Do you have to be you? N M Browne
So this month I’ve mainly been thinking about Brexit but I’m not going to talk about that. My other obsession has been fake news, social media outrage, and identity politics. I’ve been pondering the way in which writing and the nature of the writer has some how become entwined. I blame Trump for most things but, not in this case, for everything.
To get one important thing out of the way: at the moment we only get to hear the stories written by certain types of people and it is my belief is that such a limitation restricts us, that we can only gain as a culture and as humans by hearing as many stories from as wide a range of people as possible. I wholeheartedly believe that there should be greater diversity in the arts.
Having said that, I don’t believe that we can only tell stories that are based on our culture and identity. I mean Shakespeare was probably a man, but Portia, Juliet, Lady Macbeth are not insignificant figures, Emma Bovary, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, would not have been written if writers were not free to explore what it might be like to be other than themselves. Sometimes this imaginative freedom produces incredible characters. The very best writers can express themselves in stories that transcend their own experience even as they are suffused with it. Let's not stop this. Let's accept that creativity shouldn't have boundaries, and artists are supposed to challenge, subvert and generally piss people off.
Yes, writers can get it wrong. I have read too many female characters that are men-minus (any redeeming feature) or men plus (boobs,) we all have. Crude cultural appropriation abounds, as does stereotyping of all kinds. Some of us cannot transcend who we are. Perhaps we fail to do the research, listen or learn so write really bad books. Does that make it wrong to try? Can only women write about women, BAME writers about BAME characters, gay writers only write about gay characters? For me that is a kind of censorship of the imagination which fundamentally misunderstands the function of fiction. It is our capacity to imagine being something other than ourselves that is the basis of empathy, of creativity, of art and culture.
Of course books are multi-layered: there is the story the writer wants us to see, the narrative they think they are writing, and beneath that the story they don’t know they are writing, the story of their own beliefs and prejudices. It is perfectly reasonable to be aware of that. Our own point of view always lies beneath the one that narrates the story. Quite often they are at odds, like Amber Rudd wanting to be anti- racist and coming out with the word ‘coloured’ to describe a black MP. The world view of her upbringing leaked into the story she wanted to tell: I understand the furore, but as a writer I know it happens to everyone. We all come from somewhere and that place is usually an alien one to much of the rest of the world.
Right now there is veritable blitz of criticism of writers, particularly YA writers, who are trying to tell other people’s stories and may be misrepresenting ethnic groups or misappropriating culture – twitter is awash with it and such criticisms can end careers. Some of it comes from young people, some of it from people who want to protect the young from the complexity of prejudice, the intractable problem of being part of a deeply divided society. It is part of a climate of rage and as there's a lot of injustice around, rage is a perfectly reasonable response to it.
However, I think we need to step back. All writers are flawed; we all come from somewhere and my somewhere isn't your somewhere and that is kind of the point. I don't think that is shocking. We should shout it from the roof tops, broadcast in on the covers of our books: 'This book is written by a person whose views you may not like.' Readers should know that up front. We shouldn’t bay for blood and the banning of books, question the moral worth of an author, and demand their eternal damnation, instead we should interrogate the book, accept that every story is freighted with the author’s viewpoint, acknowledge that, evaluate it and move on. We should stop criticising, shrilly and immoderately and instead be more critical.
Literature and the other arts demand that we recognise subtlety, that we search out meaning, that we are critical of the means and the method even as we are seduced by stories (and let us always be seduced by stories.) It is how we learn to hone our critical skills.
So, let’s turn down the ad hominem outrage and instead teach our young readers to be alert to prejudice and bias wherever they find it, to consider a story's viewpoint, its implicit values and its explicit intent so they are armed for the complexity of this messed-up world. We need to help them distinguish between fake news and the real thing, shallow propaganda and good literature. The latter is not supposed to be simple, it is often uncomfortable, and it should always challenge our own perception that the only truth is our own.