position to mandate disclosure of the process, fuller disclosure is likely to reflect a more ethical collaboration; such disclosure is certainly rhetorically effective, insofar as it suggests that the nominal author has nothing to hide.

Autobiographical collaborations are rather like marriages and other domestic partnerships(5): partners enter into a relationship of some duration, they "make life" together, and they produce an offspring that will derive traits from each of them. Each partner has a strong interest in the fate of that offspring, which will reflect on each in a different way. Much of this is true of any collaborative authorship, of course; with autobiography, however, the fact that the joint product is a life story raises the stakes - at least. for the subject. It is easy enough to articulate ethical principles that should govern the production of collaborative autobiography. The fundamental one might be a variant of the Golden Rule: do unto your partner as you would have your partner do unto you. Thus, autobiographical collaborations should be egalitarian; neither partner should abuse or exploit the other. Given the subject's stake in the textual product, a corollary principle would be that the subject should always have the right to audit and edit the manuscript before publication. As we shall see, however, in some circumstances, this is easier said than done. …

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