Emily Brontë wasn’t incestuous, Faulkner wasn’t racist, Nabokov wasn’t a paedophile – debate sounds familiar?
Writers of literary fiction have always faced the issue of people assuming their views are their characters’, because readers are often reading critically, trying to find flaws. If a character or persona is flawed, so must the author then be. This is old news. Of course authors aren’t the same as their characters. But in saying that, this brings a new problem to the table for writers, possibly more controversial today than ever.
“Great writers” have often poured their own selves into the fiction they’ve written, so now it’s assumed that “great writing” has parts of the author and their world. That’s what makes the writing believable, authentic. Yet the writer needs distance from the character, otherwise their characters are just them. This is a delicate balance, different for all writers – and the balance comes loaded. Enter one of literature’s biggest debates. To “write what you know,” “write who you are”.
What’s easy: a Jewish person writing a Jewish character to bring light to Jewish race politics. Great. This is an empowerment of minority voices, it’s authentic; if written well then it’s written well. This is happening across the board, not just in writing, but in the Arts – real minority and survivor representation is thriving. More perspectives are being heard. More creative visions are being seen. Supposedly, this creates more progress in the Arts, but this is a double-edged sword.
What happens when writers reject the “write what you know” mantra? Fiction is fiction after all, surely that’s allowed. But the line between appropriating cultures’/ victims’ stories and plain old self-censorship is a thin, moving and contested squiggle.
What’s debated: a non-Jewish person writing Jewish race politics from a Jewish character’s perspective. Is that cultural appropriation? And, follow up question, if they do write these race politics, is it still an empowerment of Jewish voices in light of the character, or is it silencing Jewish voices in light of the author? Really, think about an answer. Then ask where we should draw the line. Does it change with a Black person writing a White story? Vice versa? Can we write queer characters, characters outside our gender, poor or disabled characters if we aren’t in their demographic?
Most writers will answer yes, but do so authentically, or in a humane way. Don’t make the Jewish character greedy, for instance. But can the non-Jewish writer ever understand Jewish politics from the Jewish person, let alone depict them, or is their writing just a projection, complex and empathetic as it may try to be? The same question goes for men writing feminism, nepotists writing rags-to-riches, Christians writing Muslim culture, the list goes on.
What I want to do here is not give you beautiful readers an answer, but rather bring to light this debate in whatever fiction you’re reading right now. How faithful to “reality” is your author in creating their worlds and characters; what liberties have they taken; what lines have they overstepped, if any? These thoughts are especially important because we currently have self-censorship taking up increasing consideration in our lives: think social media and the words “unalive”, “SA”, “ana”. While there are arguments for and against this censorship, there are more layers to it when discussing the boundaries of artistic expression. That which supposedly thrives when it remains uncensored, or minimally so.
So. How much can fiction be “fiction”; to what extent are writers allowed to hide behind the label before it gets touchy? Is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a Booker Finalist novel centring on childhood trauma and disability, stealing a victim and disabled story? Does that view change when she said she created her main character, Jude, without any research? What about Memoirs of a Geisha, a WWII Japanese historical novel written by American author Arthur Golden… with a master’s degree in Japanese History? Can we claim cultural appropriation, projection, orientalism, there? The debate becomes more complex when recognising intersectionality: a lesbian story is different to a lesbian story within an Asian cultural context, so is the White lesbian author, again, projecting? Is she to censor and put disclaimers on her art for cultural appropriation, or is she to dismiss the culture and write anyways? Which one constitutes better, more authentic art?
If your answers are “yes, all authors are telling stories best told by abuse victims, disabled people, Japanese writers and lesbian Asian authors,” then that follows on to the so-called literary canon. We shouldn’t treat the Greats differently because they’re established – that would mean then that “Yes. If Brontë wasn’t incestuous, Faulkner wasn’t racist and Nabokov wasn’t paedophilic, then Wuthering Heights is a phony depiction of incest, Faulkner should’nt’ve written Black characters, and Lolita isn’t a good discussion on sexual abuse.” We would have to concede that these works weren’t, and aren’t, politically correct enough.
We want you to decide: can stories only be told well if you have written what you’ve known? If not, then how much can authors write about before it’s offensive; if so, then how much “fiction” can we truly put into stories? Should fiction only be genre fiction, like fantasy; completely removed from political and social commentary? On the spectrum of “writers can do whatever they want” and “writers should only write what they know,” whatever stance you pick has implications for the novel you’re reading, the historical drama you’re watching, the canon you studied in high school.
Fiction is powerful, that’s the whole point. It’s unmatched at fostering empathy in people who otherwise might have less or no empathy for whoever character, whatever world they’re reading. That’s why fiction’s been used for propaganda, political change, great thought experiments, debates, controversies. It has implications for the non-fiction world, whether or not writers and readers want it to. Now, in the age of self-censorship, giving voices to the unheard, PC culture and the need to break business as usual – whose story is whose?
The Grapey Book Club would love to hear your thoughts – email us at grapeshot@ mq.edu.au