Wednesday, March 25, 2015

No, You Don’t Have to Write about Yourself


If you’re into gossip (and who isn’t), there was recently a huge to do about the hate-reviews author Ella Fox was getting from a particularly pissed off fan. Fox, who gave a status update informing her followers to illustrate how bad online bullying can get, revealed she was being fat-shamed by some (alleged) reader. Well, the insulting one-star did the opposite of its intention and lured in all kinds of new eyes to Fox’s books and websites which already had a high number of five-star reviews. (Five star reviews these days can mean nothing, but a lot of them still does.) The negative review spurred me, at least, to buy one of her novels, out of singularity, but also simply because it brought me to the site in the first place. So I think the lesson here is being a dick helps their sales.

The reviewer was leaving one-stars everywhere, but the main offending quote was, (sic) “You would think a plump Author would write about girls like herself. It disturbs me that all there is is skinny chicks. It’s like she loves her life through them. Not for me,” and “I guess I only like pretty authors. I just couldn’t get into the book knowing what the author looks like:(”

Now, trolling on the internet is a huge issue at the moment, but that’s not really my point. After seeing this, I started to notice a lot of reviews reading pretty much the same way.

“Fat writers should write about fat characters.”

Hmmm... sounds familiar.

My college was primarily Hispanic students (I stood out like a white thumb) with white faculty members. We had a few whiteys and some African Americans, but for the most part, it was probably about 60% Latinos. It was also about 70% women. (Yes, I’m guessing.)

My professors, whom as any long term readers know I just love, had this bad habit of informing the students that they needed to write things “closer to home.” And by that, they meant:

“Hispanic writers should write about Hispanic characters.”

“Female writers should write about female characters.”

Or, as they told me, “You need to write what you know. You should write about being an outcaste.”
  
I also remember during college being told a particularly irritating story of similar ideals. Back during the 1950’s or 60’s, Richard Wright, an African Amercian novelist, trashed the work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, because it was written by an African American woman and did not promote political activism. It was a love story, a love story that he claimed pandered to the white impression of blacks.

Which, honestly, that last part may have been legitimate. Keep in mind that at the beginning of Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, he murders a cat and you’ll see that I have a hard time being remotely objective about him or his opinions. I don't like Mr. Wright the Cat Killer, and so I tend to side with Ms. Hurston.

And, no matter if Zora Neal Hurston’s execution of the characters’ dialect may have been promoting a racist view on black people, (which is a different issue, and one that could very well be true, or very well Wright being competitive) her decision to write a romance novel featuring black characters that did not discuss “black empowerment” was completely up to her. Just because she's black doesn't mean she has to write political works, or even about black people at all.

As a woman, I want the right to write about whoever I want, and while I retain the right to discuss any feminist mentalities I have, I also retain the right to not write a novel that focuses or even mentions equality. If a woman wants to write a romance novel with a female character whose main objective in life is to be loved, so be it. If she wants to write an action movie with a female protagonist and no romance what so ever, she should write that. Sure, both of these scripts might be hard sells, but that’s her choice and criticizing her for not writing about your values, or even the values you just think she’s supposed to have and calling it “constructive” is completely ignoring the benefit of different perspectives.

Forcing someone to write for the characters and on the subjects you think they should write on is unbeneficial to everyone involved. Part of equality is about not forcing your presumptions on what they should or should not be doing on them simply because of their superficial characteristics.

The problem is, of course, that if people of the minority/perceived minority (women make up 51% of the population, so they’re technically the majority), and they’re not willing to have diversity in their characters, who is?

I will say the flaw in my logic of “we shouldn’t shame people for not writing about people like them,” is that those character do need to be written about, and social shame is the best way to make writers branch out of our little boxes.

I personally hate the lack of diversity in characters, but I can unconsciously submit to it as well. It often has to “occur” to me that, “Oh, my characters don’t have to be white!” There’s something inherently wrong with that.

Truth is, not many people are writing these “outsider” traits, including the outsiders themselves. That’s problematic. If a woman feels like she has to write a male character for her book to be successful, what makes us think that a man—a person who it is less evident and important to—will pick up the slack? Someone needs to branch out, so why wouldn’t we encourage those who know the situation best be the ones to do it?

Of course, it falls back into my argument against this whole forcing authors to write for people “like them,” because those on the “inside,” are often belittled and discouraged from writing about people on the “outside.” Men are less likely to write about women because they're more likely to be criticized for doing so.

We’ve all heard some reader complain about a straight author writing for a gay character. Sometimes it has to do with the actual context: “You put in a gay guy and he dies halfway through? Nice.” But sometimes it’s just this mentality of, “You don’t know what it’s like!”

I once had a guy in a writers’ group constantly insist that men couldn’t write for female characters because “we’re not them.” This pissed me off. Is it that hard to relate to a woman? You think we’re so inhuman that you can’t even find a basic common ground?

I find this to be bullshit for several reasons, partially because I think men can understand women if they just believed they could. It's like Shakespeare; if you walk in thinking you're not going to get it, you're going to shut down long before you heard the first word, but in reality it's actually pretty easy to get.

But also because I find men often know more about how women are treated than women do. Yes, some guys are shocked when you tell them your horror stories about a man who sends you photos of flowers every day for a month before finally delivering the penis picture. However, many have more perspective. And if he's an author, he should be even more attuned to the world around him. A beautiful woman might not be aware of how many favors she gets because she’s beautiful—she just thinks it’s basic human kindness. A man watching, however, will know exactly why she got away with cutting in line (oblivious to the fact that she was even cutting in the first place.)

I won’t claim to understand what it’s like to be black, a man, overweight, gay, old or anything I’m not. But what perspective I lack tends to be the little nuanced details, the things I can’t even predict, the exact things that a person of that “type” will be able to reveal that others can’t. It doesn’t mean that I am stripped of all empathy and relatability. Just because I’ve never struggled with weight issues doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see diverse body types on screen, or that I don’t want other people to have to struggle with the social shame. Just because I don’t have an insider’s perspective on being gay doesn’t mean I don’t see how hurtful homophobia can be, or haven’t had similar experiences, like people criticizing who I fall in love with.

Sure, an insider has a more unique and fully developed perspective on their life, but limiting that insider to only write about characters who are also stuck in that label, and restricting outsiders from telling their perspective doesn’t encourage diversity in characters. And it restricts the dialogue about racism, sexism, and basic closed-mindedness. Art is a primary communication of the issues, and censoring art slows down the process.


We need to encourage all writers to broaden their horizons to examine lives that are not their own, especially if those are lives they want to examine. Criticizing people who try to write characters different than themselves, to explore ideas and values outside of just what affects them, just promotes a narrow-minded view of reality, not a more diverse one. Assuming we can't write about people who aren't us is assuming we can't empathize with them either, which is just not true.