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.


Susan Price said…
In the midst of so much madness, it's a relief to read something so full of sanity. Thanks.
'Nobody has the right not to be offended.' They can be offended, they can state forthrightly why they are offended, but they don't have the right NOT to be offended.

I'm reading a collection of stories by Algernon Blackwood, mostly written around 1911. So far I've been told about 'the intuition shared by women and children' and that 'women don't really think, they only reflect the thoughts of those around them.'

But if I refused to read the rest of his writing, I'd miss his deep appreciation of nature and his ability -- now and again -- to write a really superb ghost story.

So I blink a bit at some of his opinions, remind myself that he was writing over a hundred years ago and had a particular kind of upbringing -- and move on to the next story.

I just wish he didn't have so many representatives in our parliament...
Nicky said…
Yep - too many form the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century - not so many with a clue.
Griselda Heppel said…
It's really weird how this idea that writers should only be allowed to write about their own - inevitably limited - experience is taking hold. I thought we were supposed to use our imaginations? If only women should write about women, where does that leave children's books? Only to be written by children, I suppose. I totally agree that racial and gender stereotypes are unacceptable, but no one has yet been able to explain how the lack of BAME characters in books can be remedied if only BAME writers are allowed to write BAME characters.
I nearly dropped my cup of coffee recently when I heard Ralph Fiennes say in a radio interview that if Schindler's List were being made today, it would be wrong for the German characters to be played by anyone but Germans. So, ah, German actors are to be corralled into playing Nazis for their entire film career because no one else is allowed to? Seems a bit tough on them. To adapt Laurence Olivier's famous question to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man - Can't actors just try acting?
Umberto Tosi said…
Declaring arbitrarily that we must write within the confines of direct experience and stay in cultural lanes defined by birth smacks of just another way of telling writers to shut up. If they must speak, do so through assigned knotholes in the shabby fence meant to keep imaginations and ideas corraled. Cultural appropriation and exploitation do occure, of course, but they are generally obvious to all but the numbed, biased or ignorant. Everyone benefits when writers are free to write freely from all shades of minds and hearts as their visions dictate, constrained only by quality of their works. Excellent, thought provoking post!
Brava...such a well-argued post!
bronwengriff said…
A timely and relevant post. Thanks for this.

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