How Can a Sightless Writer Convey a Smile?

From Publishers Weekly:

How does a blind person experience the broadening mouth and widening eyes of someone else’s smile? How does a blind fiction writer like myself convey a blind character noticing that smile?

There is almost no mainstream fiction with blind characters written by blind authors. As far as I can tell, you won’t find any by Jorge Luis Borges or James Thurber. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is a questionable exception, while Edward Hoagland’s In the Country of the Blind (2016) is the only indisputable non–young adult example in recent decades.

Sighted authors create blind characters, but to blind readers, they are almost invariably suspect. In Anthony Doerr’s otherwise admirable All the Light We Cannot See, a 16-year-old blind girl implausibly detects the tiniest objects with touch, and yet needs her father to help her bathe, an even more implausible claim that is excruciating to read for anyone familiar with blind people. To walk around town, she counts steps, which sighted people may view as a logical strategy, but that, as a practical matter, makes no sense. Our strides change length with changing moods and energy levels, and concentrating on counting distracts from critical clues about the environment.

In my novel Caroline, I present a mainstream story whose first-person narrator is a young blind lawyer named Nick. The focus is on his relationship with charismatic but mysterious Caroline as he fitfully establishes himself in his chosen career. The novel is set in New York City, during that stimulating period when it was emerging from the financial crises of the 1970s. And yes, Nick’s disability plays a prominent role as he figures out how to get things done in a sighted world and navigates relationships with sighted friends, colleagues, and office heads.

A question that often comes up among fellow writers and editors is how a blind character can possibly know this or that. For example, when a sighted character sees another character in a novel show amusement, it’s sufficient for the author to write, “She smiled.” However, when I have a blind narrator observe a smile, critics will ask something along these lines: “How can he know? He doesn’t see.” I’m forced to reword my sentence like this: “He could tell from her tone of voice that she was smiling.”

The trouble is that emphasizing differences in manners of perceiving sets blind characters apart. In doing so, it subordinates hearing and intuition to the power of sight. Although in real life I can’t see a person smiling, I always know when they are from tone of voice, context, and other similar clues that I process without thinking. Visual observation of a smile is at least as complex as auditory recognition, but an elaborate phrase for a blind character’s recognition suggests a less natural process. Besides, while the processes might differ, the results are mostly the same.

The question becomes how do I convey a blind character’s experiences without constantly highlighting differences like these. The method I’ve adopted in the case of smiles is, the first time around, to employ the labored tone-of-voice formulation, but afterward to write simply, “She smiled.” By that point, I trust the reader has absorbed the point. Indeed, readers of Caroline have commented that although they began the novel with a heightened awareness of Nick’s blindness, it dropped partway through into the background.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

1 thought on “How Can a Sightless Writer Convey a Smile?”

  1. I never read All the Light We Cannot See, but those criticisms sound spot on. I especially never got the point of counting steps, for exactly the reason he points out.

    I’m forced to reword my sentence like this: “He could tell from her tone of voice that she was smiling.”

    That’s something sighted writers do, too, if their sighted characters can’t see each other, e.g., during phone calls. Just as in real life, you can tell a person is smiling by “the merriment in his voice,” or “the laughter in her voice.”

    What I’m curious about is how the author deals with the other “tells” sighted people rely on. The “smile that didn’t reach his eyes” tell. The narrowed eyes, the frowns, the carefully blank face and thousand-yard-stares even when the person is silent. Furtive glances? Flirtatious glances amongst people not otherwise interacting with each other? A Jack Reacher with a “resting b— face”? How would a blind Sherlock do the “Sherlock scan”? What other tells would jump out at a blind person that Sherlock would likely miss?

    Sighted people use body language, gestures, and facial expressions to intuit someone’s state of mind. The author mentions intuition, and says it’s not always about what you see. Likely so, and I’m reminded of the Greek plays where the blind character is always the insightful one who “sees” what the sighted characters overlooked. But I wish he’d explored this angle more, from a real-life perspective.

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