Lionel Shriver and “Writing The Other”

Lionel Shriver was recently burned at the stake for comments she made about “who gets to write what” at the Brisbane Writers Festival. The problem is, I’ve now read two widely-linked blog posts on it, and not one has quoted her verbatim, and I can’t find the actual transcript. [Edit 9/13; The Guardian published the speech today.] So I’m relying on the second hand testimony of people who didn’t like what they heard but didn’t quote it to source their arguments.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied said of Shriver’s speech,

“On and on it went. Rather than focus on the ultimate question around how we can know an experience we have not had, the argument became a tirade. It became about the fact that a white man should be able to write the experience of a young Nigerian woman and if he sells millions and does a ‘decent’ job — in the eyes of a white woman — he should not be questioned or pilloried in any way. It became about mocking those who ask people to seek permission to use their stories. It became a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”

Well, again. With no direct quotes from Shriver, I have to take it all with a grain of salt.

“It’s not always okay if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always okay if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell their own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always okay for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience…”

First, she sets up a straw man, this white woman writing and publishing about queer indigenous people, and without an example provided, so I’m not sure if there is such a woman publishing today.

And let’s talk about publishing for a moment. Publishing is a business, now mostly controlled by bottom-line-obsessed conglomerates. There is no slot in the Fall List, sitting there, waiting for “a story of a young indigenous man,” that will either be filled by a white person or an indigenous person. There is a slot for a novel that will make money. Yes, the problem is that it’s possible that “those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity.”

But. If the writer with the power (connected on Publishers Row, able to call the shots on what he/she writes about) wants to meticulously research a novel about a Nigerian woman, and gets it right, and other white people read it and learn something about another culture, even if it wasn’t from the source, is that wrong? Doesn’t the Famous White Author’s book about a culture have the potential to open the door for members of that culture to write about it too, if FWA’s book excites interest in it?

I get the Dark Side there – that some white person reads another white person’s crappy, poorly researched, cliché and stereotype-ridden book and says, “I learned so much about Nigeria, and now I’m done!” I’m bipolar, and recently I read an awful novel with a bipolar MC, and the research was shit. Pure laziness, a few sentences of dialog cadged from a Wikipedia entry on bipolar illness. But the customer review were all, “I learned so much about bipolar!” and I wanted to cringe. To shriek, no no no!

But should I, even if I could, Hereby Order all non-bipolar people to stop writing novels with bipolar MCs and leave that mythical opportunity open for some bipolar writer?

Sometimes it takes those who possess Imagination + Access to open the door for those who possess Imagination + Experience. When ultra white dude William Styron wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner, you saw white people in 1967 reading a book from a black man’s POV that they wouldn’t have done with James Baldwin, etc. Was it a “real” version of a black man’s POV? No. But… Was it, for many readers, the very first time they’d even heard a black man’s POV that wasn’t from an Amos ‘n’ Andy, Gone With the Wind stereotypical character?

For me, the issue is pragmatism, not ideology. Did it help? Did it open a door in the reader’s mind, a subtle subconscious message that this person is not the “other,” is not the caricature I had in my mind before this book. Once that’s implanted, the idea of reading Toni Morrison isn’t as strange or unthinkable. No, Toni Morrison didn’t need a white man’s “help,” but the majority of American readers at the time did need help to become open to listening to an African American POV.

Adgel-Magied criticized Shriver for celebrating white authors’ “right to exploit the stories of ‘others’.” If telling any story other than your own is exploitation, all we’d get is a boring and joyless shelf full of thinly disguised autobiographies. Should the people with the power and the access only write about other Harvard graduates and Park Slope powermoms? (Not that, for the most part, they don’t already.)

About Shriver’s speech, Yen-Rong wrote on her blog The Inexorablist that

“The publishing industry is chock full of white men, and advocating for their ‘right’ to write from the perspective of someone in a marginalised position takes opportunities away from those with authentic experiences to share.”

Again. Catalog slots are not Platonic ideals, “the book we’re going to buy about a queer indigenous character,” which is up for competition between the white man and the authentic experiencers.

And again. Research, please, or your Grand Statements amount to nothing. The publishing industry is overwhelmingly white, but also overwhelmingly female, 80% of US employees according to this January 2016 article. You’re going to have a hard time convincing me that females in American business don’t know about marginalization and denied opportunities. (Please note the irony of a blogger speaking about authentic perspective when not fact checking her own statements.)

And Yen-Rong’s statement here, culled from literary theory, is only half right:

“Responsibility does not just lie with the writer, because literature is, at its very heart, a collaborative effort. The reader is complicit in the creation of the story, bringing their own prejudices and ways of seeing the world.”

Yes, the reader brings their prejudices in, but the writer’s responsibility is to fucking change them with the most powerful story possible. If a reader is “complicit” in anything by opening a book by Lionel Shriver about an awful gross fat person, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writing about Nigerians (a scary and shady stereotype to many Americans), that complicity is the tacit statement they make to an author by picking up a book: “Okay, fine, show me what you got. Prove me wrong.”

Unless you’re reading a right wing political thriller or a paint by numbers romance novel, a reader doesn’t go into a book seeking confirmation of what she already knows. (See here for my unhinged rantings on Pringles Readers v. Kettle Chips Readers.)

A reader opens a book because she’s bored. She wants you to astonish her, educate her, change her world.

To my mind, and I’m throwing down my “As A” political trump card here, as a gay man, I am indebted to the women writers who opened the door to gay male content in mainstream publishing. Few of us in gay romance, hell, gay fiction period, would be writing today if Patricia Nell Warren hadn’t broken the ice back in the 1970s with The Front Runner. She did what no gay man could do (and for that matter hasn’t done yet) – write a novel about gay men and get it on the Best Mother Fucking Seller List.

And how many new readers of gay stories, how many new viewers of gay content on TV, were born from that? Should we, gay men, have held the door firmly closed in some absolutist fashion and said, NO! No woman shall write about gay men, you must give the publishing contracts to us!

Fuck that. If it took a straight woman to open the door for me? I just want the god damn door open. Are there writers out there of many races, nationalities, sexualities, who wish that it didn’t take Some British Guy to get Publishers’ Row to open the door to content about them? Yeah. But the door is open.

The most important thing to realize about commercial media is that it is imitative. One Gone Girl means wearying thousands more Gone Girls clogging the shelves. If Some British Guy’s novel about a Nigerian girl goes big, then the door is open for the next Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the next Chinua Achebe, because the general public has proven it will read stories about Africans. Someone’s mind has been opened to reading a story about The Other.

When it comes to seeing new content, content that makes audiences uncomfortable, when someone who’s not you has the chance to open that door, do you just want to lock that door to keep them out, and then bitch about the fact that it’s locked?

Does every struggling writer of indigenous descent, of fluid gender, of colonized peoples, share this absolutist doctrine, that you publish me or you publish nothing? I doubt it very much. I bet there are a lot of struggling writers who can’t wait to add to their query, “This book will be enjoyed by readers of….”

Oh, wait a minute. Who was that white British Author who wrote about the young Nigerian girl?

I have no idea. None of these blog postings named the book or the author. That’s right, whatever book it was that set off the fire alarms? Nobody mentioned it. Erased. Now I want to read it, to see for myself, because that’s what open minded people do before they burn a book. And Googling “White British Author Nigerian Girl Novel” is bringing up…novels by African American women or British women of African descent.

And really, isn’t it terribly prejudicial to tell your audience, “this is a British white male, therefore I Denounce Him”? And nothing else? For all I know, maybe for all these bloggers know, this British white male author? Maybe he grew up in Nigeria as a son of missionaries, or hippies. Maybe he grew up in a horrifyingly poor and dirty and violent place, right next to the people he’s writing about, and if you can not only live through that but revisit it and write about it at all, never mind write with feeling? Go for it, buddy.

Or is the unwritten law being invoked here that every feeling outside your own direct experience is Off Limits, that even if you grew up in Nigeria you’re not allowed to write about Africans’ lives because you’re white? Should we set up electrical barriers around Manhattan and make sure none of the fat and happy white writers there ever attempt to write about anything else? Anywhere else we need to construct Literary Forbidden Zones, a Trumpian Wall against creative invaders?

Can a white author write about poor white people? Is anyone denouncing that? What does some 1600 SAT trust fund Guggenheim grant sonofabitch know what it’s like to be poor? But nobody’s denouncing that. Why not? That person has no fucking clue. That person never had to feel, can never feel, what it’s like to be poor and ignorant in some backwater town. How dare they write about it! No, you never hear that complaint.

So where do you draw the line? Do we draw an uncrossable color line, is that it? Do we draw it by national border? Native language? Clearly there are people who have some firm ideas about who gets to cross what line.

I’m weighing in here because, depressingly, my most popular post on this blog is about another author, Josh Lanyon, a woman who marketed herself as a gay man. Who expropriated someone else’s life experience (the prejudice, ignorance, and violence that gay people live with daily) and used it to profit. Who took money out of the mouths of those who lived it, by drawing away readers looking for that “authentic voice.”

So I’m not unaware of how much it hurts to see other people tell your story, as if it was theirs, and make a bunch of fucking money on it. (Let’s not pretend that authors are not financially jealous of other authors’ successes, and that none of this righteous anger is pure and unsullied idealism, mkay? When we as writers talk about “opportunities” we’re not decrying our inability to get a slot at a poetry slam.)

I’d much rather see a white man writing as a white man, about someone who is Not Him, as a researched experience, than see a woman pretending to be a gay man, or an old man pretending to be an Asian girl, and laying claim to a felt experience. At least then I can walk into the book with some knowledge of the potential, repeat potential prejudice or slant of the author.

So I know a thing or two about it. But I also know that I would no more limit myself to writing about my own experience than I would limit myself to reading about it. And anyone who wants to set those limits on who gets to say what is treading on very dangerous ground.

 

10 Comments on Lionel Shriver and “Writing The Other”

  1. Great post, Brad! I love reading different perspectives on this topic.

    I think for many authors some of the disdain with white people who write the other is, it’s done half-heartedly. For the purposes of this post, I’m only speaking in terms of the romance genre.

    When white authors integrate characters of color into their stories, I have no issue with this. None. All authors should write what speaks to them. I actively encourage diversity in stories. I scream it from the rooftops! Portray the world as it is!

    My issue becomes how has the group you’re writing about been included in your writing process if it’s not a culture you’ve adapted? An author recently wrote about an indigenous population. The author said their beta readers loved the book and thought the portrayal of the tribe was captured wonderfully. Um, that’s great and all but did the author have any actual tribe members as consultants while writing the story? Or after finishing the manuscript? I didn’t see that mentioned anywhere. It’s that dismissive attitude I can’t get on board with. And if you’re writing about a black character or an Asian character, it’s not about just getting input from your one Asian or black friend. It’s helpful but everyone has a unique voice. Speak to a few people so you can say for certain you have a balanced perspective. If someone happens to point this out, it’s thought of as stirring the pot or being hateful. No, it’s questioning the intentions of the author and their research processes. Which is what readers should be doing, even in romance. Fiction needs elements of authenticity.

    The author’s readers were gung-ho about the book and it did really well but how many of those readers are buying books about indigenous tribes aside from that one book? How many are actively seeking out stories told from the perspectives of actual indigenous people?

    White people love to read about white people writing people of color. This may sound like a controversial statement but if you look at book sales when it comes to books featuring diverse characters, it’s difficult to refute it.

    When a person of color writes romances featuring people of color, the traction isn’t the same, the visibility isn’t the same. You ask someone who is a leading black author in the romance genre and they will automatically tell you, Beverly Jenkins. It’s usually all they know.

    I can name three top contemporary romance authors who have written a black character into their stories (I’m not going to bother dissecting the portrayal of those characters because that’ll take all day) but the fact is black authors can only be hugely successful in the romance genre if they write white characters whereas the same is not said for white authors who write characters of color. They’re lauded as brave, thinking outside the box etc. Ben Winters immediately comes to mind (lol sorry, not a romance author but the NY Times piece on Underground Airlines pretty much proves my point).

    It’s really mind-boggling when you think about how the lack of diversity and portrayal of the other doesn’t translate as well in books as it does on television. Think of a Shonda Rhimes drama and many people love Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to get Away With Murder, as well as shows like The Walking Dead and Fear of the Walking Dead but to portray love interests crossing racial barriers is books is an uphill battle some days.

    Again, thanks for posting this. Great discussion topic.

    • Thanks! I concur with you that you can’t write people of color and vet it with other white people. I may still write my cop/journalist interracial romance, but not without exhaustive reading of memoirs by people of color with that experience, and other first hand info. You know I love my research. I agree that mm romance is almost all about the 6 foot 4 inch white boys, with Italian passing for ethnic 😉 but romance is mostly about the reader’s fantasy of a perfect man, not about seeing a new world. And TBH most people’s fantasies reside within their own race, so that’s another obstacle to “the other” in genre…

  2. “When a person of color writes romances featuring people of color, the traction isn’t the same, the visibility isn’t the same. You ask someone who is a leading black author in the romance genre and they will automatically tell you, Beverly Jenkins. It’s usually all they know.”

    I would have said Michael Warren. I haven’t bought any of his books though because the blurbs sounded more like erotica and I don’t really care for erotica. I’ve never heard of Beverly Jenkins so I think I make your point absolutely. A woman from my book group and I have been looking for a romance, 2 men, both of them POC written by preferably a man but at this point will buy by a woman. We are still looking…… recommendations?

  3. I wish I had suggestions for you but the written by a man part is where it gets dicey. The only author that comes to mind is Xen Sanders. His book Shatterproof has paranormal/fantasy aspects but it’s a M/M romance with characters of color, written by a man of color.

  4. Thank you !

  5. Thanks for that interesting and well thought out post. It is certainly a ridiculous thing to say that one person can’t write something from another person’s perspective, because of different skin colors. Imagine if Harriet Beecher Stowe wasn’t allowed to write ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ from the perspective of black slaves! The freeing of the slaves could have been slowed by who knows how mung!
    It really concerns me that this stifling political correctness is swarming into the arena of art and literature, because that is where the voices of freedom and the unconventional should be loudest. The moment someone is telling you how and what to write, your warning bells should be blaring.

    • Thanks, I’d never thought about Stowe. Sometimes I think it’s on those who have access to speak for those who don’t, rather than remaining silent because it’s not their experience.

      • Exactly. The man who wrote from the experience of the Nigerian girl should be praised rather than criticized, because he allowed people to see things from her perspective. If he just wrote from the perspective of a white male, it wouldn’t get people out of their comfort bubble.

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