Writing from Empathy

A friend (hi, Robin!) asked my opinion on a keynote speech delivered at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Lionel Shriver spent her podium time excoriating identity politics and the chilling effect she perceives as its aim and effect for writers of fiction.

In an exercise that would surely encourage her to pull out her hair, I’ll start by saying that the very term “identity politics” is being critically examined by those of us who love words and attempts to shape understanding by using the very best ones. Does the term put the onus on the marginalized to police the borders of their various marginalized identities? Does “empathy politics” move the responsibility to those of us who exhibit failures of empathy in our experiences with and/or portrayals of marginalized people? Or does the shift of focus just move attention back to the white cookie monster and away from those who could use a hand getting up to the podium Shriver used so comfortably?

This divagation isn’t merely splitting hairs or trying to create trouble for folks without the time or inclination to stay current on the most trendy (subtext: change is bad and why learn a new way if it will change again later?) language.

Shriver’s main complaint seems to be that she feels disallowed from writing freely anything that comes to mind. She defends this position with examples of people reacting badly to things she’s written and things other people have written. She uses these examples to build a mountain of reasons folks should let fiction writers roam free and then she plants a flag at the top of that mountain.

The flag says: It’s okay to write badly.

I know that most writing is not very good. Many, many of the books that are published are good in some particular way and bad in most others. They satisfy readers who read for that thing they’re good at. Some books have so many strengths that they’re lauded as Great Books, but even those will have weaknesses.

To take down the flag, I say this. If you write badly, expect to be criticized.

To tear down the mountain, I’ll need to say more. There’s a whole line of argument that I’m going to leave alone, which tackles the question of how, when, and why a person shouldn’t write a marginalized character whose life is outside the writer’s experience. I’m going to stick with the question of critique.

Shriver makes an argument that classics of literature were written outside the writers’ experiences. I haven’t read all the books she cites, but the ones I know worked hard–very, very hard–to understand the heart and soul of someone different from them. They saw horror and injustice and wrote from a position of empathy. They got things wrong (witness the changing understanding of what exactly John Howard Griffin achieved in Black Like Me) and they got things right. They wrote and they were criticized. And they lived.

A Russian author was recently killed for writing against Putin and the murderers claim they did it on orders. An Austrian Jew was killed in the 1920s for writing that expelling the Jews would mean the downfall of Austria. Stalin created a style and killed writers who didn’t adhere to it.

The folks Shriver holds up didn’t just live. Their books went on to become classics, at least in enough eyes to make it into her speech. The horrible chilling effect that is her whole premise didn’t keep the other writers she discusses from writing their works, though they were criticized in reviews. I myself once got a glowing review that bumped me down a star because my book was about Native Hawaiians and I am not Hawaiian.

Guess what. That’s cool with me. If the star system gets anyone anything, it tells purchasers what to pay attention to. This reviewer thought my work was great but that a Native Hawaiian who wrote a great book about their own culture should get more attention. I agree completely.

Even in what should be fun, silly Hollywood, guess who’s getting doxxed and hounded? Leslie Jones, not Kristin Wiig.

Danger meets trans folk who try to speak up or Black Lives Matter activists or any other person who tried to put the brakes on whole hog cultural appropriation and stereotype driven depictions. Danger that Shriver doesn’t seem to acknowledge in her self-righteous desire to protect the people she considers more important, more worthy of protection. Shriver treats the feelings and sales figures of white writers as though they should be untouchable.

Her mountain is built on stories of published books being criticized in the media. That mountain dissolves when you look at the base of it, where an entire industry assists mainstream voices who tell stories from points of view we find comfortable because we’re trained from early childhood to understand them. That industry has responded to a growing desire for other stories by asking the same old voices to make them palatable to the known consumer. It’s a sad fact that writing about a Nigerian woman is more likely to be praised and published if the writer is otherwise in the usual vein, e.g. US born and raised (UK, Canada, and Australia sometimes accepted), white, conventionally educated, and able to speak to others who fit the exact same description. It’s white people talking to white people about Nigerian women and claiming to use a Nigerian voice.

Shriver tries to come off like a “pure” writer. We’re here to take the flights of fancy, etc, etc. And she’s not wrong about the spirit in which most excellent writing is done. She is wrong about where that writing should take the writer, because she seems to think it should take them to publishers who open their arms in welcome, and to bookstores constantly refilling the shelves as their books sell, and to reviewers who use the same lack of reflection she wants from writers. Instead, that writing should take the writer to further, better researched and thoroughly fleshed out drafts that eventually become a book…if the writer has done a good enough job.

Writing from imagination only takes you so far. She talks about writing a high school killing spree involving arrows, and I bet you money she researched archery, fatal shots and wounding shots, and school security systems. When people try to disclaim responsibility for putting equal research into their characters’ cultures, probable formative life experiences, and day to day treatment in society, I hear them saying that those other cultures are not valuable and important enough to get right.

That’s simply wrong.

To build a new mountain, I say this. Writing with respect means being cognizant of what you’re keeping in and what you’re leaving out. The hardest job of the fiction writer is taming wild imaginings into something that works in a fundamentally linear fashion while hoping to spark something decidedly creative and perhaps even non-linear in a reader. The easiest things to leave out are those that you don’t care about.

The things left out can be a road map to what an author does and does not care about. A body of literature can be a road map to what a culture does and does not care about. The history of literature is the very picture of what humanity…literate, with leisure time and money for books or the ability to get to libraries…hmm. Did I derail that argument?

No. Fiction will always leave something out. It will always speak to some people and not others. What’s happening right now is that the people who are being ignored by literature are getting tired of being left out.

We are trained from infancy to understand, be comfortable in, and expect the conventions of white male centered fiction. As a sci-fi reader from way back, I vividly remember the moment when it occurred to me to question the absence of women in my favorite books. Next was to question those women who were present. Women who posed on pedestals, women who papered the walls. The glorified horse, the creator of motivation for the real, fully fledged characters. Women without any self-image at all, let alone one that includes suffering, balancing, or backlash in their body images, just to pick one aspect of being a woman in this culture.

I was not satisfied with how women were portrayed in science fiction. I started reading romance books in part to get some sense of who women were in their interior lives, to get to know women in the way I’d been trained to know men.

It hadn’t even occurred to me to wonder where the people of color were, let alone queer and trans folks, disabled and neurodivergent folks.

This leaving-out is the place where imposter syndrome is born. We’re all faking it, pushing our way into other people’s stories because the other option is to let go of our dreams and become wooden horses for others to ride.

Let’s build our own, real lives with anti-racism, anti-segregation, and anti-discrimination so deeply embedded that…wow!…we can’t write any honest portrayal of the world around us without including people different from us. And let’s do a good job of it, because guess what happens when we don’t. We hear about it, yes, but more importantly, we add to the skewing of self so many oppressed and left-out readers experience.

What I hear when I read Shriver’s words is this: the smallness of my life makes sense and reflects my values. I hear: I don’t want to work that hard on understanding my characters. I hear: I’ve been protected all my life from the pain of oppression and I don’t want to have to think about it in other people’s lived experiences.

I say: do better.

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