Writers are Thieves--When Do They Go Too Far?

Jan 16, 2019

When writing the fiction of violence, Katrin Schumann finds that there are no easy answers about how to get it right. This article first appeared in CrimeReads.

Years ago in a writing workshop in San Francisco, a lanky middle-aged student sitting next to me held his pages in trembling fingers. He began to read aloud a story about a body found in the trunk of a car. As he read, we all listened attentively, drawn in at first by the obvious questions: who was this woman and what had happened to her? We were trying to learn to become better writers. But as he kept going, we began squirming in our seats.

He had gone too far. It no longer felt like a story, instead it felt like the worst kind of exploitation. The lingering on details, the lack of plot development, the too-narrow perspective. While writing my debut novel, The Forgotten Hours—a psychological exploration of the aftermath of a crime—I often thought back to that moment. I wondered: when writing fiction based on a violent act, when does it become voyeuristic? As a writer, how can you entice and compel readers on such sensitive topics without manipulating or offending them? How much detail makes the story feel vivid and visceral, and how much is simply too much, making it seem lurid? And, anyway—do writers even have the right to fictionalize painful stories that we ourselves did not experience directly, or are we co-opting someone else’s suffering for our own selfish pursuit of publication and success?

Writers often don’t have much control over the themes that come to obsess them. That’s what happened to me; despite a strong aversion to tackling a topic that seemed radioactive, I could not let this story go. My novel centers on a young woman, Katie Gregory, trying to find out whether her father is guilty of the crime for which he has been convicted: sexually assaulting her best friend. She deeply believes in his innocence. I would have far preferred to write about something lighter and less controversial. But I had ideas in my head that I could not let go of: that loyalty is not always good, that a daughter’s love can be both justified and myopic, and that our instinct toward assigning blame needs to be examined.

While I never experienced the kind of crime portrayed in my book, I did witness two close friends become embroiled in legal proceedings around separate assault and consent charges—each on polar opposites of the spectrum. Empathetic to the pain on both sides, at turns protective and angry, I was driven to explore and encapsulate that confusion in my book. But during the countless days I spent reading devastating statistics on assault, poring over books about psychopaths and survivors, visiting courtrooms and prisons, I often wondered why I was subjecting myself to this particular material.


After Roxana Robinson wrote the novel Sparta, about a young male Iraq war veteran suffering from PTSD, she was questioned about the validity of “taking literary possession” of someone else’s trauma. “Fiction writers aren’t in this for the money, since most of us don’t make any money,” Robinson wrote. “So what are we doing, messing about in other people’s lives?”

While laboring to complete my novel, I was also working hard to convince myself that I had a right to the story, and as my characters developed and changed and made important decisions to reclaim their agency, I began believing that my work could do some good in the world; if I could break through the silence and shine a light on pain that is too often invisible or ignored, it would be a worthy achievement.

Robinson wrote about this particular struggle: “If [writers are] lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but which passes through us. If we’re lucky, it will be a note that reverberates and expands, one that other people will hear and understand.” But to achieve such lofty goals, I needed to work with my material on a psychological and emotional level, unlike the writing student who had repelled us with his single-note perspective.

When writers seek to write thoughtfully and compellingly about violence and its aftermath, we must figure out how to do two important things. First, create complex and nuanced characters that avoid all-too easy stereotyping. This means evoking empathy for sometimes unlikeable characters, and also portraying victims with clarity and compassion while avoiding a slide into pity. Second, writers must strive to create a sense of verisimilitude and accuracy—both in terms of the law and the experience itself—that supports rather than overshadows the emotional journey which gives the writing its depth and meaning.

Emma Cline’s novel The Girls takes the most infamous, lurid, true-crime story of the Flower Power era and turns it into fiction, delving into Charles Manson’s female coterie, and exploring what might have led to them participate in the Sharon Tate murders. Rolling Stone wrote that Cline has a special “ability to make dread feel gorgeous, even pleasurable.” What is it that makes her descriptions of delusion and obsession thought-provoking, even enjoyable, rather than unbearable? The attention she gives to the complex psychology of her heroine elevates her material from gossipy to profound. Cline coaxes the reader into identifying with the deeply flawed yet relatable Evie by immersing us in her thinking and allowing us to form an emotional connection. We may hate Evie’s choices, but we understand how she arrives at them. In this way Cline challenges us to look at a story we think we know, and view it through an entirely different lens. As Robinson says, “Empathy is the opposite of exploitation.”

In The Forgotten Hours, I similarly ask readers to take a journey with a character they suspect might be deluding herself. Instead of pointing fingers or assigning blame, I seek to investigate human psychology: our desperate need to believe people are who we think they are, our fear of change, the fragile yet unceasing urge that drives us toward love and community. As writers, we are searching for a certain kind of truth—one that is messy and real. “You want very much to think you have the strength and rhetorical resources to put this true thing you’ve seen on the page without making it less, without killing it,” explains Gabriel Tallent, author of My Absolute Darling. His novel about a teenager struggling to break free from her abusive, survivalist father became an instant bestseller, but many were taken aback by the violence and questioned whether—as a thirty-something male—he had the right to adopt the voice of an abused teenage girl. “What I tried to do was bring my own vantage point,” he explained, “I tried to say things I knew to be true.”

So if psychological nuance and an honest attempt at expressing a truth as we see it are necessary to give heft and purpose to a piece of fiction based on gruesome or painful subject matter, then the accuracy with which writers describe these experiences gives that work its backbone. Doing our research shows respect for those who have experienced these challenges first hand—the veterans, the abuse survivors, the families of murder victims. But what does this mean in practical terms? While Roxana Robinson never fought in Fallujah or suffered from PTSD, she spoke with dozens of people who have. While my own father has never been accused of a crime (at least not that I know of), I too have done my research, poring over court transcripts in poorly-heated backrooms, so I could absorb the institutional feel of the place, so the flutter in my chest as I passed through the metal detectors could bind me with my protagonist. I consulted with a judge and researched sentencing guidelines. I taught writing in prisons in order to look convicted criminals in the eye and hear their stories, see them as human beings. As writers we must listen deeply, and in doing so, we absorb and reflect and synthesize.

Like actors, writers put themselves in other people’s shoes. It is in our natures to observe the world closely, to question motivation and action, and to play with language in an attempt to express a truth. When we listen carefully, conveying our stolen stories with precision of detail and feeling, we do a service to those who have suffered by processing their experience through the fictional lens. Our silence on difficult topics achieves nothing.

It’s interesting that writers so often tackle subjects that put them at considerable risk of lawsuits, hate mail, or accusations of exploitation. I did it—and suspect others do, too—because writing was the way I worked through my own turmoil about what had happened to my friends, and what my friends may or may not have done. But beyond this, meaningful fiction aspires to make connections, to bring people closer to understanding one another. For me as a reader, the most satisfying novels are ones that challenge me to reflect deeply on my own life choices and assumptions. Being given access to a fresh perspective allows me to see my own life and the world differently, as well as process my experiences. As a writer, I want to offer readers the same opportunity to stretch their minds and challenge their assumptions. By definition, writers are thieves, but if we mean well and try our best, we must be pardoned.