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I dread being controversial or political online, but I want honest and sincere thoughts on this, with as few in the way of flame wars as possible. My question is more or less: if you’re not a member of a certain minority, do you get to write about it? Since I’m a novelist, I’m thinking in terms more of fiction here than nonfiction or journalism.

On the “no” side, the argument is basically (I’ll just quote this blog post here), “It is not the place of a cis straight person to represent the LGBTA community in order to claim progressive thinking on their part. … By all means we should be allies and make all efforts to be diverse in our work, but we should not seek to take their stories from them when there are so many creators from the LGBTA community who go ignored in favor of mainstream medium, and who would give a far more accurate account and portrayal of their stories. The same goes for race. In that instance, write what you know is applicable.”*

Fair enough. But on the “yes” side, which I admit is the side I’ve been working from all these years, the argument is: assuming the portrayal is done with as much taste, compassion, and realistic accuracy as the author can scrounge up (as opposed to using stereotypes or playing the characters’ culture/orientation/etc. for laughs), then surely it’s better to have more types of characters in more books, no matter what background the author comes from.

Even though I’m white and heterosexual and middle-class and American and therefore boringly generic and privileged in most ways, I recognize the problem of ethnic minorities and LGBTQ characters being underrepresented in entertainment. Plus I’m honestly into some of the stories that could be told with such characters (I’ve long squealed in delight over slash fiction, as nearly all of you know), so I want to write about them. I have this perhaps naïve hope that if someone reads a book that gets them (the readers) thinking more kindly about types of people they didn’t think about very much before, and gets them seeing more types of people as fellow humans with equal status to themselves, then hurray! The book has done something worthwhile! And it doesn’t really matter who the author is, in that case.

In fact, I’m the self-effacing type of author who doesn’t want you to think about ME; I want you to notice just my stories, my characters. It isn’t about me. This becomes a problem when it’s time to get out there and market my work in person with bright smiles, which is a task that sucks the life force out of me, but I digress.

So am I wrong? Should I be respectfully backing off and allowing “those groups” to tell their own stories? I certainly encourage anyone to do so who wants to, and I don’t want those stories to be ignored in favor of mine just because I’m white and privileged and stuff (though given my superbly modest sales figures, I really don’t think anyone’s favoring my work over others, so honestly I doubt this is currently a problem).

In my Greek myth series, I have some gay or bi characters, and others I picture as black or mixed-race. I don’t make A Big Thing of it for the most part; they’re just character details, mentioned alongside what color clothes they wear or what kind of salads they prefer or whether they like loud parties. (As an introvert, I found it WAY easier to write the gay or bi aspects of characters than to write Tabitha’s extroversion--she’s the reincarnated Dionysos, and loves organizing and attending parties, and drinking and being loud. I can’t comprehend being like that. But love and crushes, sure, I get those.)

I do try to avoid stereotypes. I’d rather a book didn’t include any gay characters than have it include one who lisped and called everyone “sweetie” and wore glasses with pink glittery frames. Same goes for all the ethnic-group issues you could run up against. I imagine, if anything, I err on the side of my black characters being too much like the white ones, such that you might not even know they’re black. But then, I also went that route because for the purposes of this story, it doesn’t exactly matter what their genetic makeup is. Also, a friendly mix of races and cultures is part of the new global civilization, and I feel like we do get to be casual about it, as long as we’re compassionate to everyone.

The one “minority” I belong to is that of women, and I’ll go on record as saying I have nothing at all against male authors who write in depth about female characters. In fact, I think more of them should, as long as they follow the guidelines discussed above: avoid stereotypes, view everyone as a human with equal rights and personal subtleties, be as fair and realistic as you can.

Anyway. The more I ramble about this, the more I realize it could be an entire doctoral thesis (and I’m sure it has been for lots of people), so I’ll leave it at that. But I welcome anyone’s thoughts! If you’re gay or trans, does it bother you if straight/cis people write LGBTQ characters? If you’re black or Latino or Asian (or fill in the blank), does it bother you if generic white people write about your ethnic group?

Further good reading on the topic: Why I Am Scared to Write About Diversity, by Cait at Paper Fury

* I do love this quote from that same post, though:

“ 'You should only ever write what you know.'— Whenever I read advice like this I can’t help but feel like Mary Shelley had some fucking weird anatomy classes I never got at school, and that I’d like to try whatever Tolkien was having." Ha! Quite so.

Comments

( 35 comments — Leave a comment )
Dean Mayes
Feb. 23rd, 2016 07:13 pm (UTC)
I'll tentatively put my hand up as one of *those* authors who dared to write about a minority group (in my case Aboriginal Australians) and copped a lot of flack for it - mostly by people who didn't even pick up the book. I devoted a whole year to pure research before I committed to writing the story and was plagued by self doubt the whole time but I decided that, as a writer, I have just as much right to portray a particular group of people as anyone - especially if I am being respectful to said group of people. And, as a writer, the focus should be on the story that is told rather than on the person who is telling it.

See - who brought in this rule that says one group of human beings isn't allowed to observe, interpret and document another group of human beings? I asked this very question once and no one could answer me.

And because of that, I decided that I would write - with integrity - whatever the fuck I wanted.
mollyringle
Feb. 23rd, 2016 07:31 pm (UTC)
I thought of Gifts of the Peramangk when I was writing this! But I refrained from naming you or it because I wasn't sure you wanted to be dragged into it. :) See, I think the book is a perfect example of a story that opened my eyes to what a lot of people have gone through, and increased my empathy, and I'm sure it did the same for lots of other readers. I'm sorry you took flak for that, though I suppose I'm not surprised. It's sensitive stuff and there's no winning. But on the whole I think it does far more good written than unwritten, no matter who the author is.

As I've told you, I also think you're an excellent example of a male author who writes female characters well (and you include a lot of women in your stories in the first place, which is more than some do). Everyone's a complex individual; that's really all it takes for any cast of characters to come across as properly alive. Glad you remember that simple rule!

And if humans aren't allowed to observe, interpret, and document other humans, the entire field of anthropology is out of a job. :) Given that was my undergrad major, that'd be a problem for my academic record...but then, I've forgotten so much from my classes by now that they should probably revoke my degree anyway.
(no subject) - Dean Mayes - Feb. 23rd, 2016 08:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serai1 - Feb. 23rd, 2016 09:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mollyringle - Feb. 23rd, 2016 09:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - mollyringle - Feb. 23rd, 2016 11:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
serai1
Feb. 23rd, 2016 09:04 pm (UTC)
No, you are not wrong. This trend is extremely dismaying. If taken to its logical conclusion, no one would ever be allowed to write or even talk about anyone other than their own tiny little group.

And who gets to define that group? Can I only write about over-50 white Hispanic women who are mostly straight but have had a couple of same-sex affairs? How about women who have never traveled to any country other than the ones their fathers were born in? Or is it divorced women who are members of a very small religious minority but have studied other religions? How about women unemployed because of a physical injury who like both cats and dogs but prefer cats because they're less needful? Which group do I get to write about, and who exactly has the right to declare that I can't write about anyone else?

Writers should have the courage to write about whatever they think they have something to comment on. Yes, you'll get blowback. Of course you will. But so what? Writers have been getting that ever since they started writing. The difference now is that every Tom, Dick, and Harry has a megaphone and so thinks it's their right to gang up on people they don't like, or whose views hurt their feelings. It's not on you to baby others. You're a writer - your job is to write. Do it, and don't pay attention to the people who want to police you and force you to write only what makes THEM feel good. That kind of demagoguery helps absolutely no one.

(The one concrete piece of advice I can give you is to stop reading any social media or anything else about your writing. Smart writers do not engage with the audience like that, because it's a grand way to snap the handcuffs onto yourself. Ignore them, and write what you want.)
mollyringle
Feb. 23rd, 2016 09:26 pm (UTC)
LOL - thank you; and yes, I suppose it's not a surprise that I found that bit of "you shouldn't" advice on tumblr, which seems the current epicenter of Internet Outrage. I know I've felt better since backing off from Facebook, and would probably also do well to not take anything on tumblr seriously. (Though for the most part I don't anyway.)

There are lots of examples of someone writing a book I loved about a group that wasn't "theirs." E.M. Forster was gay, but A Room with a View is a beautiful heterosexual love story; Kazuo Ishiguro is originally from Japan but wrote amazingly well about the culture of 1940s English white people in Remains of the Day; etc.
I'll look to them for inspiration instead of to social media! :)
(no subject) - serai1 - Feb. 23rd, 2016 10:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mollyringle - Feb. 23rd, 2016 11:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - mollyringle - Feb. 24th, 2016 01:56 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serai1 - Feb. 24th, 2016 03:27 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serai1 - Feb. 24th, 2016 03:35 am (UTC) - Expand
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jsl32
Feb. 23rd, 2016 10:28 pm (UTC)
Short answer: yes
Long answer: yes, because the privilege to explore other cultures and colors without the strain of being a Race Representative is a gift and if someone wants to use it to bring other cultures and colors into an audience or genre they weren't in previously or were there in a bad/stupid/inaccurate way, that should be encouraged and not discouraged.

An example of what I mean is the sci-fi libertarian book "The Stars Came Back" by a very white and libertarian rural guy named Rolf Nelson. But he has a whole section of his book where the main characters meet Space Texan Mexicans and I was like "omg he wrote about people I went to school with, yay!" I wasn't full of "ARGH APPROPRIATOR ARGH". I was happy to see a culture I grew up alongside being presented with affection and relative accuracy (he left the Catholicism out but got a lot of the family and social bits right). It was that kind of affectionate portrayal of cultures that weren't their own that got me into sci-fi and fantasy and made me want to write it in the first place.

It's harder to deal with the Race Representative stress and admit it's a block to your writing than it is to complain about other people writing about cultures other than their own direct personal experience. And the influence of the authenticity police ("you can only write about your specific narrow direct life circumstances") has been really lethal. It was a huge block to my writing for years and it is very clearly part of the ARGH APPROPRIATION people's problem with their own writing aspirations. Especially since it's BS and if you don't have the experiences the policers expect or believe you to have based on their own stereotypes, you'll still get screamed at.
mollyringle
Feb. 23rd, 2016 11:12 pm (UTC)
Ha, I'll be thinking ARGH APPROPRIATION now whenever I see such complaints on Tumblr or the comments section of various other sites. But yeah, this is good to hear - I have to figure it's refreshing for any reader to find, in any book, a positive representation of people like their own friends and family, especially if they're typically underrepresented. And that's a good point that dealing with such topics might actually come easier to a writer who doesn't have personal baggage with the issues in question. I so far have never written memoir, because I don't feel brave enough to put my own actual experiences (lame as they are) into print for the world to judge, because judge and judge harshly they always will. I have immense respect for the courage of my memoir-writer friends!
mosinging1986
Feb. 24th, 2016 12:59 am (UTC)
(Here via the Home Page)

My question is more or less: if you’re not a member of a certain minority, do you get to write about it? Since I’m a novelist, I’m thinking in terms more of fiction here than nonfiction or journalism.


Good grief, why not? If people were only going to write what they themselves are, how many novels or other things would go unwritten?

It's astounding how this nonsense of "political correctness" has put a stranglehold on the culture! No one apparently say or write ANYTHING about anything these days, without fear of "offending" anyone!

Unless, of course, it's offending whites, males, conservatives, or heterosexuals. Those can be offended at will.
mollyringle
Feb. 24th, 2016 01:52 am (UTC)
Glad I'm not crazy, then. :) Yeah, it was odd to see that rule among a list of otherwise good writing guidelines, and it temporarily made me second-guess myself.

I can't control what other writers do, but in my mind, every character should be a well-rounded person, whatever their sex, political beliefs, religion, ethnicity, etc.; and no character should exist just as a way to make fun of something the author doesn't believe in. That's the kind of thing I used to do in my younger days, but I feel it's a disservice to good fiction now!
(no subject) - mosinging1986 - Feb. 24th, 2016 03:37 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mollyringle - Feb. 24th, 2016 07:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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rachel2205
Feb. 24th, 2016 08:32 am (UTC)
I think it's good to write characters who aren't just like us. Representation is important. My only caveats are;
- as you've already said, try to avoid racial/sexual/etc cliches (and if you're unsure if your representation falls into any, ask someone from that minority!)
- that the author never tries to claim experience of what it's like to be a particular minority, and if a reader critiques them for something they wrote about that minority, they listen respectfully, not defensively.
mollyringle
Feb. 24th, 2016 07:46 pm (UTC)
"listen respectfully, not defensively" is good advice for all of life, in fact, now that you mention it. :) It's a rule I learned slowly and sometimes still struggle with, but it's an important one.

Yes, ideally a writer can get beta feedback from people better acquainted with the minority in question before publishing - that'd be ideal! But if they can't get anyone to do that, then at least as much respect and research as can be managed.
travels_in_time
Feb. 24th, 2016 01:20 pm (UTC)
assuming the portrayal is done with as much taste, compassion, and realistic accuracy as the author can scrounge up (as opposed to using stereotypes or playing the characters’ culture/orientation/etc. for laughs), then surely it’s better to have more types of characters in more books, no matter what background the author comes from.

This. I learned a lot about respecting people who were different from me, by reading books by people who were very similar to me.
mollyringle
Feb. 24th, 2016 07:47 pm (UTC)
True, even people very similar to us can have very different experiences, thoughts, or ideas! We can learn something from anyone, which perhaps is exactly why it's important to be able to write about anyone.
badgermirlacca
Feb. 25th, 2016 12:08 am (UTC)
My feeling is that if I am limited to writing only what I know, then none of my works can have more than a single character in them, and all of them must be autobiographical.

No. I write fiction. I write about human beings and aliens and all sorts of things. Nothing I write has ever prevented anyone else, ever, from writing what THEY want to write, and I claim the same privilege (term used advisedly). No one, I venture to say, knows me well enough to say what experiences (sexual or otherwise) I may have, and how my ethnic heritage has shaped my experience.

I am a writer and I will write what I damn well please, and the world is welcome to read it or not as pleases them. They are NOT welcome to tell me what I can write.
mollyringle
Feb. 25th, 2016 09:55 pm (UTC)
This is good to hear! Makes sense to me. I daresay what I've mainly learned is to take all tumblr posts with a hefty grain of salt. :)
(no subject) - badgermirlacca - Feb. 25th, 2016 10:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
pathvain_aelien
Feb. 26th, 2016 10:32 am (UTC)
I would vote yes. I think writers should always try to write outside of their own experience, I think they would benefit from the challenge of it. The only problem would be the writer who doesn't take the time or have the compassion to actually be able to see things from a different person's perspective-and that is a writer who shouldn't be writing, in my opinion. I definitely enjoy books written by a man from a woman's perspective if they are done well, for example. I remember reading a Stephen King forward in one of his books that basically said he had a few complaints when he wrote "Apt Pupil" because those people thought since he wasn't Jewish, he shouldn't be writing about the subject at all. He wrote that he had done a lot of research, talked to a lot of people, and did his best to create realistic characters. I think it's one of his best short stories, because it challenged him and produced stronger writing.

So I vote yes!
And speaking as a bisexual woman, I think you did a great job with your gay/bi characters. They seemed completely believable to me. :)
mollyringle
Feb. 26th, 2016 05:21 pm (UTC)
True - I actually tend to admire it more if a writer pulls off a voice that's outside their personal experience. King has certainly written all kinds of people well! (And I hope he doesn't have personal experience with all those types of murderers...) :)

Ha, and I don't think I ever realized you were bi! Or else I somehow forgot if I once knew. Then I'm especially glad my sexually various characters passed muster for you. :) The Greek myth series allowed for a lot of imagination anyway, what with past lives being involved and all, but I'm likely to pick up Sinter's story again next and deal with real-world modern gay or bi people, so I will want to be more realistic then.
(no subject) - pathvain_aelien - Mar. 14th, 2016 12:54 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mollyringle - Mar. 14th, 2016 07:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
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