• Trusty Gavel

Let’s Talk About…Authority in Writing

A lot of conversations have been had lately about writerly responsibility to accurately represent in their books cultural experiences they have not had.

There are a lot of things that…discomfit me about this conversation. Like the fact that apparently some writers need to be told this is a thing? When let’s be clear: we have always been a hundred percent responsible for not writing racist bullshit. (Unless, of course, that was our goal. Presumably I’m not talking to anyone here for whom “inciting race war” is a goal for fiction.)

Also: I’m all for people writing characters who are not like themselves. Absolutely. But I hope this whole “help white people write characters of color better” movement doesn’t in some way subsume what to my mind is a much more valuable use of our time: publishing and promoting more books about characters of color written by people of color. For fuck’s sake.

The thing I find most unnerving about “increase the diversity of early readers and your problem’s solved” is that early readers can only offer opinions. Advice. Feedback. And they can only offer that from their perspective. The writer’s still on the hook for incorporating all that into their understanding of their characters.

In other words: I don’t care that you got a sensitivity reader to read your book, White Author: you are still a hundred percent responsible for what you’ve written.

I worry–and perhaps I have an unduly low expectation of human behavior–but I worry that next up we’ll hear “My book can’t be racist! I had a black early reader and they loved it!” or “The seder I wrote was great! My Jewish friend read it and said it was perfect!”

I don’t want to hear that shit in public from ANYONE. EVER.

If someone tells you you’ve written something that’s culturally insensitive, the first fucking thing you do is shut your goddamn mouth. Shut it. We had a thing, in writing workshops, and I don’t remember what the image was, but the idea was that the person whose work was being critiqued wasn’t allowed to talk. They had to just sit there and take it in.

There should be more of that in writing world. And way, way more of that in the land of white people defending themselves against accusations that they might not always be in the right.

It’s shocking, white people. I know. I, too, am white. I understand what it feels like to be raised with the idea that your default position is “in the right”.

For a little help, I thought I’d pull up Mr Jay Smooth, who addresses some of this stuff in his “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist” video. (Then…go watch all the rest of his videos. “The List of Rules for Women” is pretty rad. Also “An Old Person’s Guide to ‘No Homo'”.)

The other part of my problem–and let me be clear, I don’t have a problem with adding many hundreds and thousands of new early readers of wildly diverse backgrounds. That’s wonderful. That’s necessary. Dare I say, that shit should have been obvious without any big “popular author wrote a racist scene” event.

So part of my problem is the danger that folks from

[different cultural background of their character] will abdicate responsibility to [early reader of same cultural background of the character], and consider one reader’s neutral or positive feedback a universal stamp of approval.

The other part of my problem is this: there is no one experience. No one person has authenticity to deem your book “not racist”. (Or, for that matter, “not homophobic” or “not misogynist”. I add those last two because lo, the many books written by queers and women that struck me as casually homophobic and misogynist.)

I’m a little concerned that people will think this is my way of saying So don’t even bother! Write the story of your heart! Do your best! A for effort! If you’re not a racist, write whatever you want, and fuck the haters who call you out for your privilege and whitewashing!

No.

What I’m saying is: One reader isn’t enough. LOTS OF READERS. GET LOTS OF READERS.

This is on my mind today because I’m revising a book with a trans main character. I can be considered to have a certain amount of authority on this topic. According to the current climate, I am not required to have any sensitivity readers spin through this book. I’m enough.

Except I’m not. Of course I’m not.

Months ago, before the book was written, I asked my pal Gray to read it. Despite the fact that I’d read it, and another trans reader had read it, and it’s not doing anything controversial in trans space… More readers are always better.

And you know what? Gray picked out a dozen things that I didn’t see. Areas of clarifying language. Areas of clarifying what the MC meant when he referred to certain things that the other queer and trans readers did not catch.

If I hadn’t asked Gray to read, if he hadn’t been generous with his feedback, I would still be one hundred percent responsible for any misunderstandings arising from my book. Despite the fact that I can be said to have authority on the subject matter. Despite the fact that I had one trans reader who was not me read it and offer feedback before Gray.

A hundred percent. As writers, we are a hundred percent responsible. Say you changed some shit because a publisher told you to. I hear that. Tough position. You are a hundred percent responsible for your words. Say you changed some shit because readers pressured you. You are a hundred percent responsible for your words. Say you changed some shit because you kept getting feedback from agents that told you you’d never be published if you didn’t change that shit. Guess what? You are still one hundred percent responsible for your words.

Full stop.

Featured image is “My Trusty Gavel” by Brian Turner on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license 2.0.

May 6th, 2016|Categories: blog|Tags: , , |

8 Comments

  1. Laura May 6, 2016 at 8:37 am - Reply

    Wow, what a great post!

    We do that thing in my writing workshop where we are not allowed to explain ourselves or talk back when the rest of the group is giving us their opinions. I think it’s an amazing way to learn.

    I guess I knew this already, but as an aspiring writer I’m goint to take the “I’m responsible for my words” sentence to heart.

    Thank you for writing this, Kris!

    • KrisRipper2 May 6, 2016 at 9:01 am - Reply

      I'm glad it resonated with you, Laura!

      And did you call it something? We had a word, a phrase…cone of silence? Booth of silence? There was an image, and I can't for the life of me remember what the hell it is!

      • mysmallcornerblog May 6, 2016 at 9:16 am - Reply

        Yeah, but our name is in Spanish, so I don't think I'll be of much help there. We say "sin derecho a réplica", which would translate as "no rebuttal" or something like that.

        The one I'm taking now is really fun, because our teacher is using fragments of his next book as examples, and he can't talk back either =)

        • KrisRipper2 May 6, 2016 at 9:43 am - Reply

          Now THAT is some brave shit! Damn. I\’m full of respect for your teacher!

          • mysmallcornerblog May 6, 2016 at 9:53 am

            Yeah, he was apprehensive at first. Though he's also used it to guilt trip us a bit so we end up buying the book. As he told us this week: "if you don't buy it, who will?"

            He's presenting it next week, and I've learnt a lot from him, so I'll go, I'll buy it and he'll have to sign it.

  2. Gemma May 6, 2016 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    [Did you mean to say ‘colour’ instead of ‘character’? “help white people write characters of character better”]

    Interesting post. I have no idea of this as a recent controversy, or conversation, but it seems daft to me that all authors aren’t already supremely conscious of (and conscientious about) the fact that people who are different from who they are will (hopefully) read their books. I assume that’s the goal of publishing… someone other than yourself reading your words! To go on to offend them through your own lack of understanding, or accidental misphrasing, or lack of research, etc, seems like something you’d be silly not to be actively working against.

    Most authors will write gracious acknowledgements for expert help at the beginning of a novel, if its set in a particular area or industry that they weren’t previously familiar with, but they then usually also say “I take full responsibility for all mistakes that remain.” Which should be an author’s attitude for everything they write, as you say.

    I recently DNFed a book which was written (I believe) by someone in the US, and set in Scotland. I just couldn’t work out why the author set an action scene in a specified train station (which I’m familiar with), but then imagined a completely different layout. Even more annoying, one of the MCs was Scottish, but I couldn’t stomach the way that they were supposed to speak. Essentially they spoke just like an American person, but with three particular Scots words repeatedly thrown in. That’s not how you make a setting or a character appear authentic.

    • KrisRipper2 May 6, 2016 at 1:32 pm - Reply

      Gah! Thank you, Gemma! Fixed.

      I think a few things are at work here. When you\’re talking about race, but most [published] authors, editors, agents, and marketing folks are white…you\’re going to run into well-intentioned folks who just don\’t know what they don\’t know. Which is why I think it\’s massively important to keep returning to authors are responsible for their shit. I am responsible for learning the things I don\’t already know.

      As a white person, it\’s really easy to live in a very white world. (As an American in the States, I\’d argue the same is true. No one\’s likely to notice between you writing a book and you publishing that you\’ve just completely screwed up the layout of a real life setting.) It\’s easy to only watch television shows starring white people, listen to music sung and written by white people, see only white people broadcast the news, read only books about white people written by white people.

      I live in a state where the majority of people are people of color. And it\’s still ridiculously easy for me to stay in a sheltered white world if I choose to.

      And then. You know. Good intentions. \”We want to write/publish more books with diverse characters!\” Great. Fine. But there\’s more to that than describing a character\’s skin as \”mocha\” or \”caramel\”, which is about where we\’ve been treading water.

      And all of that is secondary to what we fucking ought to be doing, which is publishing a hell of a lot more #ownvoices fiction.

      *steps down from soapbox, at least temporarily*

      Thanks for so thoughtfully commenting, Gemma!

  3. sadieforsythe May 7, 2016 at 8:32 am - Reply

    God I love this. In part because I am in that group of (attempted) writers who tries to sculpt characters I have no authority on and I can't talk myself out of the fear of inadvertently doing harm and I've only recently discovered sensitivity readers as something separate from general beta readers, but also because it just needs to be said. Period. To people like me, who dangerously think they have a handle on being sensitive and finding readers but legitimately probably have a lot farther to go than they think and people who are just figuring it out. Thank you for the reminder. ANd yes, yes, yes to more people writing from their own positions outside the majority!

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