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?