Let Fiction Be Fiction

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From Publishers Weekly:

Since my debut novel, Other People’s Children, was published last April, I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets to tell which stories. Some of my readers don’t seem to think that I should have been allowed to write the book that I wrote.

I’m probably not the first new writer to obsessively read their Goodreads reviews. I know that it’s not good for me, but, well, we’ve all done plenty these past few years that isn’t good for us. My publisher’s sales force preferred to use initials on the hardcover. Many reviewers wrote that they didn’t realize RJ Hoffmann was male until after they finished the book and read the bio or noticed the picture on the jacket. That pleased me. Some of the most impactful characters in the book are women, and the assumption that I was also a woman suggested that I had succeeded, at some level, in writing those characters well. My favorite reviews remain those that refer to me with female pronouns. I was troubled, though, by the reviewers who found it problematic that a man wrote the book.

Other People’s Children tells the story of a couple who, after struggling with infertility, adopt a baby girl. The birth mother decides to reclaim her child after four days, and the adoptive parents choose to run rather than return the baby.

Was it my story to tell? I could tell you about the moment I first laid eyes on my own adopted children. I could tell you about the fierce love that hit me like waking from a deep sleep into a bright light. I could tell you that the book, for me, is about shattered expectations and the pain of separation from a child. I could tell you that my daughter was living in a residential treatment center while I wrote it, struggling with mood disorders layered atop autism, and I could tell you about all the expectations that experience shattered for me. I could tell you that, although Other People’s Children is not my family’s story, our story litters the margins of the book.

But what if I suggested that none of that matters? What if I let the story speak for itself? What if I asked you to judge my characters based upon their depth, their voices, their strengths, and their weaknesses, rather than upon the alignment of their experience with my own? My characters tend to be more interesting than me, stronger in so many ways. Strong characters facing down a difficult problem tend to demand the story that seems right to them, and I’ve learned not to force my own voice into their throats.

I’ve read many #OwnVoices novels in the past few years, and count some of them among my favorites. The movement applies a much-needed balm to the many decades of appropriation of marginalized cultures. But I chafe at the idea that those are the only stories worth reading, or, for that matter, writing. I would argue that many acres of fertile ground lie between cultural appropriation and direct experience. I would suggest that fencing writers into the back 40 of their own experience limits the imagination, tames the tales, and rations the portions of truth that nourish us.

For me, those vast acres are fertilized with empathy. I’ve read several thousand novels written from the subjectivity of people who are nothing like me (or like the writers who crafted them, for that matter), and I believe that experience has made me more empathetic. Considering life through eyes that aren’t mine seems the whole point of fiction. And as I learned to build a novel, I found that writing also centers on empathy. Empathy is the window to the core of every character. Writing Other People’s Children demanded that I inhabit every character fully, regardless of our similarities and differences. Nurturing empathy for my characters led me to respect them, to listen to them.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG suggests that the question should be, “Did the author write a good book? Did it draw me in and engage my intellect and emotions?” instead of, “Was the author someone who has actually experienced everything that appears in the book?”

As PG has said before, stories don’t belong to the type of people depicted in the stories, they belong to the author, the person who created the story.

Nobody would expect an individual who wrote a history about the Roman Empire to be someone who actually lived then and there or whose great-great-great, etc., ancestor lived in Rome during the empire.

Madame Bovary was written by Gustave Flaubert and the book is now regarded as one of the most influential literary works in history, a seminal work of literary realism.

On the other hand, you have The Professor by Charlotte Brontë, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, in which the narrator, Dr James Sheppard, helps the famous male Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

1 thought on “Let Fiction Be Fiction”

  1. This subject seems to come up ad nauseam, and is particularly popular among younger, “woke” readers and writers. I’ve chosen to remind some of the louder complainers that had it not been for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, there would probably never have been a Civil War. So I heartily second your suggestion, PG. Let the author tell his or her story, and let the reader grow from it, or set it down and move on.

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