Of the Icebox

Words about stuff and sometimes things

Should fiction writers ‘write what they know’? — August 7, 2019

Should fiction writers ‘write what they know’?

There’s a common saying that writers like to tell one another, ‘write what you know.’ While this once meant something like, ‘don’t write a mystery novel if you’re the world’s leading expert on the history of chocolate unless your mystery novel includes a plotline about chocolate,’ it seems like it’s been taken a complicated (and literal) turn as of late with writers asking themselves, and each other, if it’s acceptable to write about experiences that they have never had.

If you’re not sure the context around this and you’re interested in reading more, these are some of the articles that have shaped my thinking on this topic:

On one level, we all acknowledge that fiction writers write fiction, right (tongue twister)? No one is saying that all fiction needs to become memoir. I also don’t think anyone believes you have to be a man to write believable male characters in your novel or, vice versa, you must be a woman to write female characters (except the die hards following @men_write_women). And I’m almost certain that even fewer people think you have to be, say, an immortal human to write about vampires.

Even though representations of women in male-authored novels have been, at times, appalling and showed a lack of understanding and possibly contributed to some degree of misogyny, I still don’t think we should ban men from giving it a try. For one, it’s the closest a man has ever gotten to wanting to know what it’s like to be a woman. And, more importantly, in the parallel universe where we take fiction to this n’th degree of separation, fiction doesn’t just become repressive and weird–fiction dies.

So we agree that men and women can write stories about each other, right? And that mere mortals can write books about immortals, right? I hope so. Otherwise, we need to start crowdsourcing letters to Nicolas Cage to encourage him to save Science Fiction. I predict he’ll do the job in 500 years when he has the self-satisfaction of knowing that none of us are alive to acknowledge he’s fulfilled our collective request.

But what about race? Can white authors write about non-white characters?

And what about sexual orientation? Can straight authors write LBGTQ+ characters? Can gender-binary authors write about non-binary characters?

And if they are allowed, must those characters be relegated to secondary roles? That is, could a straight, white author write about a black, gay protagonist? To me, this is when the conversation becomes much more complicated.

Consider the repercussions of a world in which we start stripping our fiction novels of everyone whose experience we haven’t lived or can’t perfectly depict. I don’t think we benefit from having sterilized, segregated literature: novels with all white characters, novels with all male characters, and novels with all straight characters. I’d like to see literature become more integrated, not less.

I, for one, don’t want to be afraid to write something that’s outside of my comfort zone. I don’t want to be driven into silence by fear of a bad response or missing the mark. I want to take risks and take solace in knowing that no reader in the history of reading ever died from being offended.

Maybe you’re thinking that, as a writer, sometimes we’re going to get it right and sometimes we’re going to get it wrong and we just have to accept that and apologize when we get it wrong. But writing, in my estimation, shouldn’t be about getting it right or getting it wrong. We’re not creating manifestos. (I certainly hope we aren’t, at least.) And writers shouldn’t have to apologize for depicting a character differently than the reader wanted it to be depicted.

Now, more than ever, given how connected writers are to their readers, writing presents an opportunity to exchange ideas. I’d like to propose that it’s possible, now, for writing to be an exercise in mutual learning instead of 1-sided preaching or teaching. I’d like to propose that YA readers don’t need a moral in their stories. That they can draw conclusions divergent from the protagonists without demanding that books be removed from shelves. To choose to write in this day and age is to choose to engage in a lifelong conversation with the reader and to hope that, at the end, we’ll all have achieved that magical place of symbiotic union I like to call a conversation.

Living in a world where sensitivity readers and trigger-warning happy college students demand changes to content is not conducive to a conversation. It’s a moral reprimand that shuts down all conversation. I sincerely believe the sensitivity readers of today want to build a better world (unless they’re actually secret Russian bots) but my Fahrenheit 451 senses are tingling at their methods.

If readers want to reshape the story, I encourage them to do what writers of all generations have done before them that wanted to reshape the conversation–pick up the pen, don’t burn the book.

Maya MacIsaac-Jones

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