Tuesday, August 17, 2010

When Are Characters Off Limits?

One of the conversations going on in the literary world concerns the book The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This book chronicles the lives of black domestic servants in the American south during the early 1960s. It's a pretty popular book, a popular "book club" selection and it's been on the best-seller lists for months now.

Stockett is a white woman who wrote in the voices of black women. Stockett was never a black maid; her family employed a black maid. Stockett is from the south, and like the main white character in The Help, moved to New York City to make her fortune. The Help (which I have not read) discusses topics of racism and privilege in America.

There is much discussion going on about the authenticity--or not--of Stockett's portrayals of the black women in this book. There is much discussion about whether or not Stockett even had the right to write this book with these characters, and there have been questions asked about how well this book would have been received by its primarily white readership if it had been written by a black woman.

So this is all pretty thorny. But it gets at some questions that interest me as a writer (and as a human being in the 21st century).

First, and possibly most importantly, should writers be forbidden from writing about people who they are not, and from writing about experiences that are not their own?

This seems like a foolish question, I know, because to write fiction is to write about people who are not us and events that are not ours. But if, as has been said in the discussion surrounding The Help, Stockett had no right to portray her black servant characters because she knows nothing of their real lives, then what are Stockett's choices? Does Stockett then only have the right to write about herself and people exactly like her? How different from the writer can a character be before the writer has gone too far and no longer has the right to portray them? Are we only allowed to write fantasy set in fantasy worlds, or maybe only memoirs? Either write about none but ourselves, or about people who could never have existed in real life? This seems like a reductio ad absurdum, and maybe it is, but really I think it gets to the heart of the matter. Or one of the matters, that is.

The flip side of this is that people of color and other minority status are under-represented in published fiction. And some folks take umbrage that a white writer's version of these black voices is getting published while plenty of talented black women can't get a book deal, just because they write black fiction. Whatever that is. Likely the situation in real life is more complex than that, and I don't pretend to know how many well-written manuscripts are turned down every year because publishers are afraid to publish "black fiction" or "Portuguese fiction" or "gay fiction" or "Native American fiction" or whatevs. I just don't know. I do know that publishers are afraid, and that they claim (and maybe it's true) that fiction of color sells less well than nice white books for nice white folks. We're all aware of and horrified by, I hope, the "whitewashing" of recent book covers. So there is an understandable amount of frustration and anger about the short shrift folks of color and genders-not-male are getting from the publishing world (though I believe it's also true that the majority of novels published in America these days are written by women--married white women with kids living in middle America, mostly).

I understand that most portrayals--in English-language literature, at least--of people of color, of women, of differently-oriented people have been the products of white Europeans. I understand that a lot of those characters have been portrayed as cliches: patronizingly, shallowly, insensitively and otherwise badly. A lot of stuff in the canon is frankly indefensible. But I also understand that writing fiction is, in some ways, in the best fiction, an attempt to understand. I resist the idea that we are only allowed to write about "people like us." Junot Diaz' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is peopled mostly by Dominicans. Oscar La Valle's Big Machine is peopled mostly by African Americans. Juhmpa Lahiri's books are peopled mostly by Indian immigrants in America. Yes, I get the authenticity of voice, but need we exclude other voices? Does a Chinese woman get to write about a white guy from Baltimore? Who owns all these voices? Don't we, as writers, own every human voice? I don't know. It gives me a headache.

I've heard often enough in the context of this discussion that I, as a white male, am so inured to the background culture of white European maleness that I can't even imagine what it's like to be outside that or how that background culture marginalizes anyone not a white male. Which may be a fair cop. I wouldn't know, of course. Being a white European male and all. But if that's true, what are my options? Just stay the hell out of publishing because my kind have written enough books and now it's everyone else's turn? I really have to say that I hate that solution. Possibly I like it from an abstract ethical standpoint, but as a guy who wants to be a published novelist, I really hate it. So like everyone else, my ethics are bound by my selfishness, and my selfishness is usually more persuasive than my ethics.

Anyway. I confess that I don't know where the moral high ground is here. I think I can tell the difference between exploitation and exploration. I also think that as writers, we exploit friends and strangers all the time, cannibalizing their lives for our art. Stealing the souls of folks whose portraits we paint, as it were. I'm not going to delete the runaway slaves from my book "Cocke & Bull" nor will I delete the women from "Killing Hamlet" nor will I shy away from the POV of Lord Tilton's daughter in the book about Antarctica I'll be writing, or from the POVs of the Italian soprano or the Czech architect's wife in "The Builder's Wife," which is the book I'll write after the Antarctica book. I'm going to write all of these characters, because a bunch of books populated by only white guys like me would be even more unrealistic (and horrible, honestly) than books with whatever mistakes I'll make writing all these other folks. And I'm not going to quit writing novels, either.

I've rambled long enough. On to the questions: Are characters outside of our social/economic/gender/race groups off-limits to us as writers? Why or why not? Also, have I simply mistaken what the arguments are surrounding race/gender/etc in fiction?


  1. And literature by these other ethnicities, so-called "black fiction" or whatever, might sell better if people actually knew where to find it in a bookstore.

    Is it in fiction?


    It's in the psychology/social studies section under "African-American studies" and "Native American studies" and woefully underrepresented in comparison to the fiction section.

  2. Interesting post. I haven't tried portraying other cultures yet, and I definitely feel most comfortable writing about the white middle-class world. Yet to write about other cultures, genders and lifestyles is to try to understand them, and I presume you have to do a lot of research because readers are pretty good at spotting cliches and prejudices.

    Isn't trying to understand what human beings are supposed to be doing? If a book is well written and insightful about a population not the writer's own, doesn't it deserve success? I dislike whitewashing as much as anyone, and I deplore the difficulties placed in the path of writers of color, but there's no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. What needs changing are the attitudes of publishers; writers don't need yet another set of rules imposed on them.

  3. This is a huge and complicated issue, and I will likely have more thoughts, later, but two quickies:

    1) No, no character should be "off limits" to a writer.

    2) That doesn't mean that a writer can effectively portray someone from a different background or that it is in good taste or within the bounds of social ethics.

    But #2 results in bad writing most of the time, which may resonate with a target audience, but typically only one that has the same background as the author and is likely closely to the same emotional and intellectual point already, as well.

    But see #1. Bad taste, bad writing? Maybe. Perhaps even likely. But not "off-limits."

  4. Why should characters outside of our social/economic/gender race groups be off-limits to us as writers? I have friends who have less/more money than I do, or come from families above/below my ‘class’ station, and who are/are not my gender/race group. I witness the hardships of friends living from paycheck to paycheck, as well as the benefits of friends with more money than they know what to do with. I listen to my friends – both genders – talk about their lives and the barriers that often exist for them. So, don’t I then know something about these people outside of my social/economic/gender race groups? Can’t I ask questions that help me delve deeper into the psyche of a character?

    The answer, simply put: Yes!

    Could I write a compelling – well, hopefully – novel about a lesbian even though I’m not a lesbian? Of course I could . . . with a bit of research.

    Could I write a compelling – well, hopefully – novel about heterosexuals, even though I’m not? Yes.

    As a reader, I really don’t care about the qualifications of a writer. Mary Higgin’s Clark writes great, can’t put ‘em down mysteries. She makes me stay up until the wee hours of the morning because I want to find out what’s going to happen next.

    Janet Evanovich writes hilarious novels about an inept bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum. Is Janet Evanovich a former inept bounty hunter? Probably not, maybe so. I don’t care. She writes good stuff.

    I think, in the end, the majority of readers do not care (and I could be totally wrong on this) about the qualifications of an author. I’ve never considered the qualifications of an author to write about characters outside of their social/economic/gender/race groups. It doesn’t matter . . . to me.

    We, as writers, must write what we know, and then expand upon that knowledge. I set my books in Nashville, TN. I know Nashville, TN. I know the normal and back routes to get around the city, and the outlying cities. I know where the nifty restaurants are, the eclectic places, and where the wealthy reside in their stately mansions. I know people within various economic statuses, genders, sexualities, races, etc. It is, at least for me, enough.

  5. I haven't read The Help, but in general, I don't see a problem with an author writing from the POV of a character of another race or gender for many of the same reasons you listed.

    Stephanie McGee has an excellent point in her post. I don't understand why books would be catogorized under "African-American" or "Asian-American" studies. I think it's enough to have traditional genres like literary, general, science-fiction, but even those get sticky with the gray areas.

  6. For what it's worth I'm not sure most writers are capable of pulling off the kind of research it would require to mimic a lifetime of experiences to truly understand the perspective of someone from such a dramatically different background. I think we often underestimate just how different those worldviews can be.

  7. Even if we are writing in cross race/gender/stereotypes that we know nothing about, isn't the human condition the same?

    I may not know what it means to be a female black servant for a wealthy white family in the 1960's but I do know about prejudice and heartache and rejection.

    I may not know what it means to be a homosexual suffering from AIDS but I do know what it feels like to be deathly ill, hopeless, and depressed.

    We are all made of the same body parts under the epidermis, we all bleed when you cut us, we all have the same emotional make-up.

    Who says an "authentic" voice has to be written by someone who's been there, done that? We are all authentic as we try to write. We are all human.

  8. Also, I think intention (there's that thorny subject again) make a big difference.

    If I write a mystery novel with an African American detective at the center, that's quite different from writing a literary novel that proposes to speak to the experience of African Americans from their POV.

    I haven't read The Help and am not suggesting that's what it does, because I don't know. But there's a huge difference there, and it's the latter that is more troublesome for most people.

  9. @Anne, I'm not sure I agree that there is a universal human condition. I think our unique histories, conditions, and world views make a huge difference.

  10. I have to admit, this has cause a little heat in my heart. I do not feel in my writers heart, or my personal being that some one, no anyone has the right to tell the "writers" what kind of characters they must use. The only way I could see them using it against her is if she claimed it was a literal non-fiction piece, otherwise these knuckleheads should not be suggesting in anyway that a writer has no right to create a character, that is what we do after all, that is how our stories become such. I truly hope that if they try and tell the "writers" what characters they cannont write, that they are blocked with an writers saying otherwise, everywhere.

  11. This is by no means a complete response, but the topic is very interesting and I wanted to jump in before heading out to the lab. One point that I wanted to make (and maybe it's been made already) is that readers expect certain parts of stories to be accurate. For instance, if I'm writing from the point of view of a woman and that woman is making cooking a turkey, I think readers expect the description of the cooking to be correct. They would feel cheated if I said "She put the turkey in the oven for two minutes and brought it out again. The skin was a golden brown." The act of cooking a turkey has nothing to do with being a woman, but I think most readers expect that part to be accurate. It's sort of odd to me when I think about it too much. It's more intuitive. But, when we are writing from other points of view, I think the little things around the story must be right even if the most important part, the internal character emotions come purely from our imagination. Okay, more later.

  12. Some tough questions here, Scott, and a lot of gray areas. I don't believe there should be any rules about what we can and cannot write about. Eventually it would all turn on its head and next thing you know the European white males would be the ones "underprivileged and incorrectly portrayed" in writing. One of the most wonderful things about being a writer is our ability to explore other worlds, even if those worlds happen to be the "other race" living next door.

    Awhile ago I read "Black Like Me" by John Howard Griffin, published in 1961. "Griffin was a white native of Mansfield, Texas and the book describes his six-week experience travelling on Greyhound buses (occasionally hitchhiking) throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia passing as a black man. Sepia Magazine financed the project in exchange for the right to print the account first as a series of articles. Griffin kept a journal of his experiences; the 188-page diary was the genesis of the book." (wikipedia)

    To me, that's blurring the lines even MORE. From what I can remember, Griffin reached the point where he believed he was black, or at least believed without a doubt what it was truly like to be black in that time period. He suffered a lot of death threats after the publication. So did he deserve to write a story more than Stockett does because he had a more correct "POV"? Or did he really even have a more correct POV?

    I'm probably way off course here now. There's a lot to think about!

  13. Personally, I loved this book. It was funny, suspenseful, and heartbreaking. It might be the pregnancy hormones, but a couple parts even made me cry. And I very rarely get weepy over books or movies.

    But I did have a nagging discomfort, knowing that the author was a white woman. As a young white female from the North myself, I knew I may not catch small inaccuracies about '60s black culture in the South. So I was eager to look up discussions on the book after I read it.

    Some of the reviews and responses were downright nasty. It was amazing to see a massive divide, about 50/50, between black readers who liked the book and those who were offended at some level.

    I cannot and will not try to speak for anyone who DOES come from that culture or know more about it than me. But I do not think Stockett was in the wrong for attempting to delve into these women's experiences.

    I think two things are necessary when the author is a member of a dominant population, writing about someone in a real, oppressed population:

    1. It needs to be as accurate and well researched as possible, as Davin pointed out.

    2. The author must NEVER pretend to BE that person in real life. That is fraudulent and offensive. A white person writing about a runaway slave is one thing; a white person selling a book under the pretense that he/she IS a runaway slave is unethical and dishonest. But that lie is outside the bounds of the fictional piece itself. In fiction-sold-as-fiction, there can be no literal "lies."

    Stockett's own afterword in the book was very moving and thoughtful. She expressed her own ambivalent feelings about trying to use a black maid's voice and about her own childhood. The guilt she felt about not attempting to reach out to her own maid and learn about her life at the time comes through strongly. She said something like, "I never asked her how she felt then, and after that I always guessed at how she might have felt. This book came from those writings."

    So because Stockett is clear that she is a white woman (picture on the jacket and everything) who has a personal interest in trying to empathize with this population (black maids) and states that explicitly in the book, I can see how the story is sensitive and will certainly spark discussion--as it should--but I absolutely feel that she, and others, do have the right to write "other" characters. Otherwise there is no hope for cross-cultural understanding and empathy... or freedom of artistic expression.

    I also agree with some other posters that the publishing/bookselling industries cause a lot more damage with institutional racism than authors do with authenticity of voice issues.

  14. I didn't notice until you said it, but it seems that all of my characters are of my race...
    I should try a little more variety.
    No character should be off limits, unless the writer is stereotyping or being racist.

  15. Jeannie, I really like what you have to say on this subject, thank you. Especially this: "but I absolutely feel that she, and others, do have the right to write "other" characters. Otherwise there is no hope for cross-cultural understanding and empathy... or freedom of artistic expression."

  16. There area lot of good points here. I wanted to say that my novel Rooster is about a man who grew up in Thailand, and even though I am Thai, I often felt like a fraud while I was writing it. Because I didn't grow up in Thailand, and have only visited there for a few months, I felt like I was making much of it up. But, when I did eventually do the research, I decided that very little of it needed to be changed. The generalities were accurate, and other parts could easily have applied specifically to my characters even if they weren't what the majority faced in Thailand during those times.

    I should also say that I got mixed reactions from the agents I queried. Some liked the book more because I was covering Thai culture, meaning they wanted it to be represented. Others--and I think this was based on poor sales of past Thai authors--didn't seem as pleased that it took place there. This has nothing to do with authorship but I think that even though some people are whitewashing their books, others are finding that there is a market for diverse cultures. The Kite Runner comes to mind. It was an average book, but I think the cultural aspect of it helped it. In this case, the particular culture seems to matter. Some attract readers and some don't. That's financially driven.

  17. Thanks to everyone who's commented so far. I don't have time for individual responses, as I'm at work and gosh, but I have some major deadlines today. But:

    I think there are several issues related to race/gender/otherness in publishing. On the one hand, as Nevets brings up briefly, there is authorial intent. Why is the author writing that particular character? Does the character ring true within the fictional world the author has created? Did the portrayal fail? If so, on what levels and why? Do we condemn failures of portrayal as racist/etc-ist?

    Then there is the institutional racism within publishing itself. All of the folks in the industry that I know seem like good hearted folks, but admittedly almost all of them are white. I am not setting myself up as an apologist for publishing, but since most publishers are owned by multinational conglomerates, I am assuming that profiling of authors/subjects/characters are based on perceptions of the market. Likely wrong perceptions. I don't know what sort of obligation publishers have to more accurately represent the demographics of their readers. But it seems that readers feel they do, so publishers had best listen up. If you ask me.

    I have been following Davin's querying journey with Rooster with a great deal of interest.

    I will also say that when I was a kid (back in the 60s and 70s), black men and homosexuals and, oh, anyone not white--if they appeared in mainstream fiction at all--were usually there as stereotypical criminals in unsympathetic and one-dimensional portrayals. Props, in other words, not people. Negative portrayals.

    Michelle: I remember "Black Like Me." Have you read Ellison's "Invisible Man?" I think that's likely a better book.

  18. I definitely think that there's no such thing as "off limits" imposed from outside. No one should try to prevent authors from crafting their characters as they see fit.

    That said, I also think it's fair for people to say, "Don't act like like you understand me or speak for me when you haven't lived this life."

    It's up to each author's own sense of social ethics and social obligations to decide how to respond to that.

    I also think it's important for authors to be aware of how such activities are perceived by a social group they are they are representing.

    But again, it's up to the author to decide how much weight to put on that.

  19. Write what you know. Well, I know some women, some people of color, some foreigners, some (fill in the blank). Shouldn't I be allowed to write about them? As was mentioned by others, as long as I don't try to pass myself off as one of them.

    Michelle: I read "Black Like Me" when it first came out and always thought it helped me (having been raised in a nearly all white area of the country) to understand what was going on in the civil rights struggle. It helped me to empathize with people I didn't really know.

  20. Scott, yes, I own Invisible Man. It's one of my favorite novels, and I do like it better than Black Like Me. I need to read it again. It's been too long since I picked up that book.

  21. I will say that, as an Irish Catholic, sometimes I see portrayals (mostly in movies, admittedly) of Irishmen or of Catholics that are really stereotypical and way off the mark, and I find it offensive. "These writers are idiots," I say to myself. Which is not the same as being a member of a people with a history of having been oppressed and seeing my group portrayed inaccurately and used as a prop and not a human being. I have not had that joyous experience.

    In one of my books, there is a woman who is sort of adopted mother to a group of escaped slaves, in 1749. I have based her on a woman I work with, to get the manner of her speech. I have based the substance of her speech on my own feelings about subjection and human worth. Would such a woman have really existed? I don't know. I am, on the one hand, using her character in the narrative to express one of the themes in the clearest way it appears in the book. On the other hand, I am trying to make her a real person, and I am trusting my own sense of humanity to fill in her soul, as it were. That might not be enough. It's easy for me--a white guy--to sit here and say, "Look at me; I'm being all culturally sensitive" while completely missing the point. Sometimes I worry that this character is a stereotype. My only defense is that, as long as she's no more a stereotype than all my other characters, it's a failure of me as a writer, and not racism. We'll see. Ramble ramble.

  22. I think I have it: One problem is that when we write about the other, we too frequently write them as we see them, not as they see themselves, and that is a failure. As writers and as humans. I don't know what to do about that.

  23. One of my novels has two POV characters-a wealthy, super-skinny white woman and a plump, middle class black woman. The white woman was a lot harder for me to write, even though I'm white, since I'm plump and middle class. Was I being insensitive to the over-privileged supermodel community in portraying this character?

  24. @Chuck, knowing about them is not the same as knowing their perspectives. Likewise, writing about them is not the same as writing from their perspective.

    @Anne, the fact that we white folks can (even if facetiously) compare writing about the experiences of African Americans with writing about rich, skinny white people really drives home the point of the folks who say we shouldn't be writing from the other perspective.

  25. "I think I have it: One problem is that when we write about the other, we too frequently write them as we see them, not as they see themselves, and that is a failure. As writers and as humans. I don't know what to do about that."

    Exactly!! I was going to reply with a long and winding comment but your comment really hits the nail on the head. If an author is willing to do the research involved in writing about a place or race he knows less about and is able to do it without resorting to stereotypes and cliches- then why not?

    However, I think that is easier said than done. And even though I resisted the idea of having to directly experience a place while writing, I am beginning to realize it may be necessary. It is easier not to resort to cliches if you are more aware of the people and places you are writing about. My WIP (which I began in the U.S- though I did grow up in India) is set in India and I am just aching to go back and write there, to catch small details(that I might have missed) that can make adequate writing good. Also, I try very hard not to let nostalgia color my writing which I think could be a problem when writing about a place that one hasn't lived in for a while (or at all). (for example: making the mundane exotic. Turmeric and Jasmine are not exotic for Indians living in India, though they may be for people living in the U.S)

    I think everybody has a right to write about whatever they want- the important question is: what are the factors that make what they write actually good. I agree with Davin about authenticity (and the turkey)- even if accurate details are not important to the story, they are important for the story to live.


  26. Also, when I say cliches and stereotypes- I don't necessarily mean the obvious ones that are so easy to catch that they are more amusing than disturbing- I mean the subtler cliches that not everybody will catch, but that is very annoying to somebody who actually knows the subject better than the writer.

  27. I think writers should be able to write about people different from themselves, but at the same time, writers should avoid cliches and tokenism.

    If you'd like to learn more about Writing the Other, there's a book by that name. I found it very helpful. It's available on Amazon, but the book's website is here:


  28. This kerfuffle is understandable. Your examination of it, I believe, was thoughtful and clarifying. Thanks for taking it on.

    If the portrayal of characters outside our cultural comfort zone seems informed, fair, and reasonable (that is, not stereotypical or ethnocentric--if a consensus or authority could ever be reached on such a thing) and if the story is, most importantly, good, then the bases are probably covered. Those of the seemingly privileged class (white male, usually) who deem to portray the lives of the un- or under-privileged will always encounter scrutiny. There will always be those sitting on the margins who're fully convinced that they know better. In the end, as it so often is, I'm sure the verdict will be inconclusive.

    Overall, responsibility is necessary on the part of the author. But I hope it's not one any self-respecting author would back away from.

  29. I know I should stop and get on with work- but I couldn't resist another comment : I think another problem with writing about 'other' people, places or experiences is that there can be a tendency to homogenize people, places and experiences. Personally, I think the beauty of great writing is that the universality springs, not from generalities but from specific details that are unique to a character or a place. Now, the art of layering details that are unique, yet part of a possible set of details, is something that is easier to implement with more complete knowledge of what is being written about.

    AN example is Orhan Pamuk's writing- I have never been to Turkey, yet the authenticity is very evident. And the layering of specific and unique details adds another dimension to the writing. These details resonate with my experiences of dissimilar, yet equivalent details.

    Now, I will stop..:)

  30. I totally agree that no character should be off limits. To say as much would be to imply that one type of person could never understand another. Personally I find that one of the most amazing things about reading/writing is seeing the world through someone else's eyes - even when something falls short of perfect historical accuracy at least it gives us something to think about.

    The other part of this is to recognize that everyone's experiences are different. The African American who lived out in the farmlands of Ohio would have a vastly different story to tell than one that grew up in Harlem.

    As authors no matter the character or situation we use things familiar to us and then research the rest - and hope that our research allows us to portray the situation in an honest and meaningful way.

  31. Writing about characters unlike oneself is part of a good writer’s DNA. Otherwise, all that would be written would be soliloquies. The obligation, as others have so ably pointed out, is to write it well. And those who attempt to do it sometimes succeed fantastically, as Hemingway did with Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, or fail miserably, the way Joseph Conrad did in The Heart of Darkness with the native African who tended the ship’s boiler. Perhaps as long as we recognize that getting under someone’s else’s skin is a worthy objective but ultimately impossible it will motivate us as writers to shun the easy superficial treatment in favor of a thoughtful one.

  32. where does self censorship end? the dreamscape landscape is not real but for the imagination that brings it to life.
    One might say it is impossible to write from other than one's experience. I cannot create a character who made home made doughtnuts like my g. grmma did?
    is there a right to intillectual properties even after death? if so...lots of biographers are were or should be civil court bound.(thats my rant)...as to my opinion about the author, I am willing to bet the maid would be honored and pleased to be imortalized by a person who respected her even in that space of history. If folks do not like, they do not have to buy. Thus history will decide its appropriate place.

  33. To all that I say "whatevs"

    I'm going to write about non-Jewish non-Ivy-League educated non-male non-middle class non-computer geek non-heterosexual non-married non middle-aged non-Americans if I want to and you'll either read it and like it or you won't.

    My current novel is all about classism and racism and if I can't portray different classes and races then what's the F-ing point of F-ing setting pen to the F-ing paper???

  34. And furthermore, since now I'm on a rant, a lot of white critique partners have a problem with my portrayal of a black woman, but not a single black reviewer has complained.
    Is that a hidden racism? I'm not allowed to portray a black woman unless she's Clair Huxtable or Michelle Obama-like?
    I guess I'm not allowed to portray anyone of another race.

    Folks, just write what you want to write.

  35. Give a little respect to the opposing view. For most people who have concerns on this issue it's not a matter of saying, "Don't ever write about any characters who aren't just like you." That would be childish. What most people who have concerns are concerned about is claiming the voice.

    I realize that many writers do not see this distinction very sharply, but it really is quite different to write a book in which diverse characters appear than to write a book in the voice of such a character.

    I also realize that for many writers this is a matter of creative expression. I agree with that, and that's why I'm certainly not suggesting we stop people from doing it. But I think that creative sorts like us also need to that for many people there are multiple aspects to expression.

    We often separate the content (ideas) from the voice, as if the two are separate. For many, however, the two are linked. When an idea is presented in the story, through a voice, the two are connected, as if the author is saying, "this idea belongs to this voice."

    It's all well and good when the ideas are yours and the voice is something you can lay claim to.

    Many people are offended when we lay claim to *their* voice, and use it to proliferate *our* ideas.

    Should we stop doing that? I'm not sure. But, for me, I have enough sense of social ethics that I feel I should think careful about it.

  36. Okay, Scott, I've comment thread-jacked your post long enough. I swear to relinquish my soap box, and stop sounding like the limousine liberal I'm not.

  37. Hello there! I am a frequent commenter and follower of this blog. What a great topic and one that I hold near and dear myself. My short answer is: any writer, if they've done their due dilligence and research and gotten feedback and betas and critiques and all that good stuff, can write whatever they want, whatever characters they want. I'm a white woman in my 30s but does that mean I represent every single white woman in her 30s? Nope, not even close. My current book on submission has an African American MC and yeah, it took a lot for me to authenticate that but (hopefully), I did it. Plus, writing diverse characters can mean so much more than even that. As writers, we make these decisions in even the smallest choices we make with our characters. I wrote a guest post about this on a YA blog that probably says it much better than I'm rambling here. Here's a link to a more comprehensive thought on it, if you feel like clicking.:) http://oldpeoplewritingforteens.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/diversity-in-ya-ficton-guest-post-by-writer-jennifer-walkup/

  38. Scott,

    This post is pure genius sir. Pure genius.

    Forgive me for going all biblical on you but this phrase from Paul's letter to the Corinthians rings bloody true here.

    "Everything is permissible. But not everything is beneficial."

    All characters/stories are permitted (I'm talking to you, critics of Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil) but not all characters/stories are beneficial (I'm talking to you Yann Martel).

    As long as the character and story is authentic, a writer has the right. I haven't had much about Ms. Stockett's portrayal being incorrect so I'd say it all peachy.

    Great post.

  39. Interesting question and I think no character should be off-limits. End of story.

    I mean, who has the right to tell anyone what they can or cannot write?

    In real life, most of us (some call us the creative-types) fight to be unique and to stand out from a crowd. Why then should we conform to the expectations of others when working on one of the most intimate art-styles in existence?

    If they have a problem with a character's presentation, they should write their own book to improve on it. I know this is a little harsh, since as mentioned, many non-white people struggle to be published, but the point stands.

    Also, how dumb do these debaters believe the reader to be? Most of them will realize that it is merely a character portrayal from the white author's perception. That it doesn't mean that all black ladies are like that. Are all white people the same as the white characters in the books? And if the reader cannot discern between reality and fiction, does their opinion actually mean anything at all?

    I apologize if I come over as a little harsh in some places, but I come from a country where political correctness (which I think lies at the base of this debate) has been pushed way beyond proportion and launched into the rediculous.

  40. This could get silly. Does that mean a science fiction writer can only write earthlings? A number of my short stories are written from a female perspective and I’ve been complemented by how well I’ve managed to get inside the heads of these women. I don’t need to be a woman to write like one. Now, for me to write a black character, that would be harder because I have next to no experience of black people except what I’ve seen on film and TV. I’ve never tried admittedly but that said I never actually mention the ethnicity of most of characters; it’s simply not that important. I’m a Scot and was brought up with Burns’ poem: ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That.’

  41. I am a black writer and reviewer and I read The Help. In black literary circles, The Help is as you say,an ongoing discussion item. I do not subscribe to the notion that writers cannot step outside of their race/economic status/sexual orientation or country of origin to write fiction. Writing fiction is just that; if it is done "right" which is subjective, and in good taste, also subjective, then I say go for it.

    That said, some of the issue I had with Stockett's book is not that she wrote in the voices of the black maids. My issue is that the dialect of the maids was poor, broken English almost exclusively. In contrast the white characters spoke the King's English. When asked in an interview about this, Stockett maintained that her family and circle spoke proper English. But she didn't get it right. She did not bring across the page the cadence of white southern woman. There was no Paula Dean in the voices. White southerners have euphenims and mannerisms that are strictly southern and that did not come across. I enjoyed The Help for the most part; I kept turning the pages to see what would happen.

    No one has the right, I believe, to say that someone should not write something. I, personally, though, being so analytical, ask, what is your motive? Are you writing in the voice of a black woman, or a Chinese man or an East Indian little girl, in order to be the next The Help or The Secret Life of Bees? What compels one to write outside of themself. As writers with creative imaginations, the answers are endless.
    I have to admit in these discussion among black writers, there is a bit of or a lot of literary jealousy and the question looms, if I had written The Help, would it be on the best seller list and option for the big screen? Would I get the publicity and promotion. I do believe some whites write stories about black people because they think it's cute, it's a trend, it's the thing to do. Still, I or anyone else can legislate or monitor what someone else writes. Why does James Patterson have a black detective that has sold millions of dollars?

    The other piece of it is, when blacks write about other than black characters, they get questions by the publishers, why? I know a writer who wrote about a white detective and the editor told him, but he's white. We won't publish it unless you change him to black. Now we have a double standard. Whites can write about us as main charactes, but we cannot write about them. As for do we get white characters right, but ov course, because we have learned as W.E.B. Dubois has written in The Souls of Black Folk, the twoness we have learned to live and work in the white world. We know it well.
    I have rambled enough. But I wanted to give you a black person's perspective and why some of us feel the way we do.

  42. @Dera Thanks, that needed to be said.
    But I kinda stumbled over "black literary circles." Does there really need to be black writing and white writing?
    In my local area I see a lot of women-only writing groups. Do they not write male characters? Could a male's review of their work help hone their characters?
    People can have whatever writing circle they want, and I don't think it's a bad idea, but realize that the circle you create can also act as a barrier to your own growth as a writer.

  43. Just last week, I did a post on this.

    It was about how the popularity of Taylor Swift and Eminem are tied to their authenticity. They write (and sing) their lives.

    BUT, we can't be restricted to only writing what we know. Because frankly, we'd have a lot of tales about white middle class homemakers. Also just because you know something doesn't mean you're inspired to write a book. As a Black woman from Barbados, I'm probably qualified to write a book like THE HELP and set it in the Caribbean. I wouldn't. History isn't my thing, and it would show.

    I concluded that we should write who we are- the things we're passionate about. Because, really, why else would you even want to write?

    Re: the situation at hand, I really wonder who's criticising. There is a certain amount of folly in a white person complaining about the authenticity of black characters...

  44. I read your post with interest since I have just completed a book for young readers that features an African American main character. It only occurred to me after I wrote it that some people might be offended that a white author wrote about a black character. I just want to tell the story! I even toyed with turning my character white, but all the time I was writing, I could see him in my mind, and he is not white. Alas, I hope I do not offend anyone. It's a book, not about race at all, but about earning money, an activity which crosses all racial and gender lines. I didn't want to weigh the story down with heavy issues like race. So, there is my dilemma...white person writes about black character. I have decided not to deprive my character of his skin color. I hope I'm doing the right thing.

  45. I forgot to add...I write about male characters all the time, but I am not a man. So, there you go. How dull would our stories be if we only wrote what we personally know and experience?


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