The giant Songpo book shop in Shaoyang, China, February 2021
Books Features

You can’t make it up

Should Twitter mobs be able to police the imagination of novelists and playwrights?

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In a widely reported speech on the recent publication of his latest novel, Klara and the Sun, the 2017 Nobel Laureate Sir Kazuo Ishiguro expressed his concern over young and emerging writers’ reluctance to create characters who stray beyond their own lived experience or identity. Whilst emphasising the necessity of “decency” in depicting invented experience, Sir Kazuo warned that many writers are now fearful that “an anonymous lynch mob will turn up online and make their lives a misery”.

Cue rejoicing from those who enjoy waging war on woke. Middle-class white man appropriates voice of black officer in imperialist colonial army? That’s Shakespeare stuffed. Middle-class white man steals the persona of a provincial French housewife? Au revoir, Madame Bovary. Middle-class white cis woman demonises the mental health struggles of a biracial immigrant? Kick Charlotte Brontë back to the attic!

The gleeful enumeration of great literary works whose voices would presently deserve to be cancelled might appear to settle the issue. As Sir Kazuo himself observed, his first novel was written in the persona of a woman, which might now be perceived as “dangerous”. Yet for anyone who cares deeply about fiction, might it not be worth questioning how and why the insistence on a correlation between creator and created came to obtain?

Wilde’s dictum that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book no longer seems to apply

The “ownvoices” movement was originally launched in 2015 as a hashtag by Young Adult author Corinne Duyvis, with the aim of recommending works by writers who drew on their own authentic experiences, that is where the author and their protagonist share a cultural background and/or marginalised identity. As a bisexual writer who has been diagnosed with autism, Duyvis has spoken of the distress caused by crass, ill-informed, stereotyped depictions of disabled or LBGTQ characters in fiction. Nonetheless, she affirms that #ownvoices was intended as “a tool rather than a blunt instrument”. This has not prevented its being used against proponents of the movement.

Spring 2019 was an exciting moment for author Kosoko Jackson. His first novel, A Place for Wolves, was set for publication. A year earlier, Jackson had tweeted an endorsement of #ownvoices: “Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by black people. Stories of suffrage should be written by women … Why is this so hard to get?” However, when Jackson’s book — centred on two male, non-Muslim protagonists during the Kosovo genocide — appeared, numerous online reviewers confessed themselves horrified by its insensitive lack of authenticity. Jackson apologised profusely to his critics and voluntarily withdrew A Place for Wolves.

Sneering that he was hoist on his own virtue-signalling petard is perhaps not the interesting response here. Jackson deserves praise for his admirable integrity. He bravely stuck to his principles and risked the wrath of his publishers, who were obliged to pulp the book. However, there is something to be teased from both Jackson’s decriers and his response to them, and that is a fundamental shift in the understanding of what fiction is. Oscar Wilde’s dictum that there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book, only good and badly written ones, no longer seems to apply.

All fiction, observed Shriver, is inherently inauthentic, and no one can “own” a character save its creator

The outraged reviews of A Place for Wolves express not only anger, but a genuine bewilderment that “REAL LIFE” (there were a lot of capitals) could be co-opted in such a manner in fiction. The reviewers insisted repeatedly that the Kosovan war was a tragedy that REALLY happened, to REAL people. What right did an author have to play with reality in such a manner? To invent a story against a factual background was profoundly disrespectful to those who had genuinely suffered. 

In her 2016 lecture “Fiction and Identity Politics”, the novelist Lionel Shriver spoke of the writer as the “appropriator par excellence”. All fiction, she observed, is inherently inauthentic, and no one can “own” a character save its creator (a point enshrined in law by copyright protection). Shriver continued that if the only experience considered legitimate for authors is their own, then not only will this strangle imagination, but equally expose writers to the charge that their characters are insufficiently diverse. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Shriver was absolutely correct in pointing out the logical absurdity of the ownvoice extremists. Crime fiction, historical fiction, erotic fiction, steampunk fiction would all be invalidated. Do your characters take drugs or have abortions? Not unless you have. What if they’re wizards, or ghosts, or rabbits? Sorry, Watership Down. Corinne Duyvis’s latest book, The Art of Saving the World, could be in trouble, since it features a talking dragon.

However reasonable Shriver’s argument is, it was expressed from one side of the ontological chasm created by the internet. I think it’s very much worth paying attention to the notion that many people born after 1995 genuinely experience the world in a different manner. The distinction between online and offline (IRL) simply doesn’t operate in the same way. For Gen Z, the boundaries are not so much fluid as located somewhere beyond the ken of digital dinosaurs.

Have people thought about the extent to which Gen Z live in a consistently fictional world?

The decline in reading among Millennials, a generation up from Z, is a popular misapprehension. According to the 2020 Statista US Book Industry Report, Millennials represent the highest percentage of print book consumers, with 81 per cent of adults aged 18-29 confirming they had read a book in any format in 2019 as compared with 67 per cent in the 50-64 category. Yet the statistics change dramatically if the upper age range of the category is excluded. A collaboration between Pacific Standard and the Stanford Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioural Sciences notes that for under-25s (today’s Gen Z-ers), daily consumption of any printed material (which was taken to include digital-form books and journals) declined from 60 per cent in the late 1970s, to just 12 per cent in 2019.

 The author of the report, Maryanne Wolf, proposes a “crisis in reading” in which the capacity for critical analysis and empathy has become unforeseen collateral damage. Non-consumption of imaginative writing reduces the ability “to be transported beyond ourselves” at a neurological level. The sense of what is real and what is invented, the Stanford paper suggests, might become a source of sincere confusion and anxiety.

I wonder whether those who dismiss the woke concerns of ownvoice advocates have thought about the extent to which Gen Z live in a consistently fictional world. Constantly posting on social media is a permanent form of fictionalising the self and of absorbing the fictions of others. What place for actual fiction or actual authenticity if the two are seamlessly, endlessly conflated? To get this, you have to consume it: take a look at the immersive world of Tiktok POVs or Wattpad One Shots to see how “you”, the self or consumer, is conflated with the creator or ostensible protagonist of millions of mini-fictions in an infinitely more sophisticated fashion than those old-school Choose Your Own Adventure stories.

Far be it from me to try to explain to anyone what the young kids are doing, but perhaps a different generational understanding of selfhood might also contribute to the paradoxes around identity. Endlessly multiplying categories of gender or sexual identity seem entirely unproblematic to many Z-ers, whilst simultaneously identity constitutes something essential and immutable. 

An illustration of this thinking occurred in the withdrawal of Booker-prize winning Dutch translator Marieke Lucas Rijneveld from a project with the Meulenhoff publishing house to translate the work of the US Youth Laureate Amanda Gorman. De Volkskrant opined that despite their (Rijneveld identifies as non-binary and uses the pronoun “they”) excellent qualifications for the job, Rijneveld was objectionably white: the translator ought to be someone “just like Gorman”, i.e. black. (a proposed translator into Catalan, Víctor Obiols, has also been rejected on racial grounds.)

In the early 1930s, the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley fell out with his mentor and financial backer Benito Mussolini over the issue of race. Mosley maintained that “culture created ‘race’” while Mussolini maintained that racial characteristics determined culture. The latter argument is a repulsive intellectual blind alley to share, but its confines apparently don’t exclude some who wish to cash in on the identity debate. 

Salt and Sage is a “sensitivity” agency which promises expert advice on how to match “troubling” fictional characters to their lived experience. “We strongly encourage you to hire a sensitivity reader (or several)”, their website suggests, so for upwards of $65 a pop you can rent the opinions of people who profess that their skin colour will give them unique insight into the imagined experiences of imagined people who share that skin colour. 

Writing the Other, a website which offers a book, courses and webinars on “authenticity”, attempts to help writers to engage respectfully with fat and asexual characters among others. One of the site’s founders, Nisi Shawl, explains that she was motivated to offer the service as so many young writers approached her with the question, “How can I write someone who isn’t me?”

If you’re an aspirant novelist struggling with that question, the candid answer is that you might not want to pack in the day job just yet. A gentler answer is: research, in-depth serious investigation, years of reading and thinking. When interviewed about identity writing, the consistent solution of professional writers is “do it well”. Commenting on Lionel Shriver’s lecture, novelist Hari Kunzru insisted that “attempting to think one’s way into other subjectivities, other experiences, is an act of ethical urgency.” Quite so, but it’s also the basis of making up any good story.

Fulminating against inauthenticity is by no means the prerogative of progressives. Last year I wrote a piece for this magazine about the suggestion that Queen Charlotte was black. There was not and is not any evidence whatsoever that she was, and the piece expressed regret that so many genuine black stories from British history remain untold. When the Netflix series Bridgerton, featuring black actor Golda Rosheuvel as the Queen, was released, plenty of conservative-leaning outlets huffed that this was a dreadful misrepresentation of history. Only a cretin would believe that Bridgerton’s plastic-wisteria-strewn sets were attempting any form of historical realism, yet the fictional basis of the series, and Roshuevel’s fabulously haughty performance, were conveniently ignored.

Initially, it might seem that the conflict surrounding lived versus fictional experience might be a clumsy but entirely justified reaction to the uniformity of the publishing industry. Like it or not, surveys have demonstrated that publishing remains a very white, highly heteronormative space. Publishers Weekly figures confirm that 76 per cent of publishing employees in the US are white, and 81 per cent identify as heterosexual. Women predominate, though interestingly their numbers decline dramatically the closer you draw to top executive level. 

One problem identified by writers from marginalised groups is the “white gatekeeper” — editors who, whether well-intentioned or merely cynical, are reluctant to take work which features minority characters beyond the context of oppression and suffering. As writer Justina Ireland suggests in her essay “An Apartheid of the Imagination”:

In all of my reading and book devouring, not once did I read a book that featured a black girl or woman. There were no black girls slipping into fantastical worlds and saving prophesied kings. There were no dark-skinned girls facing down their serial killer boyfriends or black women falling in love with their millionaire bosses … Magic, love, and heart-stopping action just didn’t happen for black girls. We didn’t exist in those spaces, in those books.

Economic disadvantage may be another factor in the deplorable homogeneity of fictional voices. One aspect of the debate which is seldom mentioned, particularly in respect to the US publishing industry, is the increasing dominance of the Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA). As Mark McGurl warned in his excellent 2011 study The Program Era, the MFA (which frequently, though not exclusively refers to creative writing) is exerting an ever-tightening grip on the careers of aspiring writers. 

In the 1970s, such courses were relatively rare; now in the US alone more than 350 programmes are available, processing tens of thousands of students and producing annual revenues in excess of $200 million. The cost of a three-year MFA ranges between $41,000 and $109,000, depending on the institution. Critics have derided the stylistic homogeneity produced by “programme fiction”, but little attention has been paid to the potentially exclusionary effect of the MFA on writers who may not be able to afford the cost of what has become an entry-level qualification in the eyes of many editors. 

As a writer taking risks with identity, it’s the balance sheet that will protect you from hate spam

To take one example, of a Penguin Random House selection of their top 15 writers under 35 years old, seven held an MFA degree. Of the remaining eight, one was a celebrity memoirist, and one had an unspecified degree from a liberal arts college. The two black writers on the list did not hold MFAs, and both had come to publishing through performance. Creative writing programmes such as the Faber course in the UK frequently advertise access to powerful players in the publishing industry as one of their attractions. The lack of diverse voices in fiction might to some extent reflect broader social inequalities, given that certain hopeful writers can explicitly buy access to agents and editors.

Another aspect of the question which seems to be neglected is the fact that publishing is a business. A publisher’s job is not to police public ethics, it is to turn profit from selling books. No one has the right to be published, so it cuts two ways. Writers who are chasing (often meagre) commercial reward can choose to produce material that suits the market, or not. 

The current financial conundrum for publishers is the measure of negative publicity which might derive from endorsing the work of an author whose work is deemed flawed in terms of identity politics versus profit. As a writer taking risks with identity, it’s the balance sheet that will protect you from hate spam, not your editor’s principles. The perceived extent of that risk is the dilemma. The majority of the book-buying public don’t give a hoot about identity politics; the question is how much influence do those who shout about it online truly have? 

“Online”, pace Kazuo Ishiguro’s words about lynch mobs, is the key here. Genuinely addressing the real problem of diversity in publishing requires an acknowledgement of the financial complexities of the industry, and an assessment of the commercial consequences of online outrage. How many angry tweets in the online echo chamber does it take to kill a book? More than the web can muster, if you’re J.K. Rowling. 

If what readers want is books about minority or marginalised experience by writers who belong to that particular, micro-specific minor or marginalised category, then that is what the market will seek to provide. What I do wonder, however, is this: how many genuine readers are screeching online about identity? Given the statistics on Gen-Z’s reading habits, how does anger over authenticity correlate with sales? Do people who love reading police their own imaginations for appropriateness? Or does a generation to whom online attention matters more than good fiction derive more enjoyment from the power of indignance than the potency of dreams?

In March, Mike Gayle became the first man, and first person of colour, to win the Romantic Novelists’ Association Outstanding Achievement award. In his first novel, My Legendary Girlfriend, published in 1998, he did not specify the race of his hero. “It’s always on black writers to define themselves,” Gayle commented. “Real freedom lies in not defining yourself.” 

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