April 6, 2015

Talking Shop: Thou Shalt Not Write That

If you've been following my Twitter or Facebook the last few days, you'll know I've been working on a short story involving a transgender character.  Stories like this, involving characters of an underrepresented or historically excluded group, inherently involve a degree of controversy, if you as the author are not a member of that group. 


Laverne Cox as Sophia, transgender inmate in Orange is the New Black


Some critics claim authors should never write about ethnic, sexual, and gender experiences with which they can't personally identify. It's an understandable opinion: it's easy to misrepresent circumstances and experiences you haven't gone through, and in the case of groups which have been traditionally oppressed, stereotypes and misrepresentations are not only already pervasive in society, but potentially very damaging.


But should authors never write about identities or experiences they don't share?

Frankly, this is a problem for me. Telling an author they can't write a certain subject is essentially an attempt at censorship, so the very principle strikes me as bullying. Part of the joy of creative writing is the freedom to explore new areas and themes, to discover and say new things.

That being said, it doesn't mean authors should feel themselves at liberty to represent any person, situation, or story without knowledge and consideration. While free to write what interests them, authors aren't above reproach for what they write, and the abuse and misrepresentation of any individual or community can (and should be) fairly met with criticism.


I'm an avid believer that the 50 Shades series blatantly (and abusively) misrepresents BDSM and members of that community, and I support most everything I come across which points out that misrepresentation. Yes, E.L. James has made a fortune off the damaging picture she's painted of BDSM practitioners, and for that I genuinely believe she deserves all the criticism, dispute, and snubbing/shunning she gets. I only wish she'd get more. She's made her position clear on criticism, stating repeatedly that her critics, not she, are the ones demonizing people in the BDSM lifestyle. My feelings? She has no respect or consideration for actual practicing members of the BDSM community, doesn't care about their lifestyle, and doesn't have the time (or the balls) to give any thought to the criticism.


Here's why I completely understand the feeling that authors shouldn't appropriate the lifestyles and experiences of others for their own work, without knowing what they're doing. 50 Shades is exploitative, to say the least, and I'm of the opinion anyone making money off of it is blithely spitting in the face of the BDSM community. For an author to be so obscenely rewarded for this inaccurate exploitation is offensive, hurtful to the community she's abused, and damaging to their efforts to be respected and celebrated, as well as promote safety among their members. E.L. James sat down, wrote a book which hit it big, and made millions, with seemingly no consideration or concern whatsoever for the people she's represented, and those people get more stereotypes, more misunderstanding, and get to do more damage control.


But does that mean all authors will do the same?  Certainly not. 


There's a saying out there in recent years: "The great thing about the self-publishing world today is that anyone can publish a book.  The bad thing about the self-publishing world today, is that anyone can publish a book." The gist of this is that anyone, regardless of actual talent, can put a book out there and tout is as a masterpiece...even if they have no actual writing skill. It also means that anyone, regardless of their willingness to research, can write on any subject, and fail miserably at accurate representation. But there are authors, and then there are real authors. It is my opinion that a real author knows the value of researching and understanding their subject.


If you feel called to write about something you yourself haven't experienced, no matter what it is, you should know research is key. Research goes beyond reading an article or two, especially when you're looking at writing about a community of people. If one wants to write about BDSM, one should not only read about it, but should go looking for testimony and discussion by actual practitioners. Forum groups, chat hubs, special interest websites, podcasts, twitter communities, etc., offer a chance to really get to know some of the real people behind the face of the community. And, in my experience, as long as you approach the matter with respect and politeness, lots of folks are happy to help you learn more (even if your goal is not necessarily to adopt the lifestyle yourself).


That's one of the things I absolutely love about these communities. So many people are ready, willing, and happy to help open your mind.


A little Truth Time: early in my college experience, I had a very different view about LGBT issues, a view which the Me of Today is not at all proud of. My viewpoint then stemmed from ignorance and privilege. The cure for it was education and experience: and a trio of very patient gay students willing to look past my ignorance to help me understand more.



It's not difficult to find consultants who are willing to tell you the truth about their communities and experiences. There's a wealth of information out there just looking for ways to be shared out even further. It simply takes time and effort, and above all respect and consideration, to honor your subject rather than exploit.


Does this mean you'll get it right every time? Unfortunately, no. I've fallen prey several times to writing something I didn't truly understand...I've only been lucky I had thoughtful readers help me identify my errors before the finished product. It probably will happen that you will--hopefully unintentionally--offend someone you mean to celebrate. If E.L. James had earnestly considered the criticism she's received for 50 Shades of Grey, she might find ways of correcting those mistakes which most damage the people she's writing about. Her opinion is, "The books are already written, no one's going to go back and change that". This isn't true, though. Even if the book could not be changed (and it can, authors have been re-releasing "new editions" of their work for centuries), the screenplay might have been adapted to portray more accurate material. The problem is that E.L. James doesn't want to address her errors. Good authors, however, know they are not infallible, and the least you can do if you want to write about a subject outside your own sphere, is be open to the concerns of those it most affects.


Jenna Talackova, transgender Miss Universe contestant 2012

I can't promise my story about a transgender woman coming out to her new girlfriend will be perfect in its portrayal. I only know that I'm putting my best effort into learning and thoughtfully representing a character I feel very strongly about, and I can hope the story will communicate the things I want to communicate, without mistakenly misrepresenting transgender individuals or their experiences. And, if it turns out I do commit a major faux pas in my attempt, I can listen to criticism and advice, and adjust, and learn.


Authors, you should not feel afraid to write a character whose life experiences are not your own. "Write what you know" is a whole lot of bullshit and only limits you. But you should give honest, thoughtful and genuine time to writing with knowledge, and doing right by your subject, and readers.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think?