Friday, March 12, 2010

A really long blog post about fiction, autobiography, cultural tourism and such like

I’m still chewing this over so blogging about it may be premature. The other night I mentioned to writing pals that I can’t help but write from my life. That’s usual I think, although people bury themselves in their words to a greater or lesser extent, so sometimes it is obviously a fictionalised account of personal experience (Sylvia Plath) and other times the reality is almost invisible (Ted Hughes.)

I have felt lonely, awkward, happy, and sad. I have had relationships, I have children, I have been ill etc. So when my fiction has a character that feels alone I draw on my own understanding of that emotion in order to convey it. That’s what we all do, right? But what about when I, owner of sixteen pet slugs, write a story about a slug? I draw part of my story from my own experiences, and yet the slug in my story is not my slug, and the slug owner in the story is not me. The things that happen are not real. It is a made-up story. What if my fictional woman picks up a saucepan and bangs her slug to death with it? Does that mean it is something I have done. Nope. But what about her feelings? If she is feeling desperate and angry and fizzing with violence when she flattens that slug I may call upon my own knowledge of how that feels in order to portray it.

I’m not the owner of sixteen slugs. I made that up. You know what I mean though.

My twins have special needs and I have written a story about a boy with special needs. He is not based on my boys. The mum in the story is not me. The situations that arise have not happened to us, the things said and done are all fiction. I draw on my experiences though, my knowledge. I feel okay writing about this made up boy with special needs because although my work is fiction I do have experience of how it may be, and so I feel that it is ok for me to explore.

I don’t have a pet slug. If I wrote a story about a pet slug I could research it, I could read books and articles. I could go in my garden and find a slug and force myself to touch it and write about that. Or I could just make it up. I could imagine that it would feel cool, and jelly, and squishy. That would be ok. Slugs won’t read the story and feel upset that it is inaccurate and that really they feel warm and wet. But. Hmm. I won’t write about a small African girl in a dusty village. I don’t feel that is my story to tell. I am uneasy about the cultural tourism that writers and readers so often engage in. Not my bag, man.

I have had heated debates with other writers about this. We are fiction writers and we make things up. Our imagination is the key we unlock our stories with, and we have the right to imagine anything. Yeah. But.

It was suggested by one writer I discussed this with that perhaps it was because I wasn’t talented enough as a writer that I couldn’t write these types of stories. Rude. I choose not to. I am uncomfortable with taking stories that aren’t mine.

The always awesome Kuzhali Manickavel said in a recent blog post “I am not going to ask why your story is about a Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things where all the girls get raped and raped and raped and raped and raped and everyone speaks some foreign Muslim language which makes them sound like they all have massive brain injuries because hey, that’s just how those crazy foreigners talk, right? I am not going to ask about this because people write this kind of stuff all the time, possibly because they believe that the chances of someone calling them on their bullshit are very slim to nil. This is why so many craptastic stories about “foreigners” get published. However. I do want to know why you would say that legions of white peacocks flooded the skies each dawn and alighted on everyone’s front lawns in the Muslim Village of No Good Horrible Very Bad Things. Legions of white peacocks? LEGIONS? FRONT LAWNS? WTF, are you on drugs? Is this sci-fi? Are you on drugs?”

And I think, she has a point, no?

I suppose what I seek is authenticity, because ultimately I look for truth in fiction. I look to fiction to supply absolute truth in a way that non-fiction sometimes fails to do. And I don’t mind at all if the truth is embedded in magical realism, or laid bare, or if it rhymes, or whatever. I don’t like sentimentality though, that almost wobbling on the brink of tears luxury of voyeuristic misery. I want to recognise, empathise and believe. I revel in the joy of feeling understood and connected in some way.

So we’re back to me writing somewhat biographically but not really.

Tania Hershman just reviewed Janice Galloway’s Collected Stories over at The Short Review. She comments:

“The next point is that where many authors cast their net far and wide and write stories set in many locations - be they cities, countries or other planets - Galloway needs no such exoticism. She is curious about the domestic and mundane; she takes a microscope, peels back the skin and probes, down to the bones, the sinews, the very atoms.”

I hadn’t noticed that, I hadn’t looked. But yes, it seems that the author who interests me the most is one who writes in the way I aspire to. She rejects the exotic and examines the everyday. Her truth shines and resonates. I wonder if that’s true for all my favourite authors, and suspect there it is: the uniting thread between Plath, Galloway, Lorrie Moore, Ali Smith, A.L Kennedy, Bukowski, Dave Eggers, Douglas Coupland.

There is a wonderful quote from Lorrie Moore in response to being asked about a story “which seemed to straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction.”

“No, it didn't straddle a line. It was fiction. It is autobiographical, but it's not straddling a line. Things did not happen exactly that way; I re-imagined everything. And that's what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction. It can still have that connection, that germ. It came from something that happened to you. That doesn't mean it's straddling a line between nonfiction and fiction. And the whole narrative strategy is obviously fictional. It's not a nonfiction narrative strategy.”

Brilliant. (You can read the whole interview here.) I love how she sounds kinda testy and absolutely sure of herself.

Anyway, like I say, I'm still mulling. I'm not saying that you shouldn't write whatever you feel compelled to, but I think we all strive for a unique voice, and mine sounds a lot like me. 


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Yikes. I am guilty of fictional tourism, then, and ought to be shot about now.
But my take is this. If my story is crapso enough that I didnt make it real for anyone, then shoot me, OK.

If 1% of readers 'believed' it, and 99% didn't.. shoot me now.

But let's continue...

where do you stop shooting me? When 51% believe it, and 49% don't?

I feel really unconmfortable with the thought that no one can write anything unless they have direct experience of it. So, taking it to extremes, I can never create a black character? A brown character, otr a yellow character? A male character? A blind character, a one-armed character. A lesbian, or gay character. I can never create toffs, or half wits, all I can ever ever create is middle aged, middle class, golf-driving white heterosexual women. How bloody boring is that?

And how wrong.

Sure, I've written lots of stuff that has missed the mark, but surely to goodness we are allowed to TRY and get out of our own heads? Who on earth says we can't? Dont listen to em. They sound sort of up their own parts, if you ask me.

Unknown said...

I didn't say that anyone "guilty" (your word not mine) of fictional tourism should be shot. In fact I carefully said "I'm not saying you shouldn't write whatever you feel compelled to."

So, "where do you stop shooting me?" erm, nope, I never shoot you at all, that's you being overly dramatic.

Of course you can write about things you have no direct experience of, I personally (so, me, not you) feel that there are some stories that aren't mine to tell.

This post is about me discovering how I tick, not about censoring you or anyone else.

kellie said...

This is something I've pondered and fretted about for a while. It wasn't until I saw the Mighty Galloway speak that I realised how kind of mad it was that a writer's ability to fake it is held in such high regard. Deep down I always felt that nothing is completely 'made up'. It's all coming from inside our bonces, people aren't 'channeling' from some external source or summat. One of the reasons I get freaked out by writing is that I'm worried about revealing the insides of my brain, will people think I'm a weirdo/perve/writing about people I know etc?

While I do like to be entertained, I really love having a big old nosey into someone else's experiences and consciousness. If I was clever and had done my research, I'd say something hoity toity here about William and Henry James and how literature tells us more about individual psychology than, eh, psychology does. For me, writing doesn't have to be particularly clever or whatever - if what I've read feels authentic then I'm very satisfied. I think that's why I get quickly hacked off with historical fiction. If I want to read a book about the 1940s, I'd rather read one written then.

But I guess I've also bought into this idea that fiction should be a complete invention and magically plucked from somewhere. Consequently, I've increasingly found my own attempts at writing bore me. So this post is ace as it's made me realise that in order to get my writing mojo back, I need to unearth my original voice instead of some dullsville blah. The outcome might be rubbish but at least it'll be my rubbish heh heh!

Sorry for such an enormo blethersome comment, but like you I'm kind of thinking aloud about why I read and what I want to write.

Nice one missus x

Vanessa Gebbie said...

S - you misunderstand me. K seems to be saying that she takes a dim view (and rightly) of writers who have no idea, creating stereotype Muslim villages and raping everyone in sight - and its stupid.

Sure, Im agreeing. It IS stupid, if that is how it comes across, to the majority of readers. But (and this is me, working out my own ethic too) - if I want to write as a muslim villager, and try to get it right, then I will. As I tried to once, and got it rather wrong! I got names wrong, for a start, and clothing, and food, and all sorts. That was just lazy. All those things are researchable.

But K did seems to be veering towards saying 'no one has the right to write about muslim villages, unless they are - er -Muslim writers, and also villagers.' And that struck me as culturally restrictive.

Blaft Publications said...

Hi Vanessa --

I don't think Kuzhali is saying that white American middle-class women can't write about black people or gay people or people from Africa or whatever.

I think what she is saying is that, to create something which is worth anything as literature, and which is not offensive to the people it is purportedly about, you had better do some serious research and get things right. The further you are removed from the subject you want to write about, the more research you need to do.

Suppose you were reading a novel written by an Indian about a traditional Scottish family making whisky in the highlands and wearing kilts. And suppose the author has given the family some Serbian surname like Mladjenovic and has them eating burritos for dinner every night, and this was assumed to be normal behavior for a traditional Scottish family and never explained. What would you think of the author? NOW suppose that this author won some major international award for the novel, because the award committee didn't know the difference between Scots and Serbians and Mexican food and wouldn't have cared or thought it important even if they did.

This is what Asians and Africans see most of the time we read a story about Asia or Africa written by a foreigner. And of course this is just a superficial example; sometimes the things writers get wrong are more important and crucial. It really can get infuriating after a while.

There's a simple answer to this problem I think. If you want to write about a place you've never been or where you haven't spent much time... make a few friends who have been there and get them to read your stuff and consult. And really listen to their advice.

kuzhali manickavel said...

Thank you Blaft, that is exactly exactly exactly what I meant and thank you for saying it better than I could. Especially -to create something which is worth anything as literature, and which is not offensive to the people it is purportedly about, you had better do some serious research and get things right. The further you are removed from the subject you want to write about, the more research you need to do.- and -sometimes the things writers get wrong are more important and crucial. It really can get infuriating after a while.- yes, this. a thousand times yes.

Sara, thanks for the shout-out and also i am liking this blog post otherwise also. i was reading about misery porn recently and i found it really interesting to read about the literary hoaxes in the genre (memoirs, alleged autobiographies, etc). if these works had been marketed as fiction, which in fact they are, would they be less authentic? In your post you say -Our imagination is the key we unlock our stories with, and we have the right to imagine anything.- so why is it when certain things are made up like this, it's not cool to admit it's all made up? is it because the actual voice or story is not authentic or strong enough to pass as fiction? does marketing it as the truth make us disregard a weak voice? i think it's interesting that sometimes, fiction only seems to be authentic when you say it's true. all this made lorrie moore's quote all the more awesome in that she is very clear on what is fiction and what isn't. i don't know if anything i wrote made much sense, just thinking aloud really. the question of authenticity is certainly interesting.


Anonymous said...

Hey Sara, apparently this makes you like JD Salinger - so it cant be all bad. to find out why check this...

Emma said...

Hey Sara - I loved your post. It's pretty much how I feel too.

I don't think we should restrict ourselves to writing only about things of which we have direct personal experience. But I think we have to find a way into the experience we want to write about. How we do this is one of the great mysteries. But very good writers can and do do it - burrow their way into consciousnesses that perhaps 'should' have been beyond them.

But. And it's a big but. We all hope we pull it off, but often we don't. And a writer won't always know themselves when they’ve failed. They’ve created a character they find compelling and vivid - but it might also be false, by which I mean based on stereotype, cliche and misinformation. Quite possibly they’ve managed to carry a bunch of their readers along for the ride - but then these readers readers might be equally prone to stereotyped, cliched or misinformed beliefs about the subjects of the fiction.

As it says in the song, you gotta know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em. By which I mean, we need to know how good we are. If we’re not sometimes scared of getting it wrong, then either we’re playing it too safe, or we don’t care enough about truthfulness.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Thanks for the discussion, its great.

It's all about doing what we do, and then getting it as right as we can, isn't it, within the parameters of being creative beings, not journalists or text book writers?

Jeez, I've done some howlers in my time- my share of "a Muslim village" complete with rapes, naturally...
However, I then moved the female character to the UK, for her 'safety', where she was just ill-treated again. And again. The story wasnt even 'about' the village, it was about the arrogance and hypocrisy of the West. Done rather badly, but also sincerely.

I got details completely wrong. I got the voice wrong. That was lazy - but also an important learning curve.

And it is that part of this that I wanted to protect. To leave writers with permission to TRY. Hopefully, I've moved on, and would check some facts if I was tackling this story now.

As a teacher, I have no worries about writers stretching and trying to write whatever and whoever they want. It's in the getting it wrong that we learn, isnt it?


Clare Wigfall won The National Short Story Prize 2008 with a piece set in the Outer Hebrides, 'The Numbers'. Published by Faber in her collection 'The Loudest Sound and Nothing' it is set in a remote community, a while back.

She invented dialect, used small vocabulary devices, allied to the Scottish way of speech. (if that is grammatical...)

It is a wonderful story. Not only published by one of the best publishers, but found success at the highest level.

It was only when she visited the Outer hebrides after winning the national, that she discovered that the islanders speak in nothing like the voice she had invented for them. And they didnt like it, unsurprisingly.

Her take is this - she was writing fiction. Making things up. She was not writing a geographical treatise, nor a historic volume. Nor a language manual. Fiction.

She takes the view that if she convinces 99% of the readers, she's done her job.

If writers worried about pleasing everyone, they'd never write a thing. That and the importance of trying, letting ourselves be creative - those are the points I'm trying to make, cack-handedly.

Jenny Beattie said...

What a fascinating discussion. I feel quite like Sara. I wonder whether some of this is about confidence - at least that's the way that it feels to me.

I've been living in Bangkok for five years and it's only as I learn more about the culture that I feel I could explore some of what I see from the Thai perspective. I would never have had the courage to do it five years ago. Perhaps this makes me the laziest writer ever, I don't know.

Blaft Publications said...

Hmm. The Clare Wigfall story kind of bothers me. If, writing from ignorance, you managed to write a fictional story that convinced 99% of your readers that all the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides were cannibalistic illiterate savages, that wouldn't be okay, right? So where does the line get drawn?

I have a pet peeve about a related issue: stories set in fictional countries that don't exist, but are supposed to be representative of a certain region, like Sylvania in one of the Tintin comics. This seems to happen to Central Asia a lot, maybe cuz it's so easy to make up names that end in "Stan" -- e.g. Tom Hanks' character in The Terminal. And people make up "typical" countries in Africa all the time... even Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has done this in Wizard of the Crow, and he's an African writer I have the deepest sort of respect for.

But it always bothers me somehow. I feel like there is some intrinsic stereotyping happening. If you are going to deny your characters any connection with the real world and actual history, at least give them their own fictional universe to play in, instead of trapping them in this strange limbo of an invented country on a real planet.

Just a personal preference I guess. And it's easy for me to gripe about this stuff, I'm not a writer, I don't have to deal with creating authenticity in fiction. I just have to know it when I see it.

I'm also kind of lousy at blog etiquette. Hi Sara. Your blog is very cool.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Good point, and I'm smiling. As I smiled at the thought of the Scottish Serbian Mexican cocktail. But the likelihood of vast swathes of educated readers believing those islands are full of 'cannibalistic savages' is a tad remote.

But fantastic stories about seriously odd behaviours set in remote communities do exist in all seriousness, dont they, in many cultures? I'm thinking of The Wicker Man. fab film/story- in which sacrifices are still made to pagan gods. Burning men alive in wicker effigies. Slap bang in modernish Britain. Great stuff. and all made up. No one worries. And no one believes it is true, unless they are a bit odd themselves.

Fiction is just that. Made up. UNtrue, deliberately. Like Kuzhali's work. Fantastic and wonderful. But at no point do I as a reader believe, or even have it cross my mind, that 'everyone' in her culture really behaves like some of her characters do. We suspend disbelief. We just believe in the character, story, for the duration of the story.

Kath McGurl said...

Interesting discussion.

I think, if you get researchable facts wrong, you probably should be shot. Or at least not published.

The advice to only write what you know & have experienced - well to me this can mean two different things. On the one hand, if it means you can only write about middle-aged, middle-class heterosexual women living in middle England if that's what you are, then that's clearly rubbish. We're writers, we have imagination, and we can put ourselves in other situations & other bodies. How else would you get fantasy and sci fi? How else would you be able to look erotica writers in the eye, if you thought they'd done all the stuff they write about?

BUT, if you amend 'write what you know' to 'write from the heart' then it becomes great advice. USE the experiences you've had, especially the emotions you've had, and transpose them into your fictional setting. Everyone has grieved - for a lost grandparent, pet, soap character. So you have had the experience, and can therefore write grief. Everyone's felt amazing immense soul-filling joy - use that, give your character those feelings for whatever reason and in whatever situation your story calls for.

Emotion's the thing that can't be researched, you have to have felt it. All the rest is on Wikipedia.

Jenn said...

I am loving this discussion - and I have no idea on which side I stand.

Like Sara, I use my blog to work out my own rules and values for writing and I reserve the right to have them, even if they piss other people off.

I don't think there's any moral dimension to writing at all - you can write a story that uses stereotype or offends some readers if you want, that's fine with me - and it might be an unsuccessful story in your own or someone else's terms, but sure, go ahead and write about it if you want to, and go ahead and refuse to read it if you don't like that kind of story.

And I also agree with Vanessa - every time you imagine yourself into the point of view of a character who isn't you, you're committing cultural tourism. And even if you're trying to write straight memoir or autobiography, you're still representing other characters in there too, characters who in real life you never ever saw from the inside? All writing is shockingly arrogant and presumptuous like that, isn't it?

Isn't that tourism and presumption what writers are supposed to do? Is is okay to write about someone British and of a different gender or age to you, but not all right to write about someone from another country? Can I only write about white working class women? Who do I need to ask before I'm allowed to write about children with special needs? Or is everything okay, so long as you do it well? Who decides what 'well' means? Is that not an artistic judgement rather than a moral one?

I'm not attacking your point of view or your feelings here Sara - I admire you as a writer and I really like the way you're using your blog to work through this. For me, that's what on-line writing communities are for, among other things. And the conclusions you come to about how and what you want to write, like you point out, aren't meant to censor anyone else - of course we can all write and read what we like.

I still don't really know what I think about this. I look over my own fiction, and it's all autobiographical in terms of feeling and theme, if not content. If I wanted to write about a person's experience very different to my own, I'd have no hesitation doing so - and some kinds of truth are not found in research, but in the elaborate lie of fiction anyway.

Anyway - thanks for an interesting post and discussion, Sara - I like it when I see writers posting about their process and method and values - after all, how are you going to define what's important to you (style, voice, whatever?) unless you bring it out into the open and have a good look at it.

Jenn said...

Womag writer said:

I think, if you get researchable facts wrong, you probably should be shot. Or at least not published.

Wow - and I never knew how strongly I disagreed with this point of view until I heard it here. I wonder why the facts being reliable is so important? For me, it isn't important at all - if a writer makes a factual 'error' I'm prepared to forgive them if everything else about the story feels true (the theme, the way the characters speak and act etc) because the truth I'm looking for in my fiction isn't about what scottish families eat for tea (I can google that) but something deeper.

Blaft Publications said...

Vanessa said:

"But the likelihood of vast swathes of educated readers believing [the Outer Hebrides] are full of 'cannibalistic savages' is a tad remote."

Maybe that's an important difference... while "educated" readers probably wouldn't believe there was really cannibalistic savagery going on in the North Sea, Western educated people seem very ready to believe all sorts of ugly things about the Muslim Village of No Good Very Bad Things, and about Asia and Africa in general.

I haven't read or seen The Wicker Man, though now I want to... but from what I read, it looks like the Celtic paganism in the movie, while it may not be portrayed in the best light, is at least somewhat well researched, including real elements of the old religion like Punch and May Day and Sumer Is Icumen In.

If some white American writer wants to write a horror novel about a South Indian cult and they do a comparable level of research into how it might really be, I am all for it. On the other hand, when the TV show Heroes sets an episode supposedly in modern-day Tamil-speaking Chennai, and shows some bizarre set which looks like North India in the 1890s with a bunch of extras wearing Rajasthani turbans and everybody speaking the wrong language, it's inexcusable.

Jenn said...

Why is it inexcusable?

If someone writes a story that encourages the readers to believe something negative about the characters in the story, and that person that extrapolates the belief from the characters in the book to the people in real life who've inspired it, that's a flaw in the reader's logic and it is their prejudice, not the writers. Why should a writer be held accountable for what a reader believes, or how the reader acts because of those beliefs?

People are more likely to form stereotyped opinions about nationalities / genders etc from their interactions in real life and supposedly more reliable sources like 'news' and 'documentaries' than they are from fiction. Most readers are just as clever as writers are - they know we're making it up just as much we do.

Blaft Publications said...

Wow, I never imagined there would be such opposition to the idea that when you write about a country you've never been to, you should do research and try to get your facts right. That just seems basic to me!

Jenn said...

I'm not opposed to the idea, I'm asking you to explain it to me.

You say it's inexcusable if writers make factual errors (who is in possession of these facts? whose reality do I need to check mine against?) and you say (if I understand you) that literature isn't worth as much if the facts aren't correct, and I just want to know why.

I don't read stories or novels or watch films to get facts - not that they are unimportant, or that I don't care about accuracy - but just that order of truth is totally secondary as to why I (and I believe many other people) read fiction so it's not such a big a deal when writers get it wrong.

If readers use this inaccuracy in order to make poor judgements about the real world (I really don't think western readers are as stupid about the difference between fact and fiction as you imply) then that's the readers problem, and their inexcusable act, not the writers'.

In the example you gave, you say getting language, dress and other cultural details wrong is a really, really big deal. Why is it? What if capturing these in a realistic way wasn't the writer's intention and isn't the readers' primary interest? Is the film / story still worth nothing? Why?

We're all writing about countries we've never been to, in some way, aren't we? We're all writing about things that we don't know about - even if that's our home town. None of us are custodians of the 'facts' - native or not.

So no, I am not opposed to the idea of research or accuracy, I just want you to explain to me why those things are so important that they determines the worth of literature and why making mistakes is inexcusable?

Blaft Publications said...

Sure, you can write a really awesome, perfectly plotted, heartwarming novel set in modern-day Norway where everybody speaks Spanish and wears a fez. But it will still have been kind of an embarassing mistake you made there about the Spanish and the fezzes.

Jenn said...

And if I want to make these kind of 'mistakes' in order to say something about accuracy and reliability and the real world, even better. There are plenty of writers who dice around with the facts like that.

But embarrassing is different to inexcusable and it doesn't mean my writing isn't worth anything, which is what I think you said, and so doesn't quite answer my question.

Jenn said...

and by 'my writing' I'm talking about my imaginary heart-warming fezz novel - I know you're not talking about me personally :)

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I wonder if there are any real answers here? Maybe it is all degrees of opinion? Of course, if we can, we dont deliberately scatter incorrect facts through work. Why would we?

But like Jen, as a reader I would not go to fiction for facts. I do not expect it to be factually correct. I would go to a travel guide. A text book. A non fic tome about some cultural issues - if I wanted facts.

However. Fiction has to convince. It is never ever going to convince everyone - one reader will say 'that character is so rubbish, no one would do that' while another will say 'aaaw, thats so real!' But it has to convince at some emotional level.

another anecdote.

'Brighton Rock' is set in my home city. Presumably GG researched or knew, or whatever. But he still has a character walking east, at one point towards a village I KNOW is really to the west of Brighton. Everyone knows it. In all the decades its been around, all the one has bothered to correct it. Its so insignificant. Doesnt spoil the fiction.

But then, it is not treading on cultural toes... and I can understand that that is a source of annoyance. Especially if it is something as (presumably) widely seen as 'heroes' (I dont know it - it sounds ghastly...) which is just spreading badly flawed stereotype.

Jenn said...

Vanessa says: Of course, if we can, we dont deliberately scatter incorrect facts through work. Why would we?

Ishiguro does this - he has Clint Eastwood staring in Space oddessy 2001 in one of his novels (The Unconsoled, I think - which is also set in a fictional version of a central European city and makes use of stereotype, bad facts and fictions) He does this for really valid, interesting artistic reasons - the lie is more interesting than the truth.

And then you're right - the example you gave about Brighton Rock - it doesn't matter, so what. It might niggle, but it's irritating rather than heinous.

I just think we need to be careful bandying about terms like 'inexcusable' and saying the writing is worthless (who should I ask to excuse me? who bestows my facts with worth?) when it seems what we actually mean is irritating or annoying or embarrassing. They aren't the same thing at all.

Kath McGurl said...

The reason I think it's important not to get facts wrong is that if a reader comes across an incorrect fact (Graham Greene's misplaced village in Brighton Rock is a great example) it pulls the reader out of the story. And as writers what we are trying to do is suck the reader in, make them live and feel what our characters are doing. One silly mistake - hey, that village is to the west, not the east! - and we are pulled out of the fiction and that can spoil it. Too many such mistakes and a reader would be justified in throwing the book down in disgust.

I'm not saying you should do masses of research and put it all in for authenticity. That's what Ian McKewan did in Saturday - all that detail about brain surgery was way over the top, imo. But if you are going to put in a fact then make it right. Otherwise leave it out.

Seems completely obvious to me, but we do seem to have a split in opinion here!

Jenn said...

Yes - that works if it's your intention to write realism and get your reader under the spell of the fiction. But if you don't want to do that, and want to draw your reader's attention to the fiction (like in the example I gave above, with Ishiguro) then ta few misplaced facts are a really interesting way of doing it. Which isn't the same as cultural tourism, I realise, but it's related because it's a way of saying facts aren't the be all and end all of fiction, and for me, a few mis-steps about culture, language or locations of villages aren't enough to make me throw down the book in disgust - even when everything is 'correct' I'm still aware that I'm reading fiction, after all.

Kath McGurl said...

I don't know the Ishiguro novel you mention, Jenn, but of course, yes, there are going to be times when you are using incorrect facts as part of your story - that's allowed. Unreliable narrators, time-travel to alternative histories etc. All good stuff. I was talking about facts which are just incidental to the story, and which are easy to check.

I sold a story to an Australian magazine which mentioned the TV programme Masterchef. It took me 30 seconds to check that they do have a version Masterchef on TV in Australia. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about, I suppose.

Jenn said...

Yes - I take your point.

I think we're talking about a few different kinds of facts.

There are facts about culture that are badly researched and might lead a (dim) reader into thinking that the people from that culture are *insert something negative here*. If you're doing that on purpose, it isn't fiction, it's propaganda and not interesting to me. If you've just made a mistake or relied on stereotype, then it might be poor or lazy writing, or it might just be a niggle in an otherwise interesting piece of work. It might be embarrassing or forgiveable but for me, it's not that big a deal.

Then there are background facts - details that are there to add realism - and if you get these wrong (no Masterchef in Australia, for example) then you risk alienating some readers who like to be under that spell - although it would totally unconcern other readers, who don't mind about that sort of thing (like me).

Then there are other facts, about the psychology of people, about character and narration and 'life' - vague, meaningful things that aren't to do with who gets to wear a Fez and where the village is in relation to Brighton. You get this right, and I am happy to overlook everything else.

I think that sums it up for me.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I think the subtext in this discussion here is a wish on Blaft's part, and KM's - to preserve cultural integrity. Rightly pissed off about seeing their culture incorrectly portrayed over and over again. Especially by those who, some generations back, were marauding colonialists.

But it happens, closer to home as well.

I remember taking my father to see the film Tea with Mussolini. WW II, Italy. He was at the liberation of the town portrayed towards the end of the film, shown on screen as a victory for US troops careering into the square, in their jeeps, greeted by the masses...kissed by the ladies, blah de blah.

Trouble is, historically, they did not liberate that town at all...Dad walked out.

Kath McGurl said...

That's a great summary.

The third kind of fact is what a decent writer is good at, by definition, and of course are the most important kind.

I can understand not every reader will feel irritated by incorrect facts of type 2, or upset by incorrect facts of type 1. But some will. And it's so easy to avoid alienating them by doing a bit of research. A writer should respect their readers enough to spend the time doing that research.

Blaft Publications said...

I'll let you writers debate the subtle differences of meaning between embarassing, inexcusable, irritating, annoying, worthless, etc. For me as a publisher they are all synonyms of rejection pile. *grin*

Jenn said...

Vanessa - you're right about the sub-text - I get it that misrepresentation could be irritating or embarrassing, but I still think some of us are confusing moral judgements with artistic ones, and that doesn't make sense for me. It's okay to think something is rubbish for whatever reasons you describe, but there are some heated terms flying about that seem more to do with what is right and wrong and what it allowed than anything to do with quality.

I haven't seen the film you mention, but I'm wondering if it could be better described as propaganda that historically based fiction, and whether that would make a difference?

Womag - thank you. I like lists. I think I need to work on defining exactly what I mean by number 3, but at least you got the gist of what I meant.

Blaft - you've still neatly avoiding answering my question, but the rejection pile is an intersting thing to bring in. Gatekeepers get to reject writing that doesn't chime with their view of reality - and it's always been that way. I'd love to know if for you that's an artistic, moral or commercial decision and I suspect it's probably all three - but you seem not able to answer?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Jen, the film is great. fantastic cast - Maggie Smith, Cher, Joan Plowright - worth seeing. er - for the story!

Jenn said...

I shall look it up - have just finished book 2 and am in the mood for some long absorbing films to treat myself with. I don't know a massive amount about that period in history, so the facts or otherwise will probably be lost on me... but don't worry, I won't pretend it's a history book and represents what really happened! ;)

Blaft Publications said...

He he this is getting silly now. Why do I reject manuscripts where it's clear that the author has done no research whatsoever on the setting? I guess because I cannot abide utter laziness in those I work with.

That's me, the all-powerful gatekeeper.

Jenn said...

I still don't think you're understanding what I'm asking you to explain to me, but never mind. Thanks for the chat!


Blaft Publications said...

Venessa - Heroes actually has some good bits. George Takai is even in it for a minute.

Jenn - you too thanks. :-)

Tania Hershman said...

This is a fascinating discussion, which seems to have hijacked Sara's blog! You raise some interesting questions, Sara.

Personally, as a former journalist turned fiction writer, research is not something I associate with writing fiction. I make things up. It is not my business to educate and inform, to please everyone or even anyone at all. I am a teller of stories. It is my business to entertain the few who like my style, my type of fiction.

I was astonished when other people seemed to be surprised that the stories in my book are not about me. One of my stories is set in Ireland in 1957, one in the Middle Ages, one in Las Vegas, another in space. I have never been to any of these places or times. To tell me I can't write about them unless I do meticulous research seems to me a form of creative censorship. Why can't I?

I am totally thrilled about reading a story set in Norway where everyone speaks Spanish - that would draw me in immediately, I would want to know why and I would certainly keep reading. So it's not "right", not "authentic" - who cares? It's even more compelling because I know that Norwegians in our world speak Norwegian.

I think a great part of the issue here is that these days we know too much about the writer of a particular piece...If someone read my short story set in Ireland in 1957 and didn't know that I wrote it in 2007, would that make a difference? (By the way, I was told that apparently I got it pretty right - but that was accidental. That wasn't my aim). We know where a writer is from - and I am as guilty as the next person of reading a writer's bio, sometimes even before I read the story. I wish i didn't.

Sara, thank you for quoting from my review. I perhaps misused the word "exoticism" because I think that what Janice Galloway does is make the mundane and the domestic exotic - exotic and compelling enough for me to be utterly gripped. She looks at her surroundings with fresh eyes, and portrays them in ways only she could. But this is, to me, in no way different from, say, a great story set on another planet.

Some writers, me included, need to use settings that are not our immediate vicinity in order to bring out our "truths", that's just the way we work. I cannot, simply cannot, set a story right here, under my nose, or have a character who seems even a little bit like me. I begin to cringe. My creativity dries up. And it also bores me because I like to meet new people and visit new places through my own writing.

Blaft, it seems as though I am one of those writers who would never be accepted by you for publication, which is a shame because I read around 50 stories every month by writers from across the globe and all I can say is: you are missing out on some fantastic writing - in all senses of the word! Kuzhali's writing is stunning, I applaud you for publishing her book. I love her stories, which are often magical and surreal, but have never once though about whether she got everything "right". There was no point in any of her stories where I wanted to stop reading, to even contemplate if this was based on fact. I find it quite amusing that you are the publisher of a writer of magical realist/surrealist stories who is insisting on fact checking! Hmm, irony.

Emma said...

I have to disagree. Of course writing is not journalism – we are free to create whatever worlds we want to. Minglings of fantasy/reality, anachronisms, cultural mash-ups, scientific impossibilities – any of these things might find a place in great fiction. But stereotyping is a different matter (unless done knowingly, and even then it’s going to be hard to handle). Stereotypes substitute the generic for the particular, the simplistic for the complex, the flat for the multi-layered. They are the enemies of fiction.

Unlike Jenn, I think ethics and aesthetics are indeed connected here. People object to stereotypes on ethical grounds for the same reason that I object to them on aesthetic grounds: they are not true. By which I mean, not true in the third, deep sense that you identified, Jenn – they do not do justice to “ the psychology of people, about character and narration and 'life'”.

Unknown said...

Crikey. I've been at work all day and returned home to all these comments. Obviously this is a subject worth discussing.

Imagination and fiction can combine to illuminate in the most surprising ways. It's disingenuous to suggest I am saying that the writer should be limited to a subject dictated by their own experience. I link to a few of my stories over on the right, none of which come directly from my life. There is a woman who works in a mortuary, an old lady who discovers pornographic pictures in her garden, a mum who experiences rage as aural disturbance, a girl who fucks a guy she picks up in a pub in an alley, a young boy who accuses his teacher of sexual harassment etc. None of these are me, none of those are situations I have been in. I made them up. Clever huh? I revel in my imagination, and enjoy reading other peoples stories.


I think that cultural sensitivity is important. I think that one can't ignore history. I think that sometimes well meaning people accidentally patronise.

I don't read fiction for its factual accuracy. That's silly. However, I can see how me being factually inaccurate about cheese-making in a story is potentially less offensive than me being inaccurate about an African character. As far as I am aware there is not a long history of prejudice against cheese-makers.

I dont need to feel educated or informed by fiction, I like to lose myself in the fictive dream.

A question. What would be your motivation for creating a character who lived in a country that you have not been to?

Tania - you say " Sara, thank you for quoting from my review. I perhaps misused the word "exoticism" because I think that what Janice Galloway does is make the mundane and the domestic exotic - exotic and compelling enough for me to be utterly gripped. She looks at her surroundings with fresh eyes, and portrays them in ways only she could. But this is, to me, in no way different from, say, a great story set on another planet.

Some writers, me included, need to use settings that are not our immediate vicinity in order to bring out our "truths", that's just the way we work. I cannot, simply cannot, set a story right here, under my nose, or have a character who seems even a little bit like me. I begin to cringe. My creativity dries up. And it also bores me because I like to meet new people and visit new places through my own writing."

I don't think I misunderstood your use of the word exoticism here. And yes, really, of course a story set on another planet could grip in a similar way.

You know, I don't think I have ever written a single character that I feel is like me. My writing isn't about satisfying some self satisfaction, it's about exploring what it is to be human. It's reaching out and communicating. I create fictional characters to act in fictional ways, and through them I endeavour to create engaging stories. I like to explore what could be, what may be, what could never be, even. But to be blunt, I won't set that story in a place where through my ignorance I could cause offence.

My comment about writing the character of a child with special needs was made precisely because it felt too close to home and potentially more autobiographical than the rest of my writing. I wasn't suggesting anyone needed permission before imagining themselves a character with difficulties, but yeah, I would be offended by lazy stereotyping in such a story. (That's me, speaking on behalf of me.)

I have had a number of emails about this blog post in which people have expressed their feelings strongly, but they have chosen not to post these comments on the blog as they don't want to publicly become part of this larger debate. It is clearly one of those chewy subjects.

Thanks to all who have taken the time to share their thoughts.

Rachel Fenton said...

Bit late to the party, sorry Sara, but what the heck. I have to say I switched off when the discussion turned into a debate in need of numbering.

Here's my five (ha - number) penneth. Fiction is fiction. I read it because I want to imagine myself somewhere that is not me. I write it to be other than me and yet satisfy all of me.

That sounds like a load of guff. And yet it seems less so because it has emotional truth. That is the key to fiction: not facts.

There are several threads getting crossed in this debate. Cultural misrepresentation. Fact. Fiction. Author biography.

I do not have any problem with writers making stuff up or mixing fact with fiction - I do it. I do not have a problem when writers get things wrong - even making mistakes writing about other cultures because it brings about debate and decreases ignorance.

As a writer who is learning her craft I started with what I felt confident and comfortable about and I am moving out of my comfort zone as my skills increase.

I do not read fiction with a view to gaining an insight into the author. I do not look outside the text, other than making mental connections with other similar texts. The story is my world for the duration that I immerse myself in it. If I want to know about an author, as a person rather than getting to know their style, then I will blog them or read their autobiography.

A story should not be censored.

As for using my own experience in my writing I think that's fine - I do not think it makes my writing all about me. There is no one truth. Once I have experienced an event it becomes, in my opinion, fiction. Memory is not fact. Memory is unreliable and subject to change. So unless you are there and experiencing the self same events with me, and you happen to share the same genetic make up, then your truth and my truth are completely different.

I am more concerned about biased news reports than when a fiction writer gets it wrong.

Really enjoyed this post, Sara. Thanks.

Jenn said...

Emma said:

Unlike Jenn, I think ethics and aesthetics are indeed connected here. People object to stereotypes on ethical grounds for the same reason that I object to them on aesthetic grounds: they are not true. By which I mean, not true in the third, deep sense that you identified, Jenn – they do not do justice to “ the psychology of people, about character and narration and 'life'”

You know, I didn't think of it like that. I still think that for stereotypes in fiction to be harmdful in any way (rather than just irritating or annoying) the reader's got to take them out of the book and apply them to life and that's the readers' problem, not the writers - but the idea of things being true vs authentic when it comes to stereotypes is an interesting one. Thank you. I will have to chew this over some more xx

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I think thanks are due to Sara for opening up this debate - it is great. And like all debates, I wonder if it is in the end a) pointing up differences in our ways of creating, and b) what we actually look for in fiction, as readers?

S - you asked this question: "What would be your motivation for creating a character who lived in a country that you have not been to?"

and said: "I won't set (a) story in a place where through my ignorance I could cause offence."

There's a simple answer from this writer to the question: I don't actively decide to 'place' my characters anywhere. There is no 'overt motivation' if you like, the writing just comes.

Example, the piece I read the other night, in your company. I did not 'decide' to write about that character. I just did. And whether I have been to the country where it is set, or not, physically, is irrelevant.

(I actually don't see how visiting a country, in the way most of us might - a quick stay in a hotel, a few trips, a few museums, some meals out in a major city - would really give me any more insight than reading over years, watching news over years, listening to debates, reading fiction set in that place as well as fact, and just being on the planet for a few decades with my eyes ears and mind open...)

But far more important, I think, is the integrity of our own interests as writers, our preoccupations, the things we communicate - as you say - exploring something of the human condition.

And, to some extent, our interests as readers. I love the experience of being taken out of my own world when I read. I love the strange, the quirky, the surreal. As well as the emotionally engaging. I will accept a lot, believe a lot, if it is well crafted.

I have no real interest in reading much about the life of someone 'like me'. And set in somewhere like my own kitchen. Why would I? Simplistically, I want to escape when I read!

But this point about maybe offending someone. I would worry about having that demon on my shoulder, personally - it would restrict my writing terribly. In a way, everything we write might just offend someone - for example, your 'rape scene' might be terribly upsetting to a reader, who finds it nothing like their own rape. Or my portrayal of a simple minded bloke - that might offend someone who has relatives with those issues. Because the person I know extremely well with those issues is not sufficiently like theirs.

I would never set out to offend, deliberately. But 'offence' is in the head of the person offended - it implies the person doing the offending has done so in a deliberate act - and that is just not so. Mistake, maybe. But no one ties the reader down and makes em read things they find offensive. They can put down the book. Change channels.

I'd never write anything, as I said above, if I was worried about offending someone. 'Someone' may always find offence where none is intended.

Louise Halvardsson said...

Katherine Mansfield was a writer who from time to time was accused of writing mundane fiction where nothing happened, but I think it's brilliant when you can pull off creating emotional drama in domestic settings ... (And the way Ali Smith does it is just fantastic, spinning off in her characters minds making it all sound new.)

Very interesting discussion, has kept me awake long after my so-called bedtime.

Unknown said...

Just to say, again, that this post is about me discovering how I tick, not about censoring anyone else.

Louise - agreed. Brilliant writing can come from any setting, "domestic" does not always mean boring and dull any more than an "exotic" setting means interesting and good.

Vanessa - You saying that you don't decide where to place a character or write about them is interesting. I understand how stories can unfold seemingly magically. They still come from you though, from your subconscious or imagination or wherever.

My imagination creates many situations and characters too, but whilst I am interested enough in reading fiction from other cultures, theirs are not the stories that come from my mind.

You say "I actually don't see how visiting a country, in the way most of us might - a quick stay in a hotel, a few trips, a few museums, some meals out in a major city - would really give me any more insight than reading over years, watching news over years, listening to debates, reading fiction set in that place as well as fact, and just being on the planet for a few decades with my eyes ears and mind open..) " and I agree.

However, I feel as if I can't be plainer than when I said -
"I think that cultural sensitivity is important. I think that one can't ignore history. I think that sometimes well meaning people accidentally patronise.

I don't read fiction for its factual accuracy. That's silly. However, I can see how me being factually inaccurate about cheese-making in a story is potentially less offensive than me being inaccurate about an African character. As far as I am aware there is not a long history of prejudice against cheese-makers."

I don't see what's difficult to understand here.

I think it's reductive when you say "But this point about maybe offending someone. I would worry about having that demon on my shoulder, personally - it would restrict my writing terribly. In a way, everything we write might just offend someone - for example, your 'rape scene' might be terribly upsetting to a reader, who finds it nothing like their own rape. Or my portrayal of a simple minded bloke - that might offend someone who has relatives with those issues. Because the person I know extremely well with those issues is not sufficiently like theirs."

I don't worry about offending everyone, I don't write with a politically correct voice in my ear insisting on censoring words that I wish to write. I write naturally, in my way, my stories. I am true to myself.

If, for instance, I ever write a rape scene I won't worry about offending someone who has been raped because each act of violence against a person is unique. Rape isn't a culture. Neither is "simple minded bloke."

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Ok - I get all that. But the word'patronising' to me, means 'belittling', and 'treating the other as inferior'. I dont get how a white writer creating a black character (for example) is being patronising, any more than a black writer creating a white character is being patronising.

Belittlement is something felt by the recipient - surely. Like offence.

Unless the piece (rare, but it does happen, sadly,) is deliberately belittling and intended as such...but thats another issue, and such blatherings are not worth commenting on.

However. If you are saying here that it is 'more' important to try to get your facts right when writing about other cultures, the answer has to be 'of course. Where it matters for the fiction!'

Anonymous said...

Mention of Janice Galloway, reminds me that one of her books is called This is Not About Me. Perhaps some commenters should have kept these words in mind when reading Sara's post.

Avoiding cack-handed tourism (which of course no one here would do, because we're all so clever we'd know, right?) is not just about not offending the people portrayed, it's about many things including personal/professional integrity and creating something of real value.

Obviously people read/write for different reasons. To imply that those who value and want to examine what feels truthful 'just don't get fiction' or will end up wallowing in the mundane is, while we're on the subject, patronising.

Emma said...

I’m puzzled by the various mentions of censorship in this discussion. No-one is suggesting censorship – not even self-censorship. We should all write the stories we feel compelled to write. But many of those stories will be flawed as works of literature, and some of those possible flaws relate to their fidelity.

There are particular challenges when we write about characters whose experience and worldview are radically different from our own. When writers pull this off, their work will rightly be applauded. When they don’t, it will be criticised. As it should be.

Vanessa, I don’t think the question is about ‘offence’ and I don’t think it is about the author’s intent. It is about the literary value of what they have written. I might intend to write a piece that is brilliantly original and insightful, but it might turn out to be cliched and myopic.

I liked Sara’s question about why we write about other cultures. What do they represent for us? Why do I, for example, feel drawn to write stories set in Eastern Europe? Why does a friend of mine, a NZer, write so many stories set in Japan? I think we should ask ourselves these questions. Write the stories AND ask the questions.

I was thinking about that American TV show Survivor, in which a bunch of Americans are cast away in some exotic location. Doesn’t really matter where – as long as we can get some shots of ‘the natives’ in some kind of colourful garb, and get footage of some of their ‘traditional customs’ (preferably some form of music-making/dancing). Constestants invent an ethnic sounding name for their ‘tribe’, and eat a few disgusting local foods (preferably grubs or something raw or rotten) while fantasising about cheese burgers. In the final episode, the remaining contestants will each be filmed sitting on a rock at the top of a cliff or walking along a solitary beach, reflecting on What is Important in Life. The indigenous cultures of these countries are just fodder for the Survivor machine – it chews them up and sh*ts them out, to nourish the spirituality of the telegenic (hopefully each with some engaging back story) contestants and their couch-bound viewing audience. I shiver at the thought of doing something similar with my writing.

Cultural difference is a mine field. I’m glad there are writers who aren’t afraid to walk into it, but it does surprise me when they don’t perceive the risks.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

"To imply that those who value and want to examine what feels truthful 'just don't get fiction' or will end up wallowing in the mundane is, while we're on the subject, patronising." and who exactly has implied this, Anon? Shame you always seek turn up sooner or later to undermine really good discussions and try to turn them into something different.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Emma, you say: "I might intend to write a piece that is brilliantly original and insightful, but it might turn out to be cliched and myopic."

Spot on. Thank you. And that is why this debate is so important - so that oiks like me who do find themselves on thin ice may seek safer ground, by knowing the pitfalls. Its all a learning curve.

Emma said...

Um, you're hardly an oik, V! By the way, it is lovely to be debating with you again - these are the discussions I miss from the heyday of FW.

Susannah Rickards said...

Oh blimey, I am so late to the party every one is pissed. At the risk of starting a discussion when everyone else is going to bed:

Where's space in this discussion for multicultural society to be depicted? Why is this discussion running for pages without acknowledging that racial, cultural, religious and geographic barriers are constantly in flux, constantly merging and realigning.

A lot of my stories have Asian or African characters because I don't live in or imagine/recreate in fiction a world in which there are tidy cultural demarcation lines. White people marry back people and Indians live in Africa and people who learned english by ear not at some language school dare to speak it their way and get understood.

I read Kuzhali's blog extract in Sara's blog and blushed. A story I'm writing right now has Muslim pidgin English in it. Does the fact I worked for ten years in a cafe with illegal immigrants mean I have done my research and am allowed to portray the syntax as I heard it? Or am I just making fun of mad Muslims who speak like they have brain injuries? I blushed, I guess, because at root I must be aware that there is some strong feeling out there that as a UK writer born and bred I'm ill equipped to cover other cultures fairly. And perhaps I see some truth in that but sI don't submit to it without questioning it.

So then I wonder why I don't want to bow out and leave Muslim culture or African illegal immigrants to the experts? Is this cultural imperialism? Have I nothing of interest to say about my own culture. Is it hubris or taboo to admit I assume as part of my culture, the cultures that mine assimilates with?

I loathe stories where exoticism replaces insight. No need for in-depth characterisation, guys, he's wearing a salwar-kameez! But I'm equally reluctant to relinquish my right to write what interests me in case it's beyond my little white ken. And if there's a theme that compels me to keep writing it's this: that there are no demarcation lines in life. People make them and try to guard them and we all trundle along and step over them and blur them and shift them.

I don't write about illegal immigrants because hey - that's so much more interesting than my little white life. I write about them, when I do, because they are part of the life I know. People interact.

Blaft I'm very interested in your comment about fictitious countries. (Guilty.) In their defense, I'd argue that we naturally amalgamate when writing. We blend incidents or reactions we've experienced with thematic or dramatic constructs. To set a piece in Sierra Leone runs the risk of saying: Sierra Leone is Like This when maybe the writer is not writing about Sierra Leone per se but about the effects on one man of surviving imprisonment during civil war. Creating a fictional land which represents a real land has existed for as long as fiction itself has existed. I don't think in itself it's unsympathetic to a fair depiction of a given society.

What a discussion.

Unknown said...

The thing is that I can't see any problem with reflecting the society you live in. I think it's about respect though. Is your character in danger of being a stereotype? Sure, he may well be based on someone (or an amalgamation of someone's) but as writers, good writers, we always seek to have fully rounded non-cliched characters. In real life we can come across people who are stereotypes (the fat boozy cabbie, the tart with a heart) but generally we steer clear from writing them as such because we need to create less generic characters.
Nobody is talking about only writing characters just like ourselves, that would be ridiculous.

Ann said...

Fascinating discussion, thank you all.

I must admit when it comes to the fake misery memoirs, why they were not simply published as fiction. I suspect that for some reason the craze for "reality" has gone too far, as if everything we see on TV and read in autobiography, or even just consider in our memories isn't all somehow shaped and edited.

For me the point of reading as well as writing is entering into someone else's experience. And even if I stick to my own life, it's not as if I am speaking for every woman of my age and geographical location and culture is it?

And what about historical fiction - who has the right to attempt that? Can we really understand what it was like to live in Tudor times when you might be burned at the stake for your religious beliefs. I enjoyed Wolf Hall - and can understand why it took five years of research. Perhaps to do justice to anoyther culture it would take the same.

The same issues come up in other arts too - should British textile artists embroider Indian style fabrics with shisha mirrors, can a painter use Australian aboriginal imagery, or a musician be allowed to incorporate another cultural style?

I'm not sure why, but I felt perfectly comfortable with the Clare Wigfall story - and the Wicker Man, for that matter - but would feel somewhat more uneasy about a story set in fictional, imagined African or Asian location... Is it something to do with a power issue - a lingering effect of imperialism and colonialism...that the West has already had too much power to define how other cultures are perceived?

I also personally feel some trepidation about going too far from my own experience, but it's also part of the fun of writing.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Respect is an important issue, and we all, surely, treat what we do as writers with respect. Even though we differ!

Respect can include ‘inclusion’.

There is a very interesting article here, from the African American standpoint, in case anyone is interested, about white writers creating black characters.

The article concludes like this:

"Few white writers can create black characters that strike black readers as vividly valued. Even more serious literary lights like Tom Wolfe often misses the mark more often than not.(…)
The questions are do we as African Americans stomp on these writers for exploiting black characters and perpetuating negative stereotypes? Or do we applaud their efforts for at least trying to include people of colour?
One African American, Bebe Moore Campbell hesitates to applaud, but she says, "It is a step forward when they try."

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Sorry, the link didnt copy correctly:

Douglas Bruton said...

Coming late into this.

I think I enter my own stories in some shape or form. Which is sometimes odd because I sometimes write about 'women only' in a story, or i write about a place I have never been to or ever seen, or ever consciously thought about until the point of writing.

I don't write about big political issues or even big social issues, not usually, so perhaps this cultural tourism anxiety thing applies less to what I write. But the injunction to write about what you know and to write about what is only within your sphere of understanding and knowledge, seems counter-intuitive to what many writers write.

Writing can be as much an exploration for the writer as it is for the reader. Neither necessarily go to fiction for truth. I wrote a story recently that has as its backdrop the Aberfan disaster in Wales. I read a little bit about it. I had some 'memory' of reading about it in newspapers and of the times. I wrote my story about a woman who had lost her son in the disaster. I entered the story into a competition where the judge said some very nice things about the story's sensitivity and it getting things right about life in a Welsh town in the 1960's etc etc. I have not been to Wales since I was about 7 and then only for a two week holiday. I am guilty here of that cultural tourism thing. I wrote the story in response to a black and white photograph I had seen of the aftermath of Abefan. I have taken what i wanted from the event and from the photograph and made a story out of it. I may have got something wrong in my telling of the story. But as to it being my story to tell or not... I have told it and it is a credible and good story. Its truth is in the feeling and the characters. Surely that is a truth that we expect from fiction more than historical or cultural truths.

As for some stories not being mine to tell... if I am a storyteller, then that's what I should do... even if that means not getting it 100% right. A storyteller is not always about telling some social or political truth, he/she is sometimes just about telling a story.

If I am reading a novel about a muslim village and I find it intrigues or fascinates me, I will then as a reader go and investigate the subject, not take as fact what I have found in fiction. That just speaks sense.

As for being offended. I am from Scotland and we are known by the english as tight with money. And beligerant and pugnacious. I am none of these, I think (maybe beligerant?) but I am not offended by this stereotype. There are more important things to be worked up about than this. If I found examples of this stereotype in literature, I would not necessarily see it as a generalisation of all scots and be incensed by that, nor would I take it as a truth and believe it to be true of all scots... that would be absurd.

I think whenever anyone lays down rules for what can and cannot, or should or should not, be done, then I (beligerantly) set my jaw against the rules. This is even more the case in writing than in most things I think about (there i go being beligerant again!).

And getting it wrong in fiction is surely something that is allowed.

Good discussion. But at the end of the day we should not expect that what will emerge from this will be right rules or right codes of conduct for writers; there are rarely such things as these... it is in the nature of art and literature for there to be few rules and what rules there are for these to be frequently challenged and overturned.

Petina Gappah said...

Sarah ... sorry this is going to be long:)

Thank you so much for this wonderful blog post. It could not have come at a better time. At the end of this week, I am teaching a Faber Academy course, with Christopher Hope, on the subject: Writing Other Lives. We will discuss writing across cultures, what works and what does not work, how to write about places without lapsing into tedious exoticism, how to write about people foreign to you in a way that makes them real and not ciphers or stereotyped cliches. If it goes well, I might take to the course to London next year.

I am a Zimbabwean writer ... I read everything and love to read widely. I do not necessarily look for myself in what I read, the pleasure of reading comes from experiencing the lives of others. Besides, in the lives of others, who are different from me, I often recognise something that illuminates my own life.

This experience is spoilt if the plot is unbelievable, the writing shoddy, and if, and this is the subject of this post, the characters or setting are off in any way. I read two stories, purportedly about Zimbabweans written by two white women, one of whom, Vanessa Gebbie, is a participant in this discussion. To me, the characters were Zimbabwean only because the writers said so, even their names were wrong, a sort of pidgin Shona in a country with no pidgin! I was not offended by the stories, but I was amused ... amused in the way I am when I read Dan Brown's plastic characters. My reaction was not about "cultural" authenticity, it was simply a reaction to two pieces of writing that seemed to want the exotic setting without going for any kind of truth in the characters. Vanessa, I am sure, will not mind me saying this as she has alluded to her own mistakes. Happily for these two writers, there was no real problem because the stories were, I am sure, not intended to be read by Zimbabweans:)

In contrast, there is James Kilgore, a white American who has written one of the best novels about Zimbabwe ever published. He lived there but his perspective is very much that of an outsider ... his book is damned good because he did not sentimentalise his subject, or assume all Zimbabweans are one thing or the other, and he made the staggeringly astonishing discovery that black people are just people, and pretty messed up people too, like everyone else, and not suffering voiceless victims or repositaries of ancient wisdoms:)

So it is not to say that whites can't write about blacks at all. I am astonished that what is actually a critical discussion about believability and "truth" has been turned into a discussion about censorship and authenticity.

Of course a white writer can write about whatever s/he likes. If what is written is not particularly good, however, for any reason, brown people, yellow people, black people, other white people and people of all shades in between have every right to say, ummm, white person, your story sucks in a million different ways, and one of those ways includes, to quote Khuzali, the freaking flamming flying white peacocks:)

On a more serious note: oerhaps it comes down to this: maybe not everyone is a good enough writer to write about everything under the sun? This is not to say that writers should not try ... but there are not many Michela Wrongs, and John Peels and EM Forsters and Lloyd Jones among us. It takes huge imaginative gifts and most importantly, sensitivity and compassion, to enter into other minds, let alone minds of other races and cultures. Maybe not everyone is equally endowed?

Unknown said...

Petina, thank you so much for your comment. And yes, how timely. The course you are running sounds extremely interesting.

I think I agree with everything you say!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

I'm delighted to see that there are some serious attempts to help writers with this sticky bit of craft, if they are drawn to try.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Trying writing plays, folks - and see if your black actors playing your black characters turn round and put you right!

Sorry to come so late to this discussion. It's a serious point I'm making there. One great thing about the collaborative nature of plays is that you are prevented from making such cultural mistakes. Writing prose fiction is a scary thing to do, because really, you're on your own, and the most important thing, as so many people have said here, is that we don't spoil the emotional truth of what we're writing by making such mistakes as misrepresenting other people's emotional truth. Really, personally I do find it scary, and the older I get and the more I understand about the world the scareder I am, because I really do want to embrace the complex truths and situations of this world. And sometimes 'research' just doesn't hack it - it's the emotional experience of others you need to know.

Anonymous said...

Peacocks and front lawns...does get you sniggering at that.

And, yes, I agree--I'm looking for some level of truth in fiction. A reality that resonates, an understanding that deepens mine, or just a whopping good story that never slips me a wrong note to throw me out.

But then we have James Frey--would he have been so crucified if he'd published first off as fiction? Or would he have been ignored as just another writer, or told he couldn't possibly write about drug use like that since he wasn't a druggie like that? Why isn't he lionized for being such a fabulous imaginative writer? It is that we want to be told up front that these are lies?

Or maybe fiction just is more honest that real life.

Good post--very thought provoking.

Post a Comment


Template by Suck My Lolly