Indrani’s Inkblot

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Image of inkblot: Unsplash, Nicolas Thomas@nicholasthomas

‘But my dear man, reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know.’ Alan Watts, British philosopher.

The Rorschach inkblot is no longer used as a test for some mental health conditions and younger generations who have never used a fountain pen may wonder what an inkblot is, but I think it is still a powerful metaphor for how each of us views reality through our own cultural and personal lenses.

Some may argue that this understanding is irrelevant for those who write fiction (‘it’s just a story’), others that for conscientious writers, fiction, fact and ethics are inextricably linked.

The word fiction derives from the Latin word ‘fictio’ meaning the act of shaping’ and defined as a piece of work which derives completely from the imagination of the writer. It is often perceived as being totally opposed to factual writing, : ‘Fiction is made out of nothing and on the other hand non-fiction comes out of something’.[2]

A second debate centres around the relationship between fiction and ethics/morality. Those who accept this dichotomy of fact and fiction argue that the issue of ethics and morality is also irrelevant for fiction as it represents a totally imaginary world with no bearing on reality.

This was not the view in the 19th century when fiction was regarded by the moral police as promoting unrealistic expectations of life or even immoral thoughts and behaviours.

‘[Novel reading] cascades people into useless outcomes, obsesses them with unnecessary passions, while providing a distorted view of life.’[3]

Oscar Wilde on the other hand wrote in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book… ‘Books are well written or badly written. That is all.’ His sentiments are supported by Milan Kundera, ‘A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality’[4].

Contemporary writers like Ron Hansen believe the first principle of the fiction writers should be ‘to do no harm’.[5] Similarly Musavi writes ‘fiction must be fair, honest and accurate’  and that ‘even if a writer is writing only to provide comfort and relief to [the] readers, … [the] work still should be factually accurate. Facts are the scaffolding on which the lies of fiction rest’. [6]

There is some research demonstrating that people may regard fiction as accurate representations of reality. In some cases, it may create or exacerbate negative perceptions of a particular group, culture or society. In others reading fiction contributes to a person’s moral psychological development and their ability to have empathy or understanding.   ‘

The issue of ethical writing has been keenly debated in many fields such as fictional narratives about specific communities or societies, debates on cultural appropriation, historical fiction, fiction drawing on one’s family and friends and children’s fiction. I don’t have the space to expand on these but will come back to them in future iterations of Inkblot.

Here’s what I’ve learnt are some essential principles of ethical writing.

  1. The first rule is to do your homework. Find a way to get information about the community that you’re trying to portray from a source that isn’t biased. This can be everything from reading books by writers from the culture you’re trying to portray to actually talking to people from a particular community or society.
  • Always acknowledge the sources of your ideas! As someone once said, we all know Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ many ideas but we are not Shakespeare!
  • Try to be aware of bias. All writers are influenced by their own cultural and personal lens.
  • Recognize you don’t always know what you don’t know. Doing the necessary research will often make us aware we have a lot to learn.
  • Get feedback from as many people from different backgrounds as you can. This will help to apply the first four principles.
  • Accept that negative feedback if done in a constructive way, is a good way to improve your writing.
  • Lastly always think of how you would like others to write about you, your family, community or culture! To quote the soul-stirring song by Elvis Presley:

Walk a mile in my shoes huh

Walk a mile in my shoes

Yeah, before you abuse, criticize and accuse

Walk a mile in my shoes.[7]


[1] Image of inkblot: Unsplash, Nicolas Thomas@nicholasthomas  

[2] http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/difference-between-fiction-and-non-fiction/

[3] Quoted in https://slgtalkingbooks.com/2017/09/18/the-dangers-of-fiction/

[4] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/milan_kundera_152276

[5] https://ethicsofwriting.com/2018/10/are-there-ethical-norms-in-fiction-writing/

[6] Farhan Musavi, Should Fiction Be Factually Accurate, https://www.huffingtonpost.in/farhan-musavi/should-fiction-be-factual_b_7930070.html?ncid=other_email_o63gt2jcad4&utm_campaign=share_email

[7] Lyrics by Joe South, sung by Elvis Presley.

This article was first published in SCOPE, Fellowship of Australian Writers Queensland, April/May 2021

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