You Can’t Write That!

Originally, it was: You can’t write That! the topic was taboo, horrible, subversive, or all of the above. Today it seems to have shifted into: You can’t write that! You are too male, or too female, too straight, too pale, too European, not a member, too biased as a former member . . . What a mess. Fiction writers have learned what historians and anthropologists collided with twenty years ago and more: the Powers That Be* have no sense of imagination or moderation. Why can’t I write that? If I can’t, who can?

I first encountered the “You can’t write that” in grad school. There are some major academic battles still on-going about who is qualified to write history. No, not just have you gone to a degree program and learned how to do the work. Are you a [topic]? No? What gives you the right to write about [topic]? There are people who firmly maintain that only women can write about women’s history, only former or current soldiers can write military history (sorry John Keegan), only Chinese can write about Chinese history, only Native Americans can properly write about Native American history, only homosexuals can write about homosexual history . . . You get the idea. Instead of focusing on the need to be dispassionate but interested, and wiling to consider all the available documentation and to write as well-balanced an account of events as possible, the emphasis seems to be slipping toward the idea that only a [topic] can understand [topic] enough to write without offending someone from that [topic].

You can guess my reaction to that sort of thing. No, I didn’t sound off in class, but I was one of several who rolled their eyes, and the professor was inclined to agree that as a blanket rule, it didn’t make sense. You end up with things like a conference I attended where all the female grad students from [big public university] did Women’s History. Every one gave a paper on Women’s History topics. Every. Single. One. They acted quite surprised that I didn’t do Women’s History. (The theoretical side is painfully tedious, to put it mildly, in my opinion.) If there are not that many women in my particular subfields of history, I don’t think it is the patriarchy to blame. In many cases there would be NO historical research to draw from if pale males had not been interested in and written about a lot of different fields.

That sort of thing has erupted in the fiction world over the past 18 months or so, going from one of those “understood” things, a wink-wink-nudge matter only a few authors or publishers were willing to talk about, to being front and center in arguments over the future of fiction, especially genre fiction. Can someone who is not gay write gay characters? Can an African-American write about Indians in space (either kind of Indian)? Can an atheist woman write from a Muslim man’s perspective? One author says yes, but with several major qualifications. The author must consult with members of the group in question, and their comments and objections should have the final word on the project if they find it too objectionable.

This is not readers looking for factual errors, say, asking a Navajo about certain Navajo traditions and recipes. This is having several lesbians reading a novel about a lesbian couple in Kansas and asking them to make certain that the book is sensitive to concerns and to the background of the lesbian community. And if they say, or even one reader says, “No, this is not good, the community may be hurt by this portrayal” the project ends right there if a better way can’t be found to show what the story asks for. I’m sure I could think of other examples, like approaching African-Americans to “sensitivity read” (her term) a novel about a mixed-race couple in Arizona, say. And she acknowledges that it is not really possible to get enough readers to cover the entirety of the minority/immigrant/sexual-based experience.

I have some very strong reactions to this idea. It works for her, and I’m glad she finds it useful. For me, I wonder where the line gets drawn, and if that line will keep moving until it becomes a box that limits me the author to only writing about straight, unmarried Euro-American women with graduate degrees. Or nothing but space aliens of indeterminate sex. The sci-fi and fantasy world has already seen a hint of that when Tor Books had an open manuscript call for fantasy books. Yeah! Open call! But with the stipulation that the books had to feature a non-European based culture (no medieval Elves, no urban fantasy in Western civilization settings, you get the idea), and preferably written by members of the non-European cultural groups, or other minority authors. Why? Because there are not enough books being sold about non-European fantasy civilizations and certainly not enough by non-Caucasian authors, or so a number of people have been saying in public for the past two years or so.

Note that these are the descendants, intellectually at least, of the people who panned The Bridge of Birds because it was set in a mythical Tang Dynasty China. It was, and is, a fantastic book, and it is a real crying shame that Barry Hughart only wrote two more books in that world. I don’t much care for Guy G. Kay’s Chinese novels, but it has to do with his writing as it is now than with his use of China per se. Other people would argue that GGK can’t “do” China because he’s not Chinese.

I have gay characters. I have lots of male characters. I have non-Anglo characters. Not all of them are nice, and at least one highly deserves what he gets. Should I refrain from writing a nasty, vicious street thug who happens to be Black because that reflects poorly on the Black community? Or an evil villain who happens to be gay, because this would make all gays look bad? I’d say no.

I don’t set stories in American Indian or African-American, or African for that matter, settings because I don’t want to do the research I feel I would need to get it right to my taste. Not because I’m afraid of accidentally making American Indians look bad or of being “insensitive,” whatever that means today. I’m lazy, not sensitive. It’s easier to make up mythology if I want a non-Western-flavored belief system (OK, Selkow is borrowed, but in a way that I suspect very few readers catch, and even then I’ve modified her heavily. [See Blackbird for the tell]).

Is there anything you can’t write? No.

Are there things you might not feel comfortable writing? Sure.

Are there topics I’d just as soon people didn’t write about and that I won’t touch with a light-year long pole? Yes, but that’s my bugbear, not society’s. If you can capture the human condition, if you can make the characters feel real for good and ill, if they are not cardboard cut-outs and simple (lazy) stereotypes, go for it. Write about a girl in the slums of Nairobi who discovers that magic is real. Write about Zulus in space. Write about American Indians in space (Andre Norton’s original Beastmaster book. Highly recommend.) Do a little work and remember that they are people, just like the rest of us. People are fascinating. People can be good and they can be bad and they can be both.

Just write a good story, no matter who, what, where, or when you write about.

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5 thoughts on “You Can’t Write That!

  1. As someone who loved the Master Li and Number Ten Ox books, I think that a writer should write whatever they think they’ve researched well enough, and let the chips fall where they may. The readers can always howl if we did it wrong.

    See, this is the key thing that disgruntles me about all these “gatekeepers”. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. The free market will do the rest!

    Which brings up the fact that their real criteria is, if they don’t like it, they think no one should read it. Oi. Does anyone tell Hollywood they can’t make movies without checking with, say, American Southerners to see if they’re portrayed in a sensitive light?

    …I didn’t think so, no.

    (And yes, I plan to watch The Great Wall if I get a chance. European mercenaries or not. Check your history books, you nose-in-the-air types; there weren’t a lot of Europeans in China in that timeframe, but some were there!)

  2. Wait, they don’t think there is a lot of Chinese fantasy written by Chinamen? How parochial.

    I was just at *mumble* looking through what I’d describe as unlicensed translations. Except that this one nobody place has apparently licensed 22 titles. If somebody without connections to big publishing can do that in this business environment, I might conclude that NY big publishing has their head up their rear, and is leaving money on the table.

  3. SIgh… One more reason to be an indie… That way the market decides! And who died and made them ‘gods’ of what we may or may not write anyway???

  4. One doesn’t need to be a(n) $X to write of $X. Or else Anna Sewell (Black Beauty’s author) was a horse, right? One might argue my species (don’t waste your time), but Sewell was decidedly human.

  5. So one person out of, what was it, 20?, didn’t like the book, this author pulled it and killed the project? No wonder mainstream publishing is circling the drain and I find fewer things coming out of the Big 5 that I want to read.

    I’m going to write whatever I [CENSORED] please, and to heck with the gatekeepers. No one fits any community’s stereotype. As you correctly pointed out, writers should write about people.

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