Over the past several years, I’m sure that many readers have noticed changes in the way that books are written and presented, both in mainstream and in independent publishing. Whilst some of those changes have been subtle, others have been reasonably blatant. One thing is certain, however – nearly all of those changes have been justifiable. Nearly all.
I don’t mind admitting that I first started planning this article after reading a piece on the BBC’s website about Anthony Horowitz (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39988992; 21st May 2017). Broadly, it discusses Horowitz’s feelings at being ‘warned’ that he shouldn’t include a character of colour in a piece of work. According to the piece, it was suggested to him that he’d be unable to adequately portray the character because of his inexperience as a person of colour.
As statements go, this sentiment has certain ramifications for the book industry and, indeed, the creative arts as a whole.
If a white author is unable to adequately portray a character of colour, it must follow that a male author is incapable of correctly portraying a female character, mustn’t it? Having never experienced life as a member of the opposite sex, I, as a writer, need to employ a great deal of empathy in order to relate to my female characters. But that is why research is undertaken and discussions take place. It prevents those characters from ‘feeling wrong’, or niggling at the reader’s imagination.
Recently, a great deal has been made about publishing houses employing sensitivity readers, who check potential acquisitions for tone-deafness and insensitivity, and not all authors (or readers for that matter) are in agreement with this decision. Some opinions I’ve read have termed this extra buffer between the thoughts of the author and the opinions of the reader as a form of censorship.
I would argue that few authors looking to make a career out of writing set out to be inflammatory. There are oceans of differences between evocative, provocative and downright antagonistic writing, and I’d wager that most aspiring career authors do not want to cause intentional offence. It’s counterproductive. However, what if an author wants to include a controversial aspect into their narrative because it fits with the context of the story? If censorship of this type existed, would we ever have stories based around the abolition of slavery or women’s suffrage ever again?
Whilst Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) was an interesting portrayal of the events leading up to the Russian Revolution, I don’t think many readers would appreciate the same being applied to the Suffragette movement. But, how else are we supposed to write about those events if no author can write characters that aren’t “in their experience”?
Then there’s the use of the much hated “stereotype”. In some cases (certainly not all), stereotypical characters are sometimes necessary because they are characters we can all relate to. They are uncomplicated, and usually, bear a resemblance to one or more people we have all come across in our own lives. Would I want all of my characters to be that way? No, it would make for some pretty awful reading and would negate a large proportion of my audience. Should they be intentionally offensive? No. But can they be used to provoke the desired response, if used appropriately, within the context of the story? Of course, they can.
This is where sense and sensitivity come into play. People come in all shapes and sizes, have varying levels of intelligence and are of varying skin tones. Each and every one of us is unique, both in the physical respect and in our experiences. The skill in writing a plausible character is the author’s ability to approach their work with a bit of common sense, and sensitivity towards the group they are writing about. This is why some of the most accomplished authors research their characters (and create backgrounds) before they even put pen to paper on the actual story.
Denying someone their creativity based on their inexperience is the severest form of censorship. It stifles their opportunities for self-growth and development, and it leads to biased points of view. In other words, telling a female author that they shouldn’t write male characters because they themselves are not male, is denying them the opportunity to empathise with the opposite gender. Telling a Chinese author that they can’t write about a Japanese character is denying them the opportunity to see life through their character’s eyes.
Telling any author that it’s insensitive to write a character of any colour that isn’t their own is denying them a chance to walk in their character’s shoes, and to understand what they might have been through. It doesn’t mean that, as an author, I can ever fully understand what it’s like to be a woman, or a woman of colour, or, indeed any person of colour. I don’t know what it’s like to be disabled, either. Does it mean that I can’t ever adequately portray any of the people mentioned above? Not if I take responsibility for my writing and research, it doesn’t. That is why realistic and researched characters are so important. Pre-empting offence will only limit the availability of what’s on offer to experience-based, bland, un-empathetic prose. That’s not to say that we, as authors, are entitled to be offensive. However, people looking for offence will always find it. Censoring literature or art based on what might happen is fruitless and, as a society, we may as well give up our creativity altogether if we take that route. The alternative is going to lead to the same work being cloned time and again until we’re all sick of it. We will not grow. We will not experience. We will no longer empathise.
By day, G. J. Reilly is a teacher of (mostly) ICT and Computing in the South Wales valleys, where he lives with his long-suffering wife and 2.4 cats.
He has an eclectic selection of hobbies, from playing a number of musical instruments with varying degrees of competence to learning the art of contact juggling and teaching sword-based martial arts. Having gained his degree, he spent ten years working in industry, before deciding to change career and head into education.
With an interest in high fantasy, contemporary fantasy and science fiction from a young age, it comes as no surprise that his first work falls into the young adult contemporary fantasy genre.