When I set out to write A Walk Across the Sun--a novel addressing the international sex trade in young women and girls--I expected readers unfamiliar with the topic to respond with shock and outrage. Are there really places in the world, indeed, in the United States, where underage girls are held captive by pimps and traffickers and serially raped by ordinary men for extraordinary profit?
In addition, I expected--actually, hoped--that readers confronting the reality of human trafficking for the first time (or in a new way) would ask a follow-up question: What can we as a society do to stop it?
I did not, however, anticipate that my novel would generate much controversy. After all, child traffickers have few friends outside the underworld. Thus, I was quite taken aback when a reviewer for USAToday.com posed the following question about my book: "How different is a novel that relies on the abuse of children for its 'entertainment value' from a predator who exploits them for sex?"
Setting aside the obvious chasm between a story John Grisham called "beautiful" and a predator profiting off the rape of children, I think the reviewer's question posits a corollary worth addressing. Is there a point where the artistic depiction of violence against children becomes complicit in that violence? Is there an ethical line in fiction between realism that reveals and sensationalism that exploits?
As a novelist, I am convinced that such a line exists and that we storytellers have an obligation to stay on the right side of it. Stories have a profound power to shape the moral imagination of their audience, and we who wield this power should be held accountable.
The problem, of course, lies in drawing the boundary. I can think of many stories in literature and film that expose moral evil without compounding it. Take, for example, The Brothers Karamozov and Uncle Tom's Cabin in literature and Schindler's List and Traffic in film. Along with offering a real degree of (dare I say it?) entertainment value, these stories serve one of the indispensable purposes of art: to reveal the hidden forces of ugliness in society--in effect, to speak truth to power. Conversely, I can think of stories (mostly in pulp novels and horror films) that use grisly acts of violence to titillate the audience, and by that serve to glorify the very evils they depict.
Some might object that the spectrum I have described is nothing more than a matter of taste, and that ethics have no place in evaluating art. The suggestive power of storytelling, however, convinces me otherwise.
Notwithstanding the effective collapse of obscenity prosecutions in the U.S., the concept of obscenity still has moral significance to most people. Following in the footsteps of the philosophers, courts have never struggled to admit its existence; rather, their trouble has been in defining it, leading Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to pen one of the most famous lines in American jurisprudence: "I know it when I see it."
The same, unfortunately, is true about the line between stories that expose and stories that exploit. Storytelling cannot be judged according to bright-line rules. It is a sphere that must be governed by the good sense of the storyteller, as informed by feedback from an ethically sensitive audience.
In conceiving A Walk Across the Sun, I struggled much with the tension between honesty and excess. I wanted to bring my readers face-to-face with child trafficking, but I did not want to overwhelm them with it. As I wrote each scene, I was careful to avoid depictions that would either brutalize the reader or appeal to the prurient interest.
Ironically, my care in this regard has generated the (mild) objection that I was not revealing enough. From the Winnipeg Free Press: "A Walk Across the Sun is an effective and readable book, perhaps because it cannot present an adequately repulsive picture of the degradation inflicted on its victims."
And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "[Addison's] reticence for graphic details leads to scenes that almost look the other way -- doors close on the violence, cries are muffled, threats of more sinister punishment remain threats -- but he is understandably gentle: These are children, even after they've been introduced to X-rated lives."
My brief experience as a novelist has confirmed for me that questions of ethics are both inherent in, and necessary to, the art of storytelling. And these questions are no more pressing than when a storyteller decides to tackle an issue of profound moral significance, such as the forced prostitution of women and girls.
However uncomfortable I might find the scrutiny, it is proper for my audience to evaluate my novel on the spectrum between revelation and exploitation, and to criticize me if I descend into sensationalism.
But morality in art is a two-way street. My critics have their own ethical question to address: The question of fairness.