Ethics and Aesthetics: Trauma Narratives
Oct 06, 2017
One of my fellow colleagues, Cory Cotten-Potter, wrote a fantastic post this past spring entitled “Aesthetics and Worth in Writing,” which you can find here. The crux of his argument as I understand it is this: We at the Center for Literary Publishing see a wide variety of submissions cross our workstations and a handful of these make it into an edition of the Colorado Review. Those that don’t are no less worthy than their counterparts—it’s simply an aesthetical mismatch.
I’ve been reflecting recently on my approach to this process. Does a particular subcategory of writing test me in some way, alter my perception of its appeal? The answer is, of course, yes (otherwise, this would be a terribly boring blog post). I struggle with a nonpartisan evaluation of trauma narratives. In the past several weeks, I have read submissions about war and horrific physical injuries, debilitating ailments and incurable diseases, families shattered by divorce or marital infidelity, death and suicide, drug addiction and abuse, homophobia, transphobia, and so many other sources of trauma that I often find myself ruminating on these narratives well after my shift at the Center for Literary Publishing has ended.
Of course, these stories are frequently striking because of their subject matter, but also because they raise urgent ethical questions that we must consider as writers. Does a narrative depiction of a child grappling with two negligent parents somehow manipulate or mine that child’s suffering? Can we draw a line between a fictional portrayal and reality? Should we?
I’m not sure of the answers, and who am I to say what’s right and wrong? But personally, when I embark on a trauma narrative (which is the bulk of my writing at the moment, hence my intrigue), I challenge myself to delve into the physicality of experience, to honor suffering, to depict as accurately as possible the situation as I understand it. Why? Because I believe that trauma narratives have a responsibility to help readers sympathize with the characters and their circumstances, even if the readers are unable to empathize. This, to me, separates a good trauma narrative from an unscrupulous one.
Yes, trauma narratives can exploit trauma for the sake of exploitation. Is there value in that? Of course. There is some value in every type of writing, even if that value comes in the form of a lesson. This leads me back to where I began, although I have altered my initial question. How can I evaluate trauma narratives when they present such intricate moral dilemmas? The answer lies in the aesthetic of the Colorado Review—what works for the Colorado Review and what doesn’t. In this case, I evaluate these narratives based on a set criterion. In the real world, though, I’ll have to set my own.