I recently went to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC last weekend. It’s a haven for book nerds and book geeks, a veritable cornucopia of books and programming dedicated to the written word. The last time I went to the festival was over a decade ago when I was still a student. Back then, it was at UCLA and any sort of spontaneity was tempered by the fact that I was specifically going to the festival to get credit for a contemporary poetry class I was taking at the time.
But this time, I went myself and got to attend events I wanted to attend and not see writers who were required on a syllabus. This sort of freedom is the kind of thing that makes books fun for me. The freedom of choice. Maybe that boils down to my personality as well. I don’t particularly like being told what to do unless there’s a very good reason for it. I read what I want to read—I don’t follow book clubs. I might use book awards and word-of-mouth recommendations to help me choose what to read, but I wouldn’t dream of slavishly following them. On the other side, I also write what I want to write. To me, I only want to write about what I find interesting. Otherwise, it’s only going to bore the audience—which could just be me or anyone stumbling upon this blog post.
It’s this freedom of choice, however, that is the sticking point for some people who read and write. This very problem was brought up at one of the talks that I attended. What subject matter is appropriate for a writer to write about? Is the sky (and beyond) the limit or are we constrained by our own experiences? As readers, do we have a responsibility to read certain things and interpret the writing in certain ways?
The specific situation that generated these questions is that of writers recounting the African-American experience through fiction and poetry. Some argue that only African-Americans are allowed or qualified to write African-American characters. The main concern with this argument (as far as I understand it) is a mixture of the “write what you know” philosophy and the desire to take back the narrative from other writers (particularly white writers) who have appropriated their culture and identity and repackaged it in such a way that there is a high chance (and according to some, a 100% chance) of the African-American narrative getting skewed by a non-African-American lens—no matter how seemingly transparent. This, of course, can be generalized to any minority group that has been traditionally trampled by the majority, be it race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, religion, politics or any other social division.
On the other side, writers want the freedom to write whatever they want. As Joyce Carol Oates said in her talk, if we write only what we know, it’s actually “not very much.” One example that illustrates the importance of the freedom to write what you don’t know (or rather, what is beyond your personal experience) is genre writing. Of course authors haven’t traveled on spaceships or talked to elves. It’s probably very likely that a writer hasn’t murdered someone or summoned the bogeyman. Real life doesn’t have a happily ever after that ends with a marriage and the hero riding off into the sunset—instead, it’s complicated. But writing about science fiction and fantasy, mystery and horror, romance and adventure are not any less valid ways of telling a story. This isn’t just about the fantastic either. Writing whatever you want also means having the freedom to take your imagination anywhere—not only to another planet but also to another person’s experience.
Human beings, particularly ones who have grown out of toddlerhood, are probably the only animals on this planet with a truly sophisticated sense of the theory of mind. We can put ourselves in another’s shoes and imagine what it’s like to be them. The theory of mind is absolutely essential for us social animals. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t have a civilization. This is where I think the argument of writing whatever you can imagine rests. You can imagine the Other and empathize with the Other. You realize that the Other has similar fears and joys that you do. The Other is no longer Other but just as human as you and me.
It’s one thing to write about someone who isn’t you in a realistic and sympathetic way. Some, however, are leery about the times when portrayals of their own group go horribly wrong. The stereotypes and the prejudices. Bowdlerization and simplification. Outright falsification, sanitization, and erasure. One solution that some have proposed is that only people from a particular group should write about their own group. People in other groups shouldn’t even attempt to write about them. This particular proposal is unsatisfying and more importantly, extremely troubling to me. The natural outgrowth of this is to not only put writers but also readers in a ghetto. We already see this with some bookstores that shelve all the African-American writers in the African-American section or LGBT authors in the LGBT section regardless of whether these writers are penning stories about their own culture or something completely different. And by separating them out that way, isn’t this telling readers that they must belong to those groups in order to read them? This isn’t being inclusive at all.
So what can writers write about? Do writers have certain obligations they have in what they can write about? And what about readers? Do they have any obligations to the authors and to themselves for what they read? I still feel that writers should have the freedom to write whatever they wish to write. They aren’t constrained by imagination. But whatever they write, they should take responsibility for it because someone’s going to read their work and react to it. A writer is not free from the consequences of putting their words out for public consumption because they cannot control what other people do. A writer from a majority group is not entitled to automatic praise and good reviews when writing about a minority group. If what you wrote was wrong, then apologize and do better next time. If someone “misinterpreted” your words and got offended, then learn from it. I put “misinterpreted” in quotes because there are no wrong interpretations with literature. It all depends on the viewpoint of the reader and there are as many viewpoints as there are readers in the world.
As for readers, well, that can get complicated too. Readers read for all sorts of reasons, none of them any less valid than another. Readers also have the choice of what to read (with the exception of literature classes). Books are art, are commodities, are choices. What they aren’t is the equivalent of bran cereal that we have to eat every day to keep regular. It seems, on the surface, that readers have carte blanche in what they read and how they interpret what they read. There are many authors who have the view that once the book is published and out in the world, there’s really nothing they can do to respond to other people’s interpretation of their work. But that’s not entirely true. The book is the focal point of a discussion between the author and the reader. And while the writer should be cognizant that the reader can react in any sort of manner to their words, the reader should also realize that it’s an act of bad faith if they willfully misinterpret a writer’s words and ignore the context in which those words were written.
In the end, I would argue for freedom of writing and reading whatever you want. This doesn’t mean you also have freedom from the consequences of what you read or write because there is always another human being on the other side of those words. What’s important is that as a writers and readers, we should try to learn and understand the other point of view no matter how difficult or painful it may be. And by trying to expand where we go with words rather than insulating ourselves with our own experiences, we can take the first step in erasing those boundaries between Us and Them.