Writers Abroad Blog
What you Don't Know
Posted by Jill Brown

What you Don’t Know

As writers, we never stop hearing the phrase ‘write what you know’. But should we stick to that? What about writing about what we don’t know, from the point of view of someone of a different race, ethnic background, or someone underprivileged, disabled…I won’t go on, you get the picture. Lionel Shriver recently caused offence on this controversial subject at a talk she gave in Australia, in an attempt to support a writer’s right to do this. An author in her audience walked out, clearly stating her disagreement.

Whether the latter was right or wrong is personal opinion. I read both sides to the story. Both made good points. It seems the speaker came over as arrogant to this writer who felt Shriver was profiting from less-privileged lives for her own financial gain – a kind of identity theft. Shriver felt identity politics had gone too far. After all, fiction is fiction.

Neither of them expected fiction writers not to invent stories. A crime writer need not be a criminal (although being an ex-policeman no doubt helps) or a writer covering abuse need not be a victim of rape. But these thoughts led me on to the point that first-hand experiences sell, whether as autobiography or fiction. Publishers love it. This may seem unfair but a reality we’re forced to accept. Many readers enjoy – my husband was one – fiction that is ‘based on a true story’.

Although it is certainly not wrong – in my opinion – to write from the point of view of someone from another culture, sexual or gender category or get inside the head of someone in a situation you don’t have first-hand experience of, it is challenging. And an awkward habit of mine! I admit to a slight unease and – despite my research efforts – remain a tad anxious; questioning my accuracy and fearing I’ve only scratched the surface.

Or when entering short story competitions, guidelines state ‘nothing of a racist nature considered’, and yet the theme of my piece might be racism, not mine as an author (that would be wrong) but through the eyes of a character and/or a political situation. So should I wait for someone who has ‘been there’ to write about it rather than attempt it myself? I assume a competition judge is wary of giving offence, so has added this rule just in case. Though, for me, it’s not so much the racial nature of the story, it’s how it’s told – not to offend in the first place.

Is this perhaps why historical fiction is generally set in an era going back fifty years or more? Often written by writers who were not even alive then, and few witnesses will be around to air their views on the subject. Certainly, the dilemma is more likely to arise in contemporary fiction.

Oh, to write sci-fi or horror! That way my problem would be solved.


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