14 August 2018

Not Like Us

by Michael Bracken

Hanging out with Kevin Tipple
at The Wild Detectives shortly before
Noir at the Bar-Dallas,
August 2, 2018.
About a month ago, as I write this, I dined with an early career writer who shared his experience during a recent writing workshop’s critique session. One of the authors who workshopped this writer’s story criticized him for cultural appropriation because he—a middle-aged white male—wrote about an older black woman.

My immediate response was a flippant, “If you aren’t creative enough to write about people who aren’t like you, you aren’t creative enough to write.”

I’ve thought often about that discussion, have not changed my opinion, but realize I may not be the person best suited to make the argument. After all, a lifetime of both male privilege and white privilege likely colors my viewpoint.

WRITES LIKE A WOMAN?

Several years ago, Bev Vincent experienced a similar dilemma, which he describes in “Apparently I Write Like a Girl,” when an editor rejected one of his stories, stating, “It’s quite a challenge for a writer of one sex to explore writing from the perspective of the opposite sex. Bev Vincent has not done a convincing job.” Bev is male and the protagonist of his story is male. The editor saw his byline, falsely presumed his gender, and savaged Bev’s story based on that false presumption.

I had a similar experience many years ago when an editor rejected one of my stories because it had a male byline and a female protagonist, and the editor expressed her belief that no writer could successfully write from the opposite gender’s perspective.

WRITES LIKE A WOMAN!

I’ve never presented myself as other than what I am—a middle-aged, middle-class white male—yet I’ve sold more than 350 stories with female protagonists and at least 100 stories in which the protagonist differs from me in some other significant way (ethnicity or sexual orientation, for example). In most cases the acquiring editors matched my submissions’ protagonists more closely than I did.

AND NOT JUST LIKE A WOMAN.

For an interview published in The Digest Enthusiast #8, Richard Krauss asked, “In ‘Professionals,’ Out of the Gutter No. 2 (Summer 2007), the narrator is a gay prostitute. In ‘My Sister’s Husband,’ Pulp Adventures No. 27 (Fall 2017), the narrator is a middle-aged woman. How do you ensure your characters act and speak authentically, with respect to their gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.?”

Part of my response described how I develop characters: “The key [...] is to build characters from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and whatever else divides us, we share many commonalities. We want to love and be loved. We want to feel safe and free from fear. We want to be happy and healthy. We want to be appreciated by our families and respected by our peers. The list goes on and on.

“If we build characters from the inside out, the characters will ‘speak’ appropriately and more genuinely than if we build characters from the outside in and rely on stereotypes.”

BUT SHOULD WE?

Where is the line in the sand that we dare not cross when writing from the perspective of a character unlike ourselves? I don’t believe such a line exists, and if it does, I hope a rising tide washes it away.

Rather than limiting ourselves for fear of offending others, we should instead strive to create characters out of whole cloth, making them as authentic as our skills allow, and we should strive to improve those skills with each story we write. We should not be accused of cultural appropriation simply for writing about those who are not like us, but should rightly be called to task if fail to do the job well.

And those who critique our work should not make presumptions about our work because of who wrote it, but should instead judge the work on its own merits. A piece of writing succeeds or fails within the context of itself, not because the fingers on the keyboard were male or female; old or young; gay, straight, or bi; black, white, or any other shade of the rainbow.

We all benefit by reading and writing about characters that are not like us.

John Floyd and I have stories in the third issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, the only writers to have fiction in all three issues. I’m uncertain how many stories John has upcoming in BCMM, but I have three in the pipeline, so we’ll likely share space between the covers several more times. Fellow SleuthSayer Eve Fisher also has a story in the third issue, so order your copy now and get a SleuthSayer three-fer.

13 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Yes. I agree. “If you aren’t creative enough to write about people who aren’t like you, you aren’t creative enough to write.” We write fiction. We make up stuff. From our experiences and from in-depth research we can understand and we can put it in our fiction. From mysteries to historical fiction and science fiction and erotica and well, you name the genre.

Look at children's fiction. I know we were all children once but we weren't THAT child.

Art Taylor said...

This is a great post, Michael--and I think it's especially funny (and telling) about that editor's comments toward "Bev," all those layers of assumptions and accusations. It's the duty of writers to try to put ourselves into the lives and thoughts of others--whatever is at that core of that otherness. If we're good writers, we should be able to do it. Thanks for the thoughtful reflections here.

John Floyd said...

Interesting post, Michael. Wasn't it Sidney Sheldon who almost always wrote from a woman's POV? Didn't seem to bother him or his success.

Pleased to be alongside you once more in BCMM--I love that magazine. They've accepted two more of mine, so--as you said--I guess we'll be together again soon.

janice law said...

Certainly writers should cast a wide net and attempt a wide variety of characters in their society. The anger at appropriation has old roots, however- in the fact that to a large extent women _ and almost uniformly minorities _ were not allowed to depict themselves. It doesn't take more than a glance back at earlier stories and novels to see where the objections are coming from.

Congratulations on your BCMM stories!

Steve Liskow said...

Great post, Michael.

The main narrator of Wuthering Heights (by female Emily Bronte) is Lockwood, a man. Half of Gone Girl (by female Gillian Flynn) is narrated by a man. Joyce Carol Oates often uses a male narrator. Karin Slaughter writes a terrific series built around male Will Trent.

I have published thirteen novels and all of them have at least one female POV character. Nobody--beta reader, editor, reviewer--has ever mentioned having a problem with it. In fact, my current WIP has four POV characters, and three are female. One is gay. I learned about her by interviewing one of my lesbian friends from theater. She's made up, but her emotions are real and universal.

Women are often more interesting because they're more complex. They've had to navigate through a male-dominated world, especially in crime stories, and juggle work and domestic chores. When I directed theatrical productions, I only worked with one male stage manager, and my favorite light designer was female. Theater is where I first encountered a woman who could tell a bawdy joke well, too.

I don't even think about gender or age now when I write (I often use a child's POV). I DO think about cultural background because that requires lots of research. But people want the same things and hurt the same way in any culture. Pigeon-holing yourself doesn't help you or the story. And how can you grow if you can't take chances?

Robert Petyo said...

Great post, Michael.
“If you aren’t creative enough to write about people who aren’t like you, you aren’t creative enough to write.”
I agree 100%. I've sold some stories in which the main character is a murderer. I swear, I have never killed anyone.

Earl Staggs said...

I agree completely, Michael. Editors (and readers, too) who make assumptions based on a writer's gender must suffer from tunnel vision. Historically, to get around it, a large number of female writers have used initials in their byline instead of their first names. (i.e, J. A. Jance.) I've written a number of stories featuring a female sheriff and so far, no one has accused me of not writing her realistically. At least, not to me. Maybe being married to a female for 50 years and raising two daughters has been good for my writing.

Fiona L. Woods said...

I totally agree with your statement, Michael. We're writers. We make stuff up from nothing. I've written as a female narrator, as a male narrator and as a cat narrator. So far nobody has questioned me about my sex or species, so maybe things are changing.

LC Rooney said...

These are strange times indeed. I have never sexually assaulted anyone, nor have I ever killed another human being, but I write about people who do. I'm with you, political "correctness" (read: nonsense) be damned: If you are not creative enough to write about people who aren't like you, then you are not creative enough to write.

Michael Bracken said...

There certainly are wide swaths of the population under-represented in fiction, Janice, both as characters and as creators, and overcoming the historical disparity won't come easily nor will it come quickly.

Thank you, everyone, for your kind comments.

Leigh Lundin said...

Michael, I'm late to the party, but I'm a firm believer if someone can get inside the head of a different gender or different race, by all means do it. You, RT, and John Floyd certainly have the street creds amongst women!

Robert Lopresti said...

As I recall when James Tiptree Jr.'s first science fiction novel came out one reviewer raved that only a man could have written it. The bio on the book said, accurately, that Tiptree had been in army inteligence during WWII. Tiptree's real name was Alice Sheldon.

Michael Bracken said...

Thanks Leigh and Robert. I was a science fiction fan back in the day, and I remember the kerfuffle that roiled through fandom when Tiptree/Sheldon's gender was revealed.