Monday, March 22, 2010

Who owns what? Is there an exclusive territory for certain special writers?

This post was spurred by http://www.sfwa.org/2010/03/can-you-define-african-science-fiction/ and some comments from a rather angry young person a while back about someone writing from their little chosen identity's point of view (Pick your own, my dears. Could be homophobic Russian-speaking pentathalon athletes, or gay Chinese Quakers or whatever narrow little niche they catagorised themselves as). How DARE XYZ Author (who isn't in that particular niche) write about the niche! The barefaced revolting gall! XYZ-fail! Boycott their books! XYZ could never understand it.

Sigh. Back where I came from they had this 'charming' policy called 'apartheid' which this resembles. Yes, it is something the world holds in abhorence and rightly so, but in practice this is still the same thing. Let me explain: In political theory the apartheid policy was called 'seperate development' and purported to effectively divide the human race and allow the different cultures to develop and control their own affairs (we even had a Ministry of Own Affairs). In actual unpleasant practice this meant restricting part of the population from using the resources (jobs, land, votes) which were exclusively for the other part. Of course the 'special'part was not equally restricted. THEY could use anything. And what's more they could decide what was 'suitable' for the rest.

This is Dave's personal take on this. I give you my fullest permission to write about my niche, even if you have never been hetrosexual, addicted to adrenalin, excess-testoseronally challenged, or had to suffer from sunburn, and have not lived in Africa. Even if (as most writers who don't fit the above profile mostly do) you make something of a horse's butt out of it. Because unless you're going to write only about people in your niche, for your niche, odds are you will write about someone else. Probably as the villian (whose culture, background, motivation and feelings you don't understand - just as he doesn't understand yours). Don't expect, however, that I will grant you apartheid rights over me and my very broad niche. I've been a second class citizen, and am not ready to be one again, or to make anyone else be one. I am going to write female characters. I am going to write ones from cultures that are not my own. I'll try and do so sensitively, and with as much careful research as possible, because that is what the ethical author does. I will probably still make a horse's butt out of it sometimes. But the truth is, even if the character is a Mongol and lives in Eastern Romania in the 16th century, they were still human and I have still felt many of the emotions that motivate all humans. Unless you are prepared to back off from using my language or my culture or my gender or my orientation don't tell me to keep off yours. And if you feel your background in that niche qualifies you far better than me to write about it -- you're probably right. Please do it. But you don't own it anymore than Fred Nurk owns writing in English about fat middle-aged white guys because he is one. We'll leave it readers to see whose WRITING they prefer - because being a homophobic Russian-speaking pentathalon athlete may make you know all about being a homophobic Russian-speaking pentathalon athlete... but actually, no, it doesn't make you a good writer automatically. If you want your point of view carried effectively, you might be best advised to find the best writer possible to do so.

For the record, I do not think I write African Science Fiction (although I think I am the most prolific and widely read African born sf writer - with some 30 000 years on my mother's side of claim to that part of Africa, you might say I had some claim if I believed in this sort of territoriality). Nor do I want to. I write Science Fiction. I am still very fond of my birth-land, but it does not confine me. I will compete with anyone, anywhere. I'll lose sometimes, because there are some great writers out there - but I would rather be a lesser fish in big ocean with room to grow and peers to learn from, than need to claim some puddle all for my own. It would be nice to be considered on the merits and failings of my writing. That's unlikely, but I don't want to claim some sort of special status and territory of my own, whatever happens.

So: do you think there is any justification for exclusively restricting any area of writing to one group? Or does any group claiming this forfeit the right to use the resources of others? Can a man write about childbirth? And is a woman who has never had a baby excluded? Can a woman write about having many times the level of testosterone she's ever experienced (yes, actually men are hormonal, and yes it affects their rationality and behaviour)? Can a non-Inuit write about Inuit seal hunting (and can an Inuit who has not hunted seals write it better than a non-Inuit who has)?

Difficult questions.

31 comments:

matapam said...

Imagination conquers all.

Not only are we able to put ourselves mentally in another, very different, person's place, through research we may understand it better than someone from the inside.

We can create entire alien species and live inside their heads for a short time.

I'm not sure if the people who insist on the ownership of some sub-group merely lacks the imagination to put themselves in the POV of another group, or whether he fears that the understanding of the writer will be both accurate and not protective?

Perhaps he envisions his own culture being publicly stripped and mocked, as the Western culture has been treated lately, generally by people of the generalized Western culture. [Deity of Choice] forbid they should turn their attention to a small cultural group.

It's a rather schizophrenic reaction. On one hand KEEP AWAY! and on the other criticism that the existence of their culture hasn't been acknowledged by the inclusion of at least one character of their group.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

One thing I am outraged (outraged I say!) about is humans writing SF stories from "alien viewpoints" -- non-human PoVs should be restricted to non-humans! Why, I can't tell you how offended our non-terrestrial brethren are by this. As a matter of fact Dave, a blogger I know on Gorgomak 7 has written an absolutely scathing reply to your post. Unfortunately, since Gorgomak's nearest wi-fi hub is 14,763 light years away, it may be a while before his post shows up...

:-D

Lin W said...

Well stated, Dave!

Think about not being able to write historical fiction unless you could prove you'd *lived* in the time period you're writing.

Or not being able to write certain professions unless you could prove you were a card carrying member of such.

Not to mention zombies and werewolves and vamps, oh my!

Lin

Dave Freer said...

Matapam -- schizophrenic reaction -- yeah. It's also your duty to have the due ration (actually usually disproportionate ration). Heaven help you if you leave them out like Patrica Wrede did. But instead of a normal distribution of good and evil, likeable and unpleasant, all bad-guys are obliged to be... guess what? And in a normal society some will be. If 2% of humanity are stupid bores or whiny bigots or habitual criminals... 2% of any subset will also be. That's actually - if done fairly and right - an acknowledgement that that subset are equally human. Oddly you don't see that much. Eventually I believe this worm will turn and we can have a society whic is more inclusive and egalitarian. But then I am an optimist by nature.

Dave Freer said...

Yeah Bob, I had time-travelling future-boy drop in on me and bitch about sf writers DARING to write about something they can never have experienced ;-)

Dave Freer said...

Lin... you mean Laurel Hamilton hasn't, like, DONE all that? And isn't one of the undead? Are you sure ;-)?

It's an excuse for a special deal. Job reservation, they called it under apartheid.

I'm an idealist and want to foster tolerance and acceptance. I do not believe this is the right way to inclusivity. I believe people from niches should write and present their point of view. But then I believe all nice boys and girls should write and read others. I want all the not-nice ones and green aliens from Altair to do so. And I really have no problem if they write about others - because they're all human (except for the aliens).

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Really good point, Dave.

I see us as citizens of the world, with a shared history and mythology, a shared guilt for all the terrible things we've done to each other and a shared need for there to be some point to our lives.

So, yes, I think we can write about our shared experiences.

matapam said...

No, Laura Hamilton is not an undead. Whether she has or hasn't the rest is Not My Business.

I started seriously editing some scenes I'd written when I realized my mother was going to read them. But that's a whole other problem.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Heh. Dang time-travelers -- just because they've seen the future, they think they know how things will turn out...

Though, my feelings on this: if I wanted to severely limit my writing and restrict it to that myopic point of view which constitutes my mundane little niche in life, I'd be writing LITERATURE not Science Fiction ;-)

Ori Pomerantz said...

I suggest this - you write about my niche, but if you get it wrong I'll e-mail you and tell you you've gotten it all wrong. Then I'll demand compensation, for example to have you write another book in the "Save the Dragons" world with more Ziklevieson in it.

Chris McMahon said...

I really don't think there should be any boundaries. Hey - we are not talking about 'real life' this is fiction. Something happens when you bring things into the realm of the Story, in some cases the objective distance can bring forward truths the people 'inside' we will be able to acknowledge or confront.

Besides, human truths are the same where ever you come from.

I have alway though that story is about a level of truth or revelation that is beyond the surface of things.

Stephen Simmons said...

I have NEVER understood this. Not in writing, which I'm new at, but in life. People who know nothing at all about me automatically ban me from commenting on various topics based on the assumption that I "couldn't possibly understand", based on ... what? I don't get it.

Sorry, I'm not all that interested in restricting my writing to just my own experience. I'll include some of it, sure, but I'm trying to write SF, not replicate Stephen King's work. So I'm going to reach outside my reality to places where the outcomes make sense, at least occasionally. But I'm going to spend a lot of time immersing myself in research to present those other elements as realistically as I can.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, you've hit one of my hot buttons. If we start applying niches to everyone and saying we can only write in our niche, well, goodbye a lot of good work. You don't have to be female to write from a female pov, or male to write male. You don't have to have been to in Germany in 1945 to write about the fall of Hitler. What you do need is a good imagination, the discipline to do your research and the even greater discipline to write the best damned book or story you can.

Dave Freer said...

heh. Ori - you do know that a certain edior rejected that book because of that character? I think his youthfull exploits would make quite a story!

Dave Freer said...

Stephen - it's IMO a sign of insecurity. The need to belong to an exclusive club ;-/ To look down on someone not on the basis of knowledge or assessment but on superficialities. Precisely like apartheid - which also had its roots in insecurity.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda - if you wish to provoke apocalyptic rage -suggest to the nichers that they should allow... say fat middle-aged white married men (their stock villan) the same rights to their niche.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, I've done it. I like watching them go into apoplexy. But then, they dislike conservative Texas women who happen to like men -- a lot -- almost as much as the fat, middle aged white man.

Kate said...

I challenge the nichers to read "They're a Weird Mob" by Nino Culotta (aka John O'Grady) then say - with a straight face - that he had no right to write that book.

More likely they'll toss it in disgust very quickly, not least because under the humor and everything else there's a recognition of the important things: working hard at something, building yourself a reputation as a good person, and that the best way to overcome bigotry is to SHOW the bigoted that you're not like that. Whatever "that" is supposed to be. It's kind of hard to maintain that "all X are lazy bums" when the X who works with you works harder than you do ;)

(This is why Aussies are notoriously non-PC, no matter what assorted governments say. And I bet that it's the case in a lot of other places, too).

And, no, LKH is not undead. She just does undead porn. That doesn't need experience, just a lot of undead and a lot of in and out.

Dave Freer said...

Kate, I enjoyed They're a Weird Mob, Gone Fishing and no Kava for Johnny... and, um, they're rather typical of my attitudes. Good advice, IMO for a settler in Australia. But I seriously can't imagine them finding a publisher these days - despite the fact they're STILL selling. Oddly enough I have met a few 'ninos' here - people who came from Italy and Germany after the war. Solid Australian citizens - about as solid as the bedrock of Australia, and loyal to it, and with kids and grandkids loyal to it. They all still have accents (50 years on!) mixed with Australianisms (often via their kids)- and much loved and respected in the little community we live in. They seemingly followed O'Grady's advice on fitting in, and it seems to have worked very well. I wonder how the antithesis is going to do? Oh wait, the UK is doing a good test case show of that.

Kate said...

Dave,

I completely agree with you. Another set of books to check out are "Bastards I have met", "More Bastards I have met", and "Funny Bastards" by Sam Weller.

They're a series of anecdotes, jokes, shaggy dog stories and what-have-you told by a man who's been everywhere and done just about everything - and even though the stories range from the Depression through to the seventies, a lot of them still ring true today (like the Italian immigrant who told his mates he'd been sick - "I got da bloody Australian. You get sick, you got da bloody wog. I get sick, I got da bloody Australian.")

They might be a little harder to track down, though :)

Dianna said...

*wanders in*

Huh. Guess Tolkien should never have written about that hobbit, seeing as he wasn't one. And Rowling should never have saved print books by writing about a boy wizard even though she was a woman. Good to know...

Very interesting thoughts in both the post and the comments.

Yes, you might screw up terribly trying to write an Indian character if you aren't Indian, or an African character if you aren't African. But if you research and if you do your best to be fair to all the people involved, that's what really matters. I personally believe the best stories are about what could be or could have been, not what are my reality or the reality of their writer.

~Dianna

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Hi Dianna!

Good point. When it comes right down to it, in a work of fiction the author creates the reality by suspending the reader's disbelief and convincing her to buy in to the reality of the story.

It's the old author/reader contract: "If you buy into this tale I'm spinning, I will do everything in my power to make it worth your while."

:-)

Anthony J Langford said...

Very good posts here. When it comes to sci-fi, there is no limitations/exclusivity. It's open house. Genre fiction particularly. Good imagination and good stories.
I only get frustrated when i read certain literature about dark characters, tortured beginnings etc from a purely middle class, conservative point of view, not to say their lives may not have been miserable, but a little research into the author shows that some (predominantly american) haven't even left their neigbourhoods(matthew reilly), let alone their country. Safe marriages, university degrees, boring blah...i think if your going to write about rawness surely you have get a little dirt on your hands (boy)...(jack kerouc, hemingway) - understand how it feels to have been through hell.. or at least travelled enough to see it first hand. Okay so i've probably opened myself to criticism here and of course im generalising terribly but i think all too often publishers want their middle class experiences reflected back at them and green light said authors. I'm a little weary of good writing with no meat.

Dave Freer said...

Dianna... :-) Did you ever examine Tolkien's feet ;-)? I agree - it's a stupid argument. It still comes up with monotonous regualrity, usually from one of the lobbies that everyone pussyfoots around. What it is, de facto is trying to claim a bit of exclusive writing territory on the basis of things that have nothing to do with writing. I still think it is a poor idea.

Dave Freer said...

Anthony, agreed - usually writers with a narrow world experience struggle more to write convincingly about things they've never experienced. Of course there are exceptions, and I've always said: let them try (or let me try). But I suspect you're right too, that it's upper middle class liberal arts graduate writers writing for upper middle class liberal arts graduate aquisition editors - and the writing confirms their prejudices and viewpoints. Which kid of explains what I have done wrong. Knocked about too much, with the wrong people - and then write about them... must be wrong, eh?

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave: heh. Ori - you do know that a certain edior rejected that book because of that character? I think his youthfull exploits would make quite a story!

Ori: Yes, you told me. I still think it was the wrong call. OK, so it's a Jew involved in a secret conspiracy and ruling a world. But it's not like he's evil. Only professional offense takers (possibly the anti-defamation league) would take offense. Professional offense takers need the exercise, so it's not as if offending them is a bad thing.

Anthony J Langford said...

Cheers Dave. If i'm reading something tangible about life or realistic characters, i like to know that the author has lived a little.. call me old fashioned.. you worded it better than i.. I have to have a degree of respect for the author.. its not to say that its a prerequiste for good writing, but it helps! Violence is easy to write about but what does it feel like to be hit? Or to hit someone? How does it make you feel afterwards? What's it really feel like to be in a accident, to stand on a mountain, to swim in a river, to have dirty sex, to have your heart broken, to have real regret, to vomit in the street, to take drugs, to have your friends die, or a lover or a hundred other things you cant experience living in the safety of your house/surburb/parents bubble. I think a good comparison is the UK 7UP series.. anyone see it? From 7 until 49, the girl/woman with the most privliged background, led a safe, secure, extremely dull life... the guy who came from nothing, was very poor and ended up homeless and then somehow in surbaban politics, led the most interesting life of the lot. I'd like to read a book from him rather than the other. There's room for both in literature, but theres not enough balance at present. We need a wider cross section of publishers and agents. In the end, its their responsibility.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, especially when the book pokes fun conspiracy theorists (and the sort of people who join secret societies). Oh well.

Dave Freer said...

Anthony, it would be nice if agents and publishers had some form of real measure to see what there was a market for (I have a background in statistical analysis - and 'bookscan'is a hot button). I'm sure they would find it useful too (and quite shockingly different). But at the moment the best they can do is gut instinct based on their experience, and bookscan (which is, shall we say, potentially misleading).

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Wild cheers! Just ... wild sheers!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

cheers, even... :)