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Reality Check Is it me or is this the latest in attempts to regulate and hold in check, the writer's imagination?

Galadriel

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Really, I could have done with remembering in which Times' edition the article was in and copy and pasting it here - but the basic premise is that authors should not be writing outside their own experience. I.e. If you're white, you shouldn't be imagining black experience. I expect this is ditto everything else you as a writer might not be: any other nationality bar your own/ your gender/ your age/ your income/ class/ disability and whether or not you're an elf/ alien/ animal. Discuss!
 

Andy D

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That’s just bonkers, isn’t it? I mean, if I can only write about a 48 year old white bloke living in Hove with two cats, supporting an average football team (bordering on dismal in the second half against West Brom) with a reputation for eating pizza in the middle of conference calls I am gonna be sooooooooo bored.

Plus, isn’t it a part of the empathetic experience that you imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes (or lack of)? Isn’t that part of what makes a writer’s life vaguely healthy? And by extension the activity of reading itself...
 

Barbara

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I agree that it's bonkers that authors should only write within their experience, but ....

There is something to be said for first hand experience. Even with the best imagination and empathic skills, I'm not sure I could ever put myself in certain shoes, i.e. would I ever truly know what it feels like to having been kidnapped? Or to lose a child? Or what's it's like to be hiding in a bomb shelter in WWII while people around me are dying? I'm not so sure. Breathing it, tasting it for real is something else. I can empathise, of course, and research, but I think there's a layer that only first hand experience gives. Like research adds to imagination, living something for real gives another layer over someone who hasn't experienced it.

Having said that:

Some actors prepare for a role by living in character for a while. I think that's a good way of getting that layer. I've done it myself. You feel it. You breathe it. I find this very useful in writing too, and you can find (layers of) emotions you didn't expect ... So I think with research, imagination and empathy and 'method-ing' we can get close-ish to the real experience.

In the end, I think we should write what we want to and what we are drawn to regardless of who we are, but be sensitive about it. If the readers don't like it because we're not that particular person we write about, well, let them read something else, or let them try write something themselves and see how they do. A story either hits the buttons or it doesn't. Hitting emotional buttons is a craft. It's up to the author to do a good job of the subject.

But I don't know.

As for
48 year old white bloke living in Hove with two cats, supporting an average football team (bordering on dismal in the second half against West Brom) with a reputation for eating pizza in the middle of conference calls I am gonna be sooooooooo bored
I have a suspicion you'd be better at writing this particular man than I would. For one thing, I don't live in Hove. I can't possibly imagine what that's like. But more importantly, I'd eat cake, not pizza during conf calls. But, I might be able to write about dropping crumbs on the floor. :D :shortcake::pizza::wine-glass:
 
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Rich.

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I agree that, in principle, writers' imaginations shouldn't be fettered. I feel that strongly. But I also think it would be naïve of a writer to ignore the social and political environment in which they operate. I certainly don't mean writers should self-censor in the face of modern outrage culture (or at all, for that matter). But I do think an author should proceed consciously, especially if they are tackling as a central theme of their book, for example, the lived-experience of a member of a minority group to which they don't belong.

When there are minorities who are genuinely fighting to have their voices heard, it can be less than helpful if a member of the majority comes along and speaks on their behalf – no matter how well-intentioned the act may be. I'm sure we're all familiar with the hackneyed white-saviour trope in film and novels, in which a white Westerner swoops in and sorts out the other group's troubles.

Don't censor, but do think is what I guess I'm trying to say. If you're writing fiction that might become part of the global conversation on identity, it behoves you to write with your eyes open and with explicit intention.
 

Ancora Imparo

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This is one of the reasons I write fantasy. It's my world and I make the rules :D

I agree with what you say, @Rich. But, sadly, I think censorship is exactly what we end up with, even if it's self censorship.

Too much censorship from people who love straitjacketing everyone and forcing them into ideological boxes (or else...), too much self-censorship from good writers who don't want to offend anyone (and so many people now are just desperate to purse their lips and be offended), and too little self-censorship from bad writers who do exactly what you describe. In a world where the parameters and terminology for so many minorities are being altered/made up/reassessed every 20 minutes, I'm glad my (writing) world is full of high magic and kick-ass Fae heroines. Uh oh... Can I still use that word? :D
 

Rich.

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I've always understood political correctness, at its best, to mean that you shouldn't offend through ignorance. If you are offensive, do so because that is precisely what you meant to be.

The comedian Ricky Gervais makes a distinction between the subject of a joke and the target, and how the Twitter outrage crew often confuse the two. (I am a big fan of Ricky Gervais.) And Quentin Crisp, to paraphrase, said that if you are truly free, for society to function, you must make chains for yourself.

I think, ultimately, self-censorship is a form of cowardice. Say what you mean to say. Make sure it's considered. But don't be afraid to say it. Writers should always be in that group that's prepared to stand up and be counted. I know that's a strong opinion, and I know it will offend some people, but it is what I think.
 

KateESal

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I'm in favour of the "own voices" approach in the sense that @Rich. describes...approaching imaginative treatments of different cultures and experiences with sensitivity.

There were some good articles in the MsLexia writing magazine on the subject a few issues back. They suggested that including characters from other cultures/communities can be okay, provided proper research is undertaken.

It can be a tricky area, though. I have included black and mixed-race characters in my novels because a)I imagine the characters that way and b)I want my novels to be representative of the world's diverse nature, rather than a simple reflection of my mainly white, middle-class outlook (and heaven knows, non-white characters are massively under-represented in literature in general...probably because non-white writers are also massively under-represented). Complexity and diversity can make stories more interesting, in my view. However, I wouldn't presume to write a black character's experience of living in a predominately white culture, because I don't feel I could accurately portray that perspective, no matter how much research I did.

That said, I'm in something of a quandary, because my YA novel explores experiences of DID and Bi-polar disorder, neither of which I have (thankfully) experienced myself. I've done a lot of research and a friend who is bi-polar is giving me some great advice and feedback. I want to offer a sympathetic and accurate portrait of people with these disorders and potentially correct some of the misconceptions about them. But do I have any business writing about them at all?
 

Victoria Bastedo

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In the case of a minority group, the issues they face are too complicated to just imagine. I remember when the movie 'Dances With Wolves' came out. The director or producer (whoever it was, sorry) went all-out in terms of research. The same clothes as would've been worn by the tribe. The same way they rode horses. The way they cooked and how the village would've looked. The movie-maker even resurrected a near-dead language to speak. When the movie came out, amidst all the fawning and congratulations and 'well-dones' for authenticity, a Native-American was interviewed who said something like: 'That's nice this white person actually attempted, for once, to make an accurate retelling, but, if you haven't walked in our shoes, you can't know what we've been through'. Some years later, when the movie 'The Help' came out, there was a similar reaction. I took note. Out of respect, I'm careful not to assume I know too much, although I allow myself full artistic license to create characters in my fantasy worlds. The last thing I want to do is offend or hurt anyone.
 

Hannah F

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It's a tightrope we walk on. If we are white, middle-class+, heterosexual, and only write from that viewpoint, we may be criticized for lack of diversity. If we include black, working class, bisexual, deaf . . . we may be accused of not writing what we know - unless we do know.
So it depends on our research. We must know enough to be respectful to whoever we are not. We must not stereotype, and we must use sensitivity readers.
On that note, I'm off to find a sorcerer so I can research him for my book . . . and a person who can also be a tree.
(Thank goodness for fantasy! :fairy: ).
 

Stephanie Petersen

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Isn't the whole purpose of reading books to explore the experiences of other people? If the reader is allowed, even encouraged, to do that in the act of reading, why not an author in the act of writing? Empathy requires us to wear the shoes of others and why wouldn't that be encouraged at every opportunity?
 

Katie-Ellen

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'Black Beauty'...written from the POV of the horse.
'Dark Matter'...a woman writing from the POV of a man
'Electra'...a man writing from the POV of a woman.

Writers can't kow-tow, can't be chicken. Unless of course they want to write about a chicken, and possibly even write from the POV of the chicken

And identity politics...you are a tyranny that graces, enlightens and advances no-one...SHUT THE EFF UP.
 

gbhunt

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Do you think it makes a difference if you try to write the character in first person versus third person? I am far more comfortable writing outside my gender/nationality/species etc if it is not first person. Third person however you do it is seen through a filter even if you don't use the filter words.
 

Nmlee

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When there are minorities who are genuinely fighting to have their voices heard, it can be less than helpful if a member of the majority comes along and speaks on their behalf – no matter how well-intentioned the act may be.
I think this is the root of the problem. There are so many white writers drowing out the own voices that they don't get a look in. In an ideal world, where these minority cultures have their stories heard to the same degree as the majority, a writer could write from whatever POV they want. But when the only stories of a cutlure is coming from white, cis writers, that's a problem.

In terms of reaching that ideal world, I think we'll get there (I've seen great stride made in 2020!) but there's a lot of work to be done.

In the mean time, yes, write want you want. But consider the space you're playing in and if its the right time to insert yourself into it. If it is, do ample research. Get sensivity readers. Try not to perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

From what I've seen, writers who bring well-researched diversity into their work aren't the one's who end up in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
 

KateESal

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Do you think it makes a difference if you try to write the character in first person versus third person? I am far more comfortable writing outside my gender/nationality/species etc if it is not first person. Third person however you do it is seen through a filter even if you don't use the filter words.

Yes, I think POV does make a difference.

Reading the exasperated comments of many non-white authors, it's clear a number of them are affronted by white authors recreating their own conception of lived black experience in a first person MC. Non-white authors are under-represented in publishing, have historically attracted lower advances for their work and have often felt ignored or overlooked because the industry isn't convinced that "black stories" sell. Given that non-white authors feel like they're fighting for a smaller slice of the cake as it is, it's no wonder they resent white authors receiving money and recognition for a story told from the POV of a black character when their own stories face disproportionate rejection.

However, there didn't seem to be the same objections to black characters being portrayed "from the outside" by white authors (with suitable sensitivity and efforts to avoid stereotyping employed). There is a recognition that inclusivity is something to be encouraged.

Speaking as a woman, I don't object to a female MC in a male-authored story, including from first person POV, provided the author creates a rounded character rather than a 2D facsimile of how a man imagines a woman's lived experience. But, as a white female author, I don't experience the same uneven power dynamics and obstacles as a non-white author, so I suspect I wouldn't feel so strongly about the issue as a result.
 

Steve C

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Black, white, male, female we are all different but share the same emotions and that's what writers of fiction deal in. Writing about an individual no matter how different they are to the author there is common ground in that we share fear, love, hatred etc. However, when we make generalisations we are on dodgy ground. A white person commenting on how black people feel is indeed opening him/herself to criticism. Generalisations are normally born out of prejudice in any case, - a statement which itself is a generalisation. :confused:
Time for a drink!
 

Galadriel

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Goodness, this is a busy thread. Everyone's points are valid and I've not meant to encourage any polemic. My example of white writer imagining black experience perhaps was too easy to grab for; I could have chosen anything. Perhaps one only has to consider the 'plight of women' being absent from chunks of history, eg. where are the female Renaissance artists, playwrights, and so on.
For my own writing, I don't think I would be confident about (returning to ) writing about black experience. However, in my first novel, my protagonist is a terribly burned and disfigured teenager. I did a lot of research about burns and read quite a few articles where those with burns wrote about how they lived with the scarring. In my WiP, my protagonist has a port wine stain that threatens her life. I've done the same in depth research. Would my imaginings offend someone? Or am I merely drawing attention to another aspect of human experience regardless of my never having suffered both?

The world and its citizens has a habit of tilting rapidly one way, and everything falls to that, and sometimes in an extreme way. Gradually, there's a return to a changed balance and that's fine. But I do wonder what this holds in store for us as writers. Freedom of speech (without violence and hate) is important. Imagining is beautiful. I didn't think novel writing could be so contentious that words could be edited right out.

We are more vast behind our form identity than any use of language could ever describe, and when our creativity flows it's coming from that vastness too, and as writers that's what we do - channel the stories that arise in us into the written word. We want to make connections with readers - with other human beings - and for some essence of what we've written to resonate with others; evoke or provoke a response.

Well, I've found the original article: Defend your writers, publishers, or be damned: how the books trade went woke

And just in case the link doesn't work, I've attached it in a word doc. See what you think. :)
 

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Jonny

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Some very well made points above, and my overall view is that I think as writers we should not be bound by any constraints in this respect.

So if I want to write a story from the POV of a leaf blowing on the breeze as it falls from its tree towards a swirling river below... then why not?

But, it will show up quickly in the writing that because I have insufficient knowledge or imagination in this area, and therefore I can't stretch this concept far enough to write authoritatively or compellingly in a way to hold a reader's interest for long, the book will lack integrity and sink without a trace. Bit like the leaf. Ho-ho.

Same goes for any badly researched book about any topic or any ethnic grouping. To pepper it with ignorant and ill-researched stereotypes will be seen through quickly. But do the research extensively, meticulously and sympathetically, then we have a different proposition.

I am Irish but would happily have anyone (from anywhere) write a book set in Ireland featuring Irish characters if it was done with integrity. I would draw the line if its characters said things, "Ah shure, now toppa da mornin' to ye sor. Begorrah, bejabbers and bedad, isn't dat a tremendous day altogether now lookit?" OK, maybe a bit OTT - but I guess you get the idea.

Personally I do try to write what I know about or what I have experienced. I am what I am and have read a fair amount of comedy over the years, so my stuff leans towards that. I have read little or no high-concept literature (i.e. the heavyweights) so I'm not going to attempt to write something in that mould.

However, I do believe that I have enough empathy and knowledge to identify with many different minority groups (be they racial, religious, sexual or otherwise) so I would feel happier doing that if my story required it. I would of course (as above) have to research extensively and with complete integrity to pull this off successfully. Winging it would not be an option which is why at the end of the day a lot of us write within what we know.

So to answer the question - I don't think as writers (whatever our race or colour) that anything is (or in the eyes of critics) should be off limits. Our own ethnicities and orientations are what they are, but we should not feel constrained to operate solely within these because it's felt by (just who exactly?) we don't have the proper credentials to carry it off.
 

Hannah F

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Re burn victims: "Eleanor Oliphant is Completely fine" features a woman whose face is badly disfigured by a house fire. The author has not written a #ownvoices novel, yet the book has been showered with praise and critical acclaim etc.
In this story, the disfigurement plays its part, but Eleanor would be Eleanor, disfigurement or not. It does not define her. I think that's what makes the difference.
 

Galadriel

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I wrote a poem once from the perspective of one of the Horse's of the Apocalypse. And a dog. Poetry sings in a different way to prose. We must avoid over seriousness in the 'sacred play' of writing.
Slightly on a different note - in primary school I remember our class had to write about being a two pence, and what happened to us in that day. Perhaps also rather proudly, I remember writing a story as a fox, which my teacher - Miss Tedd - liked so much, she took it home. Ah, that I could get an agent to do the same for my novel! :rolling-on-the-floor-laughing:
 

Hannah F

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I wrote a poem once from the perspective of one of the Horse's of the Apocalypse. And a dog. Poetry sings in a different way to prose. We must avoid over seriousness in the 'sacred play' of writing.
Slightly on a different note - in primary school I remember our class had to write about being a two pence, and what happened to us in that day. Perhaps also rather proudly, I remember writing a story as a fox, which my teacher - Miss Tedd - liked so much, she took it home. Ah, that I could get an agent to do the same for my novel! :rolling-on-the-floor-laughing:
May the tuppences come to your door in protest. Case loads of them! ;)
 

Steve C

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Personally I do try to write what I know about or what I have experienced. I am what I am and have read a fair amount of comedy over the years, so my stuff leans towards that. I have read little or no high-concept literature (i.e. the heavyweights) so I'm not going to attempt to write something in that mould.

Me too. As a kid, I'd read Ian Fleming and Micky Spillane then graduated to John le Carré. We are what we are. I didn't think of being a writer I just got to a point in my life where I thought I had a story to tell. Largely a personal one but then I started having fun playing with it. I don't need to invent characters and I doubt I could, but instead pluck them from my past and embellish them a little.
TBH I don't know why anyone would want to write about something they know nothing about, then spend years researching it. It's like inventing stuff because you have no stuff. But hey, that's just me, and thank god we are all different.
 

Robert M Derry

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This is a bit of a tightrope for writers to walk, although I think it's about balancing what you want to write vs what people want to buy.

Fundamentally, as far as freedom of speech is concerned you can write whatever stories that you want, but commercially people may not want to buy your stories.

I think that whether you 'can' write a particular story or not is very much determined by what the purpose/theme of your story is. E.g. as a white male author if I try and write a story about racism from a black woman's perspective, I'd question whether I truly represent that experience; is it really my story to tell?

However, if write a fantasy novel about the struggle of good Vs evil and my lead character is a homosexual Asian man I'm not sure that it really matters that I'm a straight white man. The focus of my story is not his race or sexuality, these are just attributes of the character.

That's my view anyway. TBH, getting criticised for writing something 'outside of my experience' would probably be a nice problem for me to have - it would at least mean that I've been published, and famous enough to be noticed!
 

David Y

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Really, I could have done with remembering in which Times' edition the article was in and copy and pasting it here - but the basic premise is that authors should not be writing outside their own experience. I.e. If you're white, you shouldn't be imagining black experience. I expect this is ditto everything else you as a writer might not be: any other nationality bar your own/ your gender/ your age/ your income/ class/ disability and whether or not you're an elf/ alien/ animal. Discuss!
I read a piece from last week's Sunday Times today (it takes me a whole week to read the paper!) which referred to this. I believe creative writing should be creative, so will write what I want. However, I don't expect to be published, which was a point of the article, that we live in a commercial world and publishers will shy away from novels they don't think will sell in volume. This isn't new, it's just that there's now this additional barrier to landing a publishing deal.
 

Andy D

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Just as an aside to this, I watched Hamilton tonight (turns out the football was on frustratingly early) and saw Armondo Iannucci’s David Copperfield last week. Both employ BAME actors in factually / traditionally white character roles, and both work beautifully, not to mention progressively - so why would we go in the opposite direction with writing?
 

CageSage

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At the bottom of this heap of discussion is the reality of how many writers produce work and how many get published. Of course, there's always self-publishing but the ones that do well (in terms of getting a good number of readers) are also counted in the same breath as unicorns.
98.99% of writers who finish a novel/long version story don't get published, let alone acknowledged. This is regardless of what they write, and sometimes, even how good it is. Most give up. It's too hard, although it looked easy enough in the beginning.

Some writers get published and fall to the wayside after one book. Some go on to write many, many books and are loved and lauded by their readers, but they don't have every reader in the world, only readers who read that type of book (and sometimes, books by only that writer).

What is the point of complaining about not getting the limelight from a publishing perspective? Each writer will go through the mill, ten or fifteen years of pain and suffering and humiliation, and even that will not guarantee a publishing contract or a readership.

Write the story, write it with passion/compassion and knowledge/verifiable facts, warn readers if necessary (genre and cover should do this first, though), and use real people inside that story.
Just write the story. With real people. In a real world. Doing stuff the reader identifies with. Doing interesting stuff. Being interesting while they do it.
And let the reader decide if it's worth reading, not the critic.

Before anyone says I'm being insensitive, know this:
I had a few foster kids, a lot, in fact. Two toddlers, 30 teenagers taken from the streets. From all walks of life, one with a father who was a well-known public figure. I will tell stories that show some of their experiences, even though it wasn't my experience.
And consider how these potentially 'clean of any wrong-thinking' books will look in ten years, or even five. The people who are now pushing for the rights of everyone to be represented by only themselves will be on another road, older, wiser, better-read. The books will be long-unread, dead.

Write the story that needs to be written, even knowing it may never hit the horn of a unicorn. If it's loved by one person, it may just be that it was the one person who was meant for.

Of course, this is all my personal opinion, and I have considered putting warnings on some of my stories, but each time I consider it, the readers say not to, that there is enough censorship in the world, and that to read a story is a choice -- as long as it's made clear from the title, cover and genre placement that it belongs where it is, and isn't placed in a category that is misleading or false.
 

Robinne Weiss

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Ah, and then there's the truth that, even if I'm writing from lived experience, my experience might be different from others who technically have the same lived experience. I've been slammed for a depiction of a woman's response to rape because, "No one would ever respond this way." I had been using my own experience with rape and my response as a guide for my fictional character ... Hmmm ... Guess I'm no one. It's not the only time that's happened when I write from my own head--it's obvious I process things differently from other people. I try to steer clear of writing directly from my own experience of life now and do tons of research about other people with the same or similar experiences, so I'm writing a more generic experience.
 

Steve C

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I try to steer clear of writing directly from my own experience of life now and do tons of research about other people with the same or similar experiences, so I'm writing a more generic experience.
Not sure about this. Researching other people's feelings so you can write to please? The people critical of you were probably adopting a party line of how one should respond to rape. As you say, we are all different so no way are you ever going to please everyone and it is often someone's unique take on something that is so interesting.
 
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