Few would question that we’ve entered an era of unprecedented cultural fragmentation. People can no longer agree on the most fundamental things: what is good or bad, right or wrong, true or false. Writers, too, have felt the effects of this trend. As a professor of English and a novelist, I’ve spent the better part of my life advocating for the unifying force of literature. I felt that literature permits us to recognize the affinities that exist between human beings. Rather than highlighting how different and divided we are, a novel or play or poem can show us how much we have in common, how fundamentality alike we are—both for good and for bad. I held firmly to the notion that writers, through the power of their imagination, used the vehicle of the particular to represent the universal. As Coleridge said of the writer’s imagination, “It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate . . . it struggles to idealize and to unify.”
For example, when I taught Shakespeare I would point out how a white, middle-class man from Elizabethan times was able to imagine the nobility, as well as the frailty (the green-eyed monster that was jealousy), of a Black man named Othello. Or in Shylock, Shakespeare created a universal character who, though a Jew, felt everything that a Christian felt, in addition to being the object of their profound hatred. In his quintessential speech, Shylock proclaims his unity with, rather than his separateness from, Christians: “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections . . . If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Of course, and ironically, he later proves to share the same vice that besets Christians: prejudice. I argued in my classroom and tried to demonstrate in my own novels that literature, while presenting individual characters’ flaws and biases, was at its core a force that bound us together as one humanity.
Was I naive to believe this? Was this perspective just a genteel holdover of a previous era’s viewpoint, one made by and for those writers in power? Were novels and poetry just another means for white, male, often privileged authors to impose their vision on a world they sought to control. I taught during the academic internecine conflict that was loosely known as the “Canon Wars,” pitting those, one the one hand, who believed there was a rigid, Ten Commandments-sort of list of accepted authors (handed down from on high by a jury of white men and, with a few notable exceptions, always including only other white men) against, on the other, those who felt that women, writers of color, and other minorities needed to be included, in fact, sometimes to comprise their own new canon.
But there was a third group, teachers who were also creative writers, who had to negotiate the complexities of the world they lived in and the world they represented in their writing. As writers, most of us held firmly to one central tenet: that we had both the freedom to choose our subject matter and method, but also the responsibility to tell the truth (as best we saw it), and to tell it artfully—Pope’s “What was oft thought but ne’er so well expressed.” We writer-teachers believed in and emphasized certain formalistic elements in literature such as craft, structure, and other internal aesthetics, focusing on writing as a “made thing,” but well aware that it was also a reflection of cultural realties and inequities
I considered myself an adherent of Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Or as Langston Hughes suggested regarding the raison d’etre of the writer: “Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people—the beauty within themselves.” For me, the only canon that made any sense was that comprised of those writers of every generation and every background who had the rare gift of language, the deep insight into human nature, and the fearlessness to tell the truth at any cost. It didn’t matter if a writer was white or black or brown, male or female, straight or gay, on the right (Celine or Pound) or the left (Wright or Neruda); what mattered only was the writing itself, the truth and beauty of the language each writer used to give voice to their particular worlds.
Of course, there were inherent dangers of looking at language as pure or as beautiful. In her Nobel lecture Toni Morrison described how language itself can be weaponized: “sexist language, racist language . . . all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.” In Morrison’s view, the “policing languages”–i.e., the language of power and privilege—restrains people and prevents new knowledge and a mutual exchange of ideas: that is, an understanding of one another.
This is no less true for imaginative literature than it is for journalism or political speech. Novelists, for example, use fictional characters and worlds as metaphors to encourage an exchange of ideas. Just as journalists need freedom of speech to tell their truths, novelists, I felt, need to be unrestrained in their choice of language, subject matter, and methods, in order to be able to create characters and worlds they believe present a faithful reality. This was a bedrock assumption shared by all writers.
Or so I thought. Not long ago, a female novelist friend who is Asian-American and I were discussing Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. My friend was upset that a white, male author had the audacity to appropriate territory she believed was the sole provenance of Asian or Asian-American women. As writers, though, I brought up the logical consequence of such a stand. If I, a white, middle-aged man, couldn’t write about an Asian woman, could she legitimately write about a white man? Or a Black man? Or for that matter, any character that was different from her race? Is a writer’s race or ethnicity, their gender or sexual orientation, their lived experience, a sufficient condition to disqualify him or her or them from even being permitted to write about a particular subject? And especially in the area of fiction, where the worlds and characters are products primarily of the imagination? An interviewer once asked Toni Morrison when she was going to enter the “mainstream” and incorporate more “whites” in her novels. She replied with a justifiably indignant retort: “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you? You could never ask a white author, ‘When are you going to write about Black people?’”
What writers are assumed they must write about seems to me as pernicious as what they are forbidden to write about. Where do such harsh restrictions take us as writers—and by extension, as a society?
Recently the Dutch writer and International Booker award winner Marieke Rijneveld was asked to translate the work of Amanda Gorman, the Youth Poet Laureate who spoke so eloquently at Biden’s inauguration. Gorman herself had approved the choice of Rijneveld as her translator, and Rijenveld appeared enthusiastic about promoting Gorman’s work to her fellow Dutch. However, a controversy soon erupted: Rijneveld was white. One of her critics, Janice Deul, said that Gorman needed a translator that was young, female, and “unapologetically Black.” I completely agree with Deul if her argument was based on the fact of equal employment opportunity. We’ve seen far too many instances, from the Oscars to the publishing world to the world of business, where Blacks and women and other minorities were excluded. Yet from the sounds of it, Deul seemed to imply that the writer’s race was somehow prima facia evidence that Rijneveld was incapable of translating the work of a Black writer.
Some years ago I published an essay about the rights and responsibilities of the writer when it came to dealing with the subject of race (https://tinyurl.com/474995j2). I discussed the uproar upon the publication of Styron’s 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. While some brought up whether Styron’s art was flawed, his view of history distorted, or his creation of Turner rife with dangerous stereotypes (legitimate areas of possible criticism of any writer), many others based their objections simply on the fact that a white Southerner had no right to try to inhabit the mind of a Black slave. However, James Baldwin, Styron’s friend, had said of the novel, “He has begun the common history—ours,” suggesting that slavery, that peculiar institution, was two sides of the same coin: it was as much a curse on whites for having committed it as it was a plague on African-Americans for having suffered through it.
In my essay I also detailed my own experience after having written the novel Soul Catcher. It’s about an antebellum slave catcher that goes after a female runaway and during the long journey to return her to bondage, the slave catcher has a change of heart after he falls in love with his captive. My goal in writing the novel was, in part, to try to understand and to come to grips with the curse of slavery from the point of view of a white man. I was invited (by an African-American woman) to speak on an MFA panel about the subject of “a white author writing about slavery.” She thought it would make for an illuminating discussion for an audience of mostly young writers about pushing the boundaries of what topics writers can write about. In the essay I relate how one of the panel members (an African-American man) thought I had no “business,” as a white man, writing about a female slave. I brought up the fact that the main character and from whose point of view the story is told, was a white man, a slave catcher who, over the course of the novel, comes to a stark realization regarding his own participation in the horrific crime of slavery—one of the main themes of the novel. The panel member said that it was fine for me to write about a white male slave catcher, but I shouldn’t presume, as a white man, to know what was in the mind and heart of a female slave.
I countered by bringing up the generally accepted notion that novelists must have the freedom to choose their subject matter, while readers have the freedom to criticize the writer for not presenting a truthful view of reality, or simply by not buying the book. Furthermore, I cited the notion of “creative empathy,” perhaps the most necessary attribute of any writer—especially a fiction writer. As with empathy in general, creative empathy is the writer’s ability to enter into the minds and hearts of their fictional characters through a process of understanding their characters’ situations, motivations, hopes, and fears. In fact, in researching and writing the novel, I hoped to come to some understanding of what it felt like to be a slave (for example, I was appalled at seeing the hundreds of runaway slave ads in newspapers, while the shackles forged intentionally for children made me imagine my own children bound in such a manner). But equally, as a white man, I wanted to try to fathom what it felt like to be a slave catcher, a far greater stretch of my own empathetic abilities. And besides, how, I asked the panel member, was I to write about a slave catcher without including a runaway slave?
I understood the sentiment he was expressing, that in a novel about that most extreme example of cultural appropriation—i.e., slavery—a white person was seemingly speaking for an African-American character. And yet, his position, I felt, was a dangerous one, and would have devastating consequences if taken to its logical conclusion, making us all the poorer–writers and readers alike. In fact, making our entire society more closed off from one another. The very job of a novelist is to try to imagine what others feel and think, to empathize with their characters’ sufferings and fears, their hopes and dreams, to try to walk in their shoes. A novel is by its very nature a sleight of hand, a magician’s act of bringing to life worlds and peoples we don’t know, in the hope of giving voice to those who have been silenced. As Martin Luther King said, “The silence of the good people is more dangerous than the brutality of the bad people.” Imagine each of us writers confined to our own little silos of life experience, fearing to presume we could possibly know anything of another’s feelings and thoughts and sensibilities. What sort of fictional world would that lead to if all writers could only write about their own limited experiences or that related to their DNA? It would create an atmosphere as segregated and constrained as the Jim Crow South. Is that really what we want? And if the artist’s goal, as Hughes suggested, is to interpret the inner beauty of people, how could we possibly do that if we stayed only inside our own minds, never venturing out to try to know and empathize with the silent beauty in another’s soul?
In a graduation speech, Morrison said, “You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.”