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February 17, 2015 7:37 AM   Subscribe

The Struggle To Be A Good Critic [Electric Literature] How should or shouldn't white writers write POC characters?
posted by Fizz (33 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Related: Jess Row on what learned from James Baldwin about writing about racial matters.

I agree that if a white writer does his research, there's no reason for him not to write about persons of color. But that of course is the problem: whether out of laziness or an undue focus on "writing what you know", too many white writers don't do the research to present persons of color with the full range of humanity that their white characters get.
posted by Cash4Lead at 8:05 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post. Very interesting. I especially like it in contrast to the articles out there criticizing Transparent because it is helmed by a cisgender writer.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:09 AM on February 17, 2015

I did not trust her—or any White person—for that matter writing about marginalized people. After all, H.P Lovecraft said in reference to Black people...

What. The. Fuck?

I have rarely seen such a glaring example of someone looking so hard for a reason to be offended. Look, it isn't rocket science. The person whose paper you have at hand isn't H.P. Lovecraft or one of those racist children's book authors. She isn't Mark Twain either. Your job is to figure out who she is, and your tool for doing that is the work at hand, not your prejudices and bad experiences with other people who look like her.

This is how you be a good critic: You read the words in front of you that you've been asked to criticize. You do not conflate those words with the words of other people who happen to look like the author. If the words in front of you get it right you commend them, and if they don't you point out the problem.

And writers will get characters wrong when they step outside their zone of immediate knowledge; that's why you criticize them. But you don't get to stake out a whole class of people and say a certain other class of people can't write about them, ever, because someone else fucked it up. What you do is advise them how they got it wrong so they can get it right next time. Or you end up with a world where only women can write about women, only POC's can write about POC's, only gays can write about gays, and everyone will complain that there is no diversity in the cast of any stories.
posted by localroger at 8:14 AM on February 17, 2015 [9 favorites]

I think it is incumbent on white writers to write characters of color, especially in places where characters of color have generally gone unrepresented. Any decent writer should be able to do this when it is a supporting character or the character's race is not their defining role in the story.

It becomes a lot harder when that character is the main character, or somehow represents an experience unique to or distinctive people of color. I have found there are a few things that are useful to do in these circumstances. The first is simply to vet the story with people of color -- have them read the story and comment on it honestly. I wish I had done more of this with my first play, "Minstrel Show," which detailed the historical lynching of a black man in Omaha from the point of view of two itinerant African-American performers. But the show was directed by and performed by black performers, and I kept out of their way in interpreting the material, and incorporated their changes into my script. But I feel like I would have benefited from taking the play to the larger community before it debuted. I have done this a few times since then, at it has always helped.

And this leads to my second approach: Collaborate with people of color. They are not merely underrepresented as characters, they are underrepresented as authors, and I think one of the ways white writers can undermine their privilege is by using it to create opportunities for writers of color, at least through partnership.
posted by maxsparber at 8:15 AM on February 17, 2015 [14 favorites]

I have rarely seen such a glaring example of someone looking so hard for a reason to be offended.

I could say the same for your comment, especially as those exact points are discussed in the rest of the article and in the end the author pretty much agrees with you.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:25 AM on February 17, 2015 [17 favorites]

Look at how 30 Rock did it. 1) have four or five very distinct black characters so that none of them can be seen to "represent" black people as a whole, and 2.) make sure there are POCs (in this case Donald Glover) in the writer's room so that those characters are as rounded and funny as everyone else.

And this leads to my second approach: Collaborate with people of color. They are not merely underrepresented as characters, they are underrepresented as authors, and I think one of the ways white writers can undermine their privilege is by using it to create opportunities for writers of color, at least through partnership.

Exactly. If it's a collaborative process (like a tv writers' room as mentioned above) and you are in the position to be hiring, hire people of color, hire women, hire GLBT folk, and make sure your room is representative, and then be open to what other people are saying.

If it's just something you're writing on your own, show it to people. If you don't have friends who fit into the group you're writing, make some. This is the internet, you can do that now.

If it's worth writing, it's worth getting right, and it's not that hard to talk to people to get it right.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:29 AM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Well Potomac Avenue I did see that she managed, with over a thousand words of hand-wringing, to wrestle herself around to seeing the obvious, but it's kind of hard to believe she sincerely believes her own conclusion when she wrote the part I quoted and actually kept writing.
posted by localroger at 8:32 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I generally feel that if a person of color has something to say about their experience and how they respond to the world, cherry picking the part you find irritating, especially when it is rebutted at the end, and responding only to that is bad form.
posted by maxsparber at 8:36 AM on February 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'm really unclear as to what you think she is saying there localroger. Your reaction seems like it has to be based on a misinterpretation. Let me try to paraphrase it:
"White people have written some horrible shit over the years both straight out evil racist but also condescending and wrong racist. So whenever I encounter a white person writing about black people, I get nervous. My initial instinct is to think they should not do it all. But, as long as they're smart and cool about it, it can work and even be really great."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:39 AM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

That feeling that white people should not be writing work that centers people of color - I really kind of get that. Whenever I encounter a novel by a man that is supposed to be this deep and profound portrait of a woman character, or when I encounter queer characters written by straight writers, I feel anxious and uncomfortable - partly because I feel like people writing from a position of privilege always get to tell those stories, and partly because I feel like I'm just waiting for it to turn into stupid bullshit. And partly because I'm waiting for the privileged writer to reap career success and awards and stuff from making my life into cultural capital.

I feel like I often notice white writers piggybacking on the theoretical/historical/personal/etc work of authors of color, especially black writers - building it into dissertations and publications and various kinds of fame. (For certain values of fame, I know.) And this really troubles me.

I think there's this permanent tension which can't be resolved in a satisfactory way - I don't think there's a way to say "hey, this is always okay because [free speech, whatever]" or "no, this is never okay [because then we'd be left with white writers writing only totally white worlds]".

I also end up feeling like there has to be some acceptance of productive failure - like, there's this Sarah Schulman novel, Shimmer, that I really enjoy. Part of the narrative is clearly modeled on James Baldwin's Another Country and one narrator (and the hero of a plot arc separate from hers that she herself researches and writes about) are black New Yorkers. I (a white person) feel funny about the book, because I feel like it's....I don't know, like the black characters are not as richly fleshed out either as Schulman's white Jewish characters or as the characters in, say, a James Baldwin novel. But on the other hand, I remember the characters well, and I feel like their stories were important. The novel itself is about how racism and misogyny intertwine, white women's privilege, how black artists and academics get shut out of funding by racism....It's a pretty neat book, I think, even though it has its flaws. I think it would be a huge shame if people read Shimmer instead of books about black artists and academics by black writers, but I also think that Sarah Schulman brings something to the story as herself, and that there's a good Sarah Schulman novel about racism in the arts that is different from a good novel by James Baldwin.

I have been invited to review a fiction anthology that - although it is not the specific charge of the compilation - focuses mostly on racial justice. I've been asking my editor to find a reviewer of color, but no soap thus far - so I'm thinking that (rather than having it go unreviewed in this publication, because it looks awesome) I am going to find a co-reviewer (or a replacement reviewer, if possible).
posted by Frowner at 8:41 AM on February 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

I completely understand the writer's problems about seeing a white woman write about a free black man being enslaved; alarm bells start ringing for me at that point at well. At best it could be a sympathetic but misguided appropriation of another people's history, at worst it would be yet another whitewashing of the realities of slavery. It's like The Help, a book that supposedly celebrates the struggle for black emancipation but erases the agency of actually existing black people while giving its white writer unearned kudos.

Point is, you can't ignore American history and American political realities when talking about this, when white writers already have oodles of unearned privilege over their black counterparts without appropriating the latter's history as well in search of gravitas.

Doesn't mean that no white writer should ever avoid these topics, but that you should be very careful about this and be wary of your privileged position when doing so and that rather, the better thing would be to promote black voices over yours on these subjects and shut up for a change.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:48 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

(I feel the same way about non-Jewish, non-Roma writers with no connections to the Holocaust writing fiction about e.g. Auschwitz.)
posted by MartinWisse at 8:50 AM on February 17, 2015

I'm mostly with localroger -- though I may applaud the conclusion of the piece, it's an awfully earnest road (and I mean that in the worst possible way) that gets her there. Though I suppose it does in the end do a good job of illustrating just how messed up things get when one's personal political filters get in the way of one's engagement with works of art/literature.

But that said, I'm also with Frowner. Any writer who seeks to inhabit the identity of someone they aren't (who they have no lived experience of being) is taking on a mighty difficult task. It just is. Which isn't to say I'm not glad that many try. Because when it works, it's like all art that works -- applied magic. And we need a pile of that if we (humanity) are ever going to figure out how to navigate all the barriers (some far less obvious than skin tone) that divide us.

I mean seriously, where would the culture be if Mick Jagger had never tried to sing like an old blues man?
posted by philip-random at 8:53 AM on February 17, 2015

Errr, maybe the Chambers Brothers would be still be touring? I like the Stones but let's be real.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:59 AM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Potomac, my problem is that the answer to her conundrum is entirely encapsulated and is made blindingly obvious by the two sentences I quoted. I literally thought "Lady, I think I see your problem" when I read that. Instead of Googling the author of the piece you're reviewing to see whether people of $IDENTITY should have permission to write about $TOPIC, maybe you should just read the damn piece and see if it rings true. The rest of the article manages to find the correct solution but the way she gets there is full of YOU ARE DOING THAT WRONG.
posted by localroger at 9:06 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

My only obligation as a writer is to tell the truth of the work. If I have written cardboard characters or paraded about a series of crude stereotypes, then I am a bad writer and I need to learn to write better. Criticism and input from a wide range of people can help me do that. Reading widely amongst a multiplicity of voices can help me do that.

I'm a writer of limited imagination. I can't write a story about a 10-year-old girl in Burma in 1850 without doing a ton of research and preparation and then I'd be writing with a set of blinders on that I don't even know I'm wearing. So maybe that's someone else's story to write. And part of the process of writing is acknowledging the presence of those limitations and contingencies.

But it's all a continuum, right? And reaching beyond your points of comfort on that continuum is a healthy imaginative exercise, given an awareness of the baggage you bring with you.

If not, then fuck it, we're all John Cheever, writing the same goddamn cocktail party over and over again, and nobody wants that.

posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:07 AM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

received a ton of flack for only having White characters in an extremely diversity place such as Brooklyn

I felt even more flattered that she asked me what I thought instead of rebuffing my critique, which involved me stressing how important it was to detail the brutality of slavery
, as well as, using a bunch of hand gestures to accentuate my point.

What is this business with the hand gestures and why is it important?

I don't think this was a well-written piece. Nor do I think it was well-conceived. She concludes with an idea so obvious that the piece does not merit having been written in the first place. The HP Lovecraft quote, which starts with the phrase "After all," seems wildly out of place. "After all," this one writer is an unabashed racist, therefore my feelings.

She starts with a contrived negative, adds a bland positive, and the result is that the net value of her criticism is zero.
posted by GrapeApiary at 9:22 AM on February 17, 2015

There are valid concerns about representation presented in the article—among published authors, MFA programs, etc.—that have nothing to do with the central question of whether person of X persuasion can or should write about person of Y persuasion.

The question itself has always seemed ludicrous to me, and if you follow it to its logical conclusion, no author could ever write a character that didn't mirror his or her own experience. Good writers empathize with their characters and research/vet the historical/situational details. Whether an author writes convincing and compelling characters that fall outside their immediate experience is, of course, open to debate and critique. But never whether they should be able to.
posted by echocollate at 9:23 AM on February 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

If not, then fuck it, we're all John Cheever, writing the same goddamn cocktail party over and over again, and nobody wants that.

Beyond the fact that I am my most interesting subject, this is why I only write autobiography and petits récits.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:30 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm just here to echo what echocollate said above.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:38 AM on February 17, 2015

We recently had, Don't judge a book by its author -- kind of a mirror image of these issues.

To the extent that privileged majority writers are made to avoid minority experiences, the whole burden of exploring those experiences is shifted to minority writers. If we think majority members understanding minority experiences is important for political transformation, this is a heavy burden to lay on minority artists. Forna's complaint (in the earlier post) is that minority artists do not want to be pigeon-holed like this -- they may want to explore a whole range of experience.

This mirrors an old debate among Black Americans. WEB DuBois had a famous essay, "Criteria of Negro Art" (1926), arguing that Black art has to serve the political purpose of group advancement: "[A]ll art is propaganda." The opposite position was represented by Alain Locke, who wrote: "[P]ropaganda ... perpetuates the position of group inferiority." (I'm influenced on this subject by a talk on propaganda by Jason Stanley -- here's an interview with him.)

It's a subtle question and my knowledge only scratches the surface, and of course the debate has moved on since the '20s.

But there is at least a danger: that the desire to exclude privileged majority artists from minority experiences perversely feeds into the continuing pigeonholing of minority artists as hyphenated artists, representatives of their class, rather than artists to be considered for the full range of faults and virtues.
posted by grobstein at 9:39 AM on February 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Thanks for those links, grobstein. I think the central question of the article is a worthy one all by itself, but it’s also indicative of larger problems: the dearth of people of color in MFA programs, as mentioned in the article by the author and Junot Diaz; the white students who have no friends outside their race, etc. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that both of those problems are the legacy of generations of racist educational and housing policies inflicted on people of color. Neither art nor that question arises in a vacuum. There’s real pain behind the asking.

The more that we work for equality and justice in the larger culture—economic, judicial, etc.—the greater the chance for the voices of women and people of color to break through and be heard. And hopefully, the result of that is to move toward a state of greater understanding where the pain in that question is replaced with a vibrant, robust curiosity about how well or how poorly we tell each others' stories instead of disagreeing on whether or not we have the right to tell them.
posted by reclusive_thousandaire at 10:09 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think that this was an excellent piece and raises some issues that careful readers can take to heart. I also participated in the thread that grobstein mentioned, about judging a book by its author, and I will reiterate my point here, that I feel that, since there are opportunities to find 'authority' in authorship, I can make decisions about who tells me the story that I am reading.

What i mean by this is that, regardless of the merits of a given work by a white author, or a male author,or a cis-gendered author,I feel it's necessary to seek out authors who represent those marginalized segments of the population, and read what they have to say about their experience.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon is my favorite example of how badly a well known author can botch the minority experience and yet still have praise heaped upon it ( i am certain that there are other examples, this is just my example). It's so awful that it's laughable, and yet it garnered rave reviews at the time, largely, i'm sure, on Chabon's reputation.

read telegraph avenue and then pick up Kiese Laymon's Long Division, a book I trumpet wherever and whenever i can, and you will immediately see the authority in one and the minstrel show in the other.

This is an issue for the publishing industry, as much as it is for critics (you can only critique what you are given to read), but my role as a reader is to 'vote with my wallet' and support works by those marginal voices in order that be recognized and promoted.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:15 AM on February 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Also, that H.P. Lovecraft quote comes from a poem he wrote in 1912. I guess casual racism was just a tad more accepted in those days than it is lately. So again, what is it doing in the article? When you have to dredge up a century old quote to justify your squick, you are trying entirely too hard.
posted by localroger at 10:36 AM on February 17, 2015

Let’s Hurry or We’ll Miss a Public Lynching is a Bob Staake gag.
posted by theodolite at 10:45 AM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Ideally, a good character is an individual, not a type; they confront reader expectations instead of confirming them, and this means a dynamic, well-dramatized character always transcends mere "group" representation. Bad writing is bad writing: one problem with articles likes this is it confuses a writer's limited, personal experiences with what is obviously poor character craft.
posted by tiger yang at 11:04 AM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Interesting article, thank you.

I guess there's no point having a discussion with those of you who think racism in your country has ended and doesn't affect real life.

Nor with those of you who seem offended black people in your country don't think racism there has ended.
posted by glasseyes at 12:35 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I guess there's no point having a discussion with those of you who think racism in your country has ended and doesn't affect real life.

I guess it's a good thing then that nobody has expressed that opinion here.
posted by localroger at 12:37 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't characterize the essay as "looking to be offended" and it's an important topic. I do think I get what you mean though that using a quote from one of the most infamously, openly racist writers in the English language as the jumping-off point is an odd choice because the real topic is whether it's ok for a well-meaning white person to write about non-white characters. The answer to whether it's ok for H.P. Lovecraft to write about POC is "hell no." Wouldn't it fit better to use an example of a "sympathetic" white writer producing false or racist work nonetheless? But it's an odd choice at the beginning of a perfectly good essay - in no way does it invalidate the whole thing.
posted by atoxyl at 1:13 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

And, yeah, Let’s Hurry or We’ll Miss a Public Lynching isn't even a real book.
posted by atoxyl at 1:18 PM on February 17, 2015

I think the author should have judged the work on its own merit instead of trying to figure out the demographic background of the person who submitted it. If someone not from your background is doing a better job of writing about it than you could, maybe eat up some humble pie and work on your own craft??
posted by Renoroc at 8:23 PM on February 17, 2015

Reading through this thread I wonder if there isn't a cognitive hazard lurking in the conversation, one of mistaking writing for reading?

I don't think group A writing about group B is any kind of a problem. I think what is potentially galling, misinforming and misleading is when group A exclusively reads and believes its own writing about group B.

Slavery and the Holocaust certainly "belong" in one sense to their immediate victims. But I would expect every human being, upon learning about such horrors, to be shocked into a state of puzzled incomprehension that they might try to research and write their way out of.

I think the article is about who we read, not who writes.
posted by ssr_of_V at 11:48 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

To speak to tiger yang's point, one of the more interesting conversations we had with a campus group was when an honors freshman thought Ruby of Cold Mountain was black. After an awkward start, we started talking about biases that reader bring to the experience. Octavia Butler said some of these biases prompted her writing of Kindred. She also mentioned the experience of writing about a horse as a child, having no horse experience at that time, as part of building a foundation for her career. Writers may have malleable first drafts for a variety of reasons, the important part is getting to a solid finished draft by networking and reading and supporting those who don't have privilege to combat the often-dominanting social narrative that is informed by some horrible history.
posted by childofTethys at 5:14 AM on February 19, 2015

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