Every writer, at some point, has been told to ‘write what you know.’ The advice has become cliched, but lately it has been the focus of a debate that’s raging in the literary world: should writers (especially cis, straight, white, middleclass ones) be creating characters and stories that are outside of their lived experience? In other words, should certain writers be limited to autobiographical fiction (‘autofiction’)?
This debate continued at this year’s Hay Festival, reported in The Guardian this week, with contributions from authors Rose Tremain, Anna Lloyd Banwo, Kate Mosse, and Damon Galgut. The consensus among experienced authors is that you can ‘write what you like, but do it well,’ which means the following:
But what does it mean for the many emerging authors without the publishing deals or means to do any of the above?
Authors may have the best intentions when creating characters or stories to which they cannot personally relate. However, ALL writers should be aware that we live in more sensitive but less forgiving times. There are those who seek out reasons to be offended (usually on behalf of other people!), and then there are people who, due to a history of oppression, have every right to take issue with the appropriation or misrepresentation of their culture, struggles or experiences. It’s this latter group that every writer must care about most.
Of course, anyone can self-publish anything, so long as they’re willing to accept the backlash from readers who feel the author got it wrong. But writers who aim to get an agent or traditional publisher should steer clear of straying too far from their own experience. Or, if they do, they must scrutinize their work through as honest a lens as possible. Some of the questions they might ask themselves are:
Personally, as a writer, I never step too far outside my comfort zone when creating protagonists and stories. I have written from different perspectives, such as male or older person’s viewpoint, and have included minor characters from other cultures/communities in stories. But overall, my key characters are always people I can easily imagine myself being, and the situations I put them in are always ones I can see myself in. My work is very much rooted in my worldview.
Nevertheless, I did have one potentially tricky moment as an author. I wrote a story that was published in a journal and the publication commissioned artwork for it. The illustrator depicted my protagonist as black, when in my mind they had been white (although the only hint of race, to be fair, was their Irish surname). The problem was that the character was a drug dealer, so I was worried that readers might see the image and accuse me of stereotyping. I'm sure the artist had the best intentions, but I would have preferred to avoid any potential for controversy!
Speaking as a professional editor, it is not always possible to edit within my natural comfort zone. As an editor who is cis, white, middle class, straight, neurotypical and non-disabled (yeah, I am that vanilla!), I am aware of my own limitations when editing for people from cultures or communities that I have no intimacy with. I would certainly decline a project if I felt unable to edit with sufficient sensitivity, but mostly I relish opportunities to enter fictional or nonfictional worlds portraying a different life experience. Some of the most memorable and affecting books I have edited are written by and about people who have lived very different lives to mine, and the objectivity I bring as an ‘outsider’ is often helpful because I am able to identify where the writing can be clearer or more inclusive to readers from a different background to the author.
Ultimately, authors have a responsibility to write the truth. In the case of fiction, this doesn’t mean novels or stories must always be autobiographical; it simply means the world, the situations, the relationships, and the emotions that a writer creates in their fiction must be authentic. And once you have truth on your side, your imagination can run free!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith