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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Writing what we do not know

In my internet wanderings this week I came across two controversies regarding artists creating characters fairly well-removed from their own daily reality. In both cases these authors faced the wrath of hugely offended groups of readers. Here are the basic scenarios:

In the first situation, an author (white) wrote a book about a mixed-race character. The character lies compulsively, about her race, her gender (when mistaken for a boy she simply doesn't correct the other person) and all kinds of other things. She's also the main character in the book. Many characters in the book are not white, by the way. Objections from some readers ranged from the fact that the author didn't stick to white characters to the perception that the main character's unsavory activities are a statement on non-white people in general. The lies about her gender led to accusations of trans-phobia.  CLICK HERE to read the authors blog on the controversy. After that, you can CLICK HERE to read her update on the fight to change the cover image on the book to one that properly represents the character.

In the second situation a musician I like had problems a few years ago because she and a friend wrote an album. It was a concept album (based completely in fiction) about conjoined twin girls. Saved from death at the hands of a mad surgeon they are almost immediately kidnapped and forced to (among other things) travel with a freak show. Eventually they decide to escape their horrible life and form a band, writing sad songs about their lives and selling CDs over the internet. It's a strange (but good) CD. It's definitely not for everyone, especially with the extremely dark themes and imagery that run almost the length of the album. And in this case people were upset that the protagonists were female and conjoined twins. The breadth of angry blogs, artist responses, angry retorts, etc are far to great for me to give you a list, but The album in question is Evelyn Evelyn, if you want to go googling.

And after spending a few days reading and thinking about these two situations I came up with this:

Artists should always be responsible about researching their characters. Another recent internet explosion was related to an author (white) who wrote a book in which the white characters (referred to as "Pearls") wore blackface to blend in with black people ("Coals"). This, and a variety of other racially charged stereotypes were used in the book in the most offensive ways possibly because the author didn't research the topics she was writing about. But once the artist knows their territory it's really up to them what they do with it. An individual character isn't representative of the REAL people who are in the same social, economic, racial etc. group. It's unfair to judge an artists work in that way unless they say "I mean this white, bisexual, incontinent redhead to represent the attitudes and abilities of all white, bisexual, incontinent redheads everywhere." then you can go ahead and judge. It's also unfair to attack an author as racist, size-ist, whatever-ist because they made a character you don't personally like. If you don't like the art, don't condemn it, just don't consume it.

I asked my very smart business partner and author Frank Oreto about all of this a few days ago. I never write these things down when I need to but I want to close by paraphrasing what he said in response to all of this. "Writing books is like ESP. I put words on paper to represent what's in my head and then you pick those words up and they create a story for you and hopefully you get what I wanted you to. But I'm also writing from my own experience and knowledge, and your experience and knowledge is different. So what are the chances you won't read something differently than I meant it?"

Smart guy.