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Writing with Privilege: The Lionel Shriver Fallacy

By now, many of you will probably have seen the keynote speech Lionel Shriver gave at the Brisbane Writers Festival. If not, let me sum it up for you. In a nutshell, she claims that people (mostly people from marginalized groups) have taken concerns about cultural appropriation to extremes, and that this “trend” directly hampers a writer’s (and particularly a privileged writer’s) ability to write good fiction.

According to Shriver, PC-crazy millennials have demanded that authors not write from or about perspectives not our own (e.g. other races, orientations, ability levels, etc.), but paradoxically that we fill our stories with positive representations of diverse identities and experiences. She writes:

“Besides: which is it to be? We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?”

This paradox confounds Shriver, who also claims that it is “dangerous” to “go the diversity route,” citing as an example the (apparently) unreasonable criticism she faced for depicting a black character who has dementia and must be kept on a leash by her white husband and step-children. She deplores the fact that, in this milieu of esoterically complex identity politics, fiction authors simply “can’t win.”

This frustration is not a new one. (In fact, contrary to Shriver’s accusation that this is a controversy manufactured by overzealous millennials, this debate has actually been ongoing for decades if not centuries, perhaps most famously in regards to William Styron’s 1968 The Confessions of Nat Turner—read more here.) I’ve heard echoes of it bandied around in many circles I’m a part of, sometimes by writers who are genuinely concerned and confused about the best way to be inclusive in their stories, and sometimes by those who, like Shriver, are scared of being taken to task for offensive representation or are simply irritated by the unsavory prospect of having to step back and reconsider the representations of diversity or lack thereof in their work.

I’m far from the first person to address these concerns. Many people from marginalized groups have tried (and continue to try) very hard to address the difficulties of writing outside one's own experience through providing guidelines, resources, editorial assistance etc. (Below, you can find links to some of these.) I won't try to rehash the work they have already done, but I am going to try to address one of Shriver's central fallacies--her idea that marginalized groups are demanding to be represented both everywhere and nowhere in mainstream literature--because the more authors speak out against false narratives like this one, the more readers and aspiring writers will question their legitimacy.

Let’s start with what I have in common with Shriver. Like her, I am a straight, white, non-disabled female born in North Carolina. Like Shriver, I am an author who is deeply concerned about issues of representation in my books. Like Shriver, I am “anxious” about depicting characters from marginalized backgrounds.

But I have a very different take on representation in fiction writing, and here’s why.

I listen. Or at least I try my best to.

I am not great at social media, but I find myself there often, peeking in on the conversations that are happening right now in the children’s literature industry. Specifically, I follow a group of authors, publishers, bloggers and readers with diverse backgrounds. And I listen to what they say and what they don’t.

Here are things I have never heard them say:

  • You should not write from or about perspectives that are not your own.

  • You must fill your book with a rainbow of diversity for diversity’s sake, no matter what the setting, story or context.

In other words, Shriver’s claim that the PC police have impossible standards for authors writing from a place of privilege is, in my experience, completely false. Nobody is backing us into a corner. Nobody is telling us not to step into the shoes of someone who comes from a different walk of life than we do. Nobody is forcing us to people our novels with characters whose cultures we know nothing about and that have nothing to do with the story we want to tell.

Here is what I have heard people from marginalized communities asking fiction writers, and particularly those with high levels of privilege, to do:

  • If you are writing from outside your perspective (that is, if your focalizing character(s) are of a different race/orientation/ability level etc. than you), think long and hard about why you feel compelled to do so. Could your story work just as well told through a perspective more similar to your own? If so, are your motives for writing outside your experience wrapped up in savior or guilt complexes? Is your primary aim to make your book more appealing to publishers who are suddenly excited about “diverse” fiction?

  • If you are writing from outside your perspective, ask yourself whether there is likely to be someone from within that perspective who is trying to write the same story and whose voice you might be speaking over. Might their voice tell the story better by bringing something to the conversation that yours isn’t able to?

  • If you are writing from outside your perspective, accept that you are hoping to profit off of a community to which you do not belong and consider ways that you can balance the scales.

  • If writing about characters who are a part of marginalized groups, do your research to make sure that you are representing them respectfully and accurately. Members of marginalized groups are usually immersed in the dominant culture by default. How are you going to immerse yourself in theirs in order to write about them authentically? (Hint: Start by reading and listening to real voices from this group. Pay attention to how their experiences and privileges differ from your own.)

  • If writing about characters who are a part of marginalized groups, find sensitivity readers from those groups who can help you identify representations in your writing that are unauthentic, stereotypical or problematic, even if these transgressions were unintentional.

  • If writing about characters who are a part of marginalized groups, expect to be notified by your readers if and when you get it wrong. (Just like you expect a reviewer to point out shortcomings in your pacing or character development.) Welcome their critiques, be ready to process them, to apologize for your errors, and to commit to doing better next time.

  • If you’re not ready to do these things, consider that you might not be ready to represent characters from marginalized groups (ie. don’t fill your novel with a diverse cast if you aren’t willing to put in the work to make them authentic and respectful). And while you’re at it, ask yourself why you’re not ready. After all, researching, critiquing and editing are part of any good writing process. Why is it that when it comes to researching and incorporating feedback from a marginalized culture you feel uncomfortable?

None of these requests seem so very far-fetched to me. I certainly don’t think they warrant a comparison to attacking white people for eating pad Thai (one of the many false analogies Shriver makes to the current “policing” of fiction writing).

Are they all simple and straight-forward tasks? Absolutely not. Have I mastered them all? No, far from it. I freely admit that I am still at the beginning of my career, still on a steep learning curve, still making mistakes. And in thirty years, if I’m lucky enough to still be writing, I will still be learning. Because it is really, really hard to get these things right. Just like coming up with a metaphor for a pounding heart that isn’t a cliché is really hard. Just like plotting clues your protagonist can solve but that keep your readers turning pages is really hard.

Do we stop writing because those things are hard? Do we blame our readers or reviewers for pointing out where we fail? No. We push ourselves to be better writers. And good representation is simply part of good writing.

I could go on all day about the many other ways that this piece gets it wrong, but let me get to the point about what bothers me most about it. Namely, Shriver’s conflation of marginalized people asking for realistic and respectful representation with petty PC tyrants who are trying to censor her art.

I find that notion incredibly insulting. Because you know whose voices have been censored, consistently, for centuries? You know who fiction can actually be “dangerous” for? Minority voices. Queer voices. Voices of color. Voices of people with disabilities. Voices of religious minorities. And yes, women’s voices, but particularly those who also identify as part of another marginalized group. Fiction is dangerous for them because censorship has always been and continues to be reinforced by inaccurate representation and appropriation of marginalized groups and their cultures.

So to imply that critics from marginalized communities—whose voices are still few and far between in this industry—are censoring authors in asking for respectful and thoughtful representation (in order to stop their own voices from being discredited/disenfranchised and thus censored further by harmful representation), is a twisted and offensive interpretation completely lacking in historical context or, for that matter, empathy. Which is, as Shriver (rightly!) suggests, the main work of a fiction writer.

Yes. I, like Shriver, am anxious about depicting characters from marginalized groups. Not because I am worried that an overzealous PC bully is going to pick a fight with me, and not because I see fiction as a game that can somehow be “won” by its author. But because I want—desperately—to get it right. Because I know that literature does not exist within a vacuum. The aesthetic choices we make have real world implications that affect our readers (particularly in children’s literature). And, far from compromising the integrity or purity of our art, I think considering these implications makes our art better, more beautiful, more complex, and more human. And isn’t that the whole point?

A Few Resources & Perspectives:

Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a young woman of color who was in the audience during Shriver's speech and walked out, gives her perspective.

Writing with Color: This site has amazing resources for authors writing outside their own ethnic/racial identity. Like this post on how to write about skin color, or this one about common stereotypes and tropes to look out for.

We Need Diverse Books is an organization devoted to promoting diverse literature and authors. They have a wealth of resources, from book lists to roundtable discussions. You can also check out their Twitter lists for ideas of voices to be listening to.

Write in the Margins keeps a large database of sensitivity readers you can contact about critiquing your manuscript.

Writing the Other is a group of educators who teach classes and seminars on different aspects of representation. There’s also a fantastic book and a great resource list. One of my favorites is this roundtable on writing characters of color as a white author.

Reading While White is a group of white librarians committed to both challenging racism in children’s literature/publishing and promoting books by diverse authors.

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