Can White Authors Write Black Characters?

There is an article on the HuffPost website by Lorraine Devon Wilke, dated 22 October 2017, with the title “Are White Authors Not Allowed To Tell Stories Involving Black Characters?” This interested me as I have recently written a novel in which a black billionaire is a principal character.

Author, artist, and cultural commentator, Lorraine Devon Wilke, shares her unique take on everything from the inflamed landscape of politics and evolving social mores, to the ever-changing influence of media, entertainment, and art. 

Lorraine Devon Wilke

Ms Wilke said, in part: “Storytellers are the chroniclers of our life and times. They memorialize history, dissect our complex and evolving world; they entertain and provoke and captivate. They are as diverse and eclectic as the characters they create and the stories they tell. It is their job to reflect who we are, what we experience, and what we can imagine. That’s a big canvas. It’s huge. And there’s no end to the variety of colors and hues that can be drawn upon it. Just as there is no end to the variety of artists weaving the tales drawn there.

Yet some believe there are rules to who gets to use which colors, who gets to draw outside the lines to tell stories that involve characters from different cultures. Some believe issues of race can only be voiced from within limited perspectives. Who gets to decide that? Who determines the answer to the title question?

I am a white author telling a story that involves black characters. This, as Anthony Horowitz, who’d been dissuaded from including a black character in one of his ten novels: was warned, is not considered “appropriate.” It’s seen as “patronizing.” Though, in following that paradigm, who, then, would be able to tell the story of an interracial relationship if neither race can write about the other? Personally, I find that to be madness, but I’ve now had agents from three different high-profile literary agencies specifically cite “appropriation” as their reasons for rejection:

  1. The first felt my “whiteness is kind of a problem,” she wrote: “This is a well written and serious novel; an issue-oriented novel that could not be more current… but there may be an issue of whose voice gets to represent race.”

2. The second asserted she couldn’t take it on because of “all the concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ these days.”

3. The third felt the black male protagonist “didn’t sound black enough.” I won’t even parse that implication.

But the message was clear, at least from the point of view of these particular gatekeepers: white authors writing black characters are unmarketable. Beyond “inappropriate,” “these are brutal times in fiction and we’re not comfortable representing a book, no matter how good or worthy, in which that issue is present.”

How do we feel about that? As readers, writers, and consumers of cultural content?

I find it dangerous. I find it censuring. I find it condescending and discriminatory. I find any limitation to writers of any race to be the antithesis of art.

Industries, like the publishing industry, pendulate wildly as they attempt to transcend and reinvent, often without clarity about what’s next or what new turn culture might take while they’re trying to survive. So I get it. I get a literary agent telling me she “doesn’t have the courage” to take on a book that might stir controversy, that might garner commensurate cowardice from the publishers she’s trying to sell it to. It’s a business; she’s gotta make a living,

But if a book with black characters written by a white author is a “well written and serious novel; an issue-oriented novel that could not be more current,” and if that book — presented with fully-fleshed characters, with depth, sensitivity, and authentic reflections of all ethnicities involve — is rejected simply because it might trigger discomfort about “cultural appropriation,” what is the underlying message?

Literary discrimination. Artistic cowardice. Market segregation.

Is that really what we want from our artistic gatekeepers? Fear of controversy? Cultural timidity? The negation of an entire demographic of voices who dare to include diversity outside their own? Have we really come to a time of such hair-trigger sensitivity that we require our storytellers to limit their imaginations to only the race, creed and color they are?

Tell that to Harper Lee.

What Faulkner Had to Say About Writing

Amanda Patterson has a post on the Writer’s Write website on the ten comments William Faulkner made about writing.

Ms Patterson, on her Twitter site says, “I love books. I always carry two with me – one to write in and one to read.”

William Faulkner was an American writer, who died in 1962. He is a Nobel Prize winner who wrote primarily about the South. He offered plenty of advice to young writers in 1957 and 1958, when he was a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. His lectures and public talks were recorded and can heard at the university’s Faulkner audio archive. He was also interviewed extensively over the years.

William Faulkner
  1. Don’t be ‘a writer’ but instead be writing. Being ‘a writer’ means being stagnant. The act of writing shows movement, activity, life. When you stop moving, you’re dead. It’s never too soon to start writing, as soon as you learn to read. (The Daily Princetonian, 1958)
  2. I think it best to use as little dialect as possible because it confuses people who are not familiar with it. That nobody should let the character speak completely in his own vernacular. It’s best indicated by a few simple, sparse but recognisable touches. (From What’s the Good Word?)
  3. Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window. (The Western Review)
  4. I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says… You’ve got to know the character. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive… After that, the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical. (From a University of Virginia graduate class in American fiction)
  5. [A good novelist] must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. (From an interview in Paris Review)
  6. The real truths come from human hearts. Don’t try to present your ideas to the reader. Instead, try to describe your characters as you see them. Take something from one person you know, something from another, and you yourself create a third person that people can look at and see something they understand. (The Daily Princetonian, 1958)
  7. For [writing] fiction the best age is from thirty-five to forty-five. Your fire is not all used up and you know more. Fiction is slower. For poetry the best age is from seventeen to twenty-six. Poetry writing is more like a skyrocket with all your fire condensed into one rocket.” (From an interview with The Western Review in 1947)
  8. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. (From an interview in Paris Review)
  9. You can always find time to write. Anybody who says he can’t is living under false pretences. To that extent depend on inspiration. Don’t wait. When you have an inspiration put it down. Don’t wait until later and when you have more time and then try to recapture the mood and add flourishes. You can never recapture the mood with the vividness of its first impression. (From an interview with The Western Review in 1947)
  10. Probably any story that can’t be told in one sentence or at least one paragraph is not worth writing. (University of Virginia Q&A)

I think there are some very good points here. I particularly like his comments about bringing characters to life before writing about them. His comments about just trying to be better than yourself, and the one-sentence story make a lot of sense.

5 Pieces of Common Writing Advice You Should Absolutely Ignore

There is an article with this title written by Stephanie London on Writers Digest two days ago.

Originally from Australia, Stefanie lives in Toronto with her very own hero and is doing her best to travel the world. She frequently indulges in her passions for good coffee, lipstick, romance novels and anything zombie-related. She is a multi-award-wining USA Today bestselling author of contemporary romances and romantic comedies.

Photo credit:    Jimmy America   .
Stephanie London

Excerpts from her article are below.

“1. Show, don’t tell.

We’ve all heard the “moon glinting on broken glass” example of how to show rather than tell. However, this advice often seems to be applied too rigidly. Telling isn’t bad. Telling provides clarity and certainty.

One area where I find telling to be necessary is your character’s goal. In this instance, you can first tell and then show. It’s actually the layering of telling and showing which makes for a powerful story. However, if we spend the whole story showing your character working toward something without ever having the character acknowledging in uncertain terms, the attainment of that goal won’t have the same impact. Or worse, the reader may not actually know what the goal is or why the character wants to achieve it.”

I’ve been reading Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. Obviously, he never heard of ‘show don’t tell’, but he uses the telling very effectively in giving the reader a clear view of what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head and of what he is feeling. The reader is well prepared when there is action and the showing.

“2. Write what you know.

I understand the theory behind this advice. Yes, we want to get our facts straight and write with authority. But this idea is completely limiting if you don’t ever give yourself room to step outside what you know. Besides, anything you don’t know can be researched. And the process of stepping beyond what we know to learn something new or to investigate an experience that doesn’t line up with our own is ultimately what will make us a more empathetic and well-rounded writer in the long run.”

Of the ten books I have written (eight are published to date), only three are based largely on my own experience, and these three have no extra critical acclaim. Seeking Father Khalik is based in the Middle East, and is about Islam. I spent as much time researching for it as I did writing it. It was well received.

“3. Don’t use a long word when a short one will do.

We want our writing to be clear and to allow the story or message to take centre stage. And we’ve all read prose where it sounds like the author had a thesaurus open on their desk. Some things to consider when it comes to word choice, however, are cadence and character.

Always opting for short words can give the cadence of your writing a very monotonous feel. Just as we should vary our sentence lengths, we should also vary our word length to avoid our writing feeling as though it drags. This is especially important now as many books are being put into audio format where a monotonous cadence is very obvious!

It’s also important, especially for character-driven fiction, that the word choice is appropriate for the character. If all your words are chosen for their short length, then your characters may end up sounding the same.”

I keep a thesaurus handy when I’m writing because now and then the word that comes to mind doesn’t express what I want to say. So I find a better synonym. Hemingway would probably agree with this advice. His novels are remarkable for their simplicity of language

“4. Don’t edit as you go (aka write now, edit later).

I’m going to contradict myself a bit here because I do generally follow this advice. However, this doesn’t work for all writers! That’s because there’s no style of writing that works universally for everyone. Some writers need to tweak as they go in order to fully understand the story they’re telling. I know plenty of writers who do their writing and editing in the same pass, which results in a very clean first version. Editing, for these writers, is part of their creative process.

One time you may want to ignore this even if you usually write now and edit later is if you have a strong feeling the book is going in the wrong direction. Going back to the start of the book can help you get your story on track and save you more wasted time in the long run.”

I tend to edit while I’m writing, edit again when I’ve finished a chapter, and when the manuscript is complete. Then I’ll edit again in response to my editor’s comments.

“5. Write every day.

Similar to the last piece of advice, anything which prescribes a certain way being the correct way is to be approached with caution. If you’re the kind of person who’s motivated by streaks or momentum, then writing every day may work. For plenty of writers, however, even very successful ones, writing every single day isn’t always practical, sustainable, or conducive to a creative work environment.

Personally, I write four to five days per week. I need the weekend to let my stories percolate in the background and when I’ve tried to write to seven days per week in the past, I was actually less productive. I know writers who write less than this with much success. There are also people who “binge write” where they’ll have huge word counts for a few weeks and then not write anything for the next few weeks while they refill the creative well.”

When I’m really engaged with a novel, I try to write every day, but the length of time can vary from between two and eight hours. I’ve started on my eleventh novel, but I’ve set it aside so I can focus on learning Italian. But, I’ll come back to it, incorporating some of the ideas I’ve had in the meantime.

P D James Talks About Writing

Although she didn’t publish her first novel until she was 42, Phyllis Dorothy James had been writing since childhood. A celebrated crime writer, she penned more than 20 books, including the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series. A year before her death in 2014, at the age of 94, she talked to Allison Feeney-Hart of BBC News.

P D James

“You can’t teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don’t think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible.

Nobody could make me into a musician. Somebody might be able to teach me how to play the piano reasonably well after a lot of effort, but they can’t make a musician out of me and you cannot make a writer, I do feel that very profoundly.

You absolutely should write about what you know. There are all sorts of small things that you should store up and use, nothing is lost to a writer. You have to learn to stand outside of yourself. All experience, whether it is painful or whether it is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.

I love situations where people are thrown together in unwelcome proximity. where all kinds of reprehensible emotions can bubble up. I think you must write what you feel you want to write because then the book is genuine and that comes through.

I believe that someone who can write, who has a feeling for words and knows how to use them will find a publisher. Because after all, publishers do still need to find new writers. We all get old and we die and that’s that and there have to be successors.

I think all we writers are different. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how different we are?

Some people have to have the room, the pen and others do everything on a computer. I write by hand and I can write more or less anywhere as long as I’ve got a comfortable chair, a table, an unlimited amount of biros to write with and lined paper to write on. And then the next day when my PA comes, which she does at 10 o’clock, then I’ve got quite a lot to dictate to her and she puts it on to the computer, prints it out and I do the first revision.

In a sense, therefore, I revise as I go. It’s important to get up early – before London really wakes and the telephone calls begin and the emails pile up. This is the best time for me, the time of quiet in the morning,

Goodness gracious, how the world of publishing has changed! It is much easier now to produce a manuscript with all the modern technology. It is probably a greater advantage now, more than ever before, to have an agent between you and the publisher.

Everything has changed and it’s really quite astonishing, because people can self-publish now. I would once have thought that that was rather a self-defeating way of doing it but actually publishers do look at what is self-published and there are examples of people picking up very lucrative deals.

To write well, I advise people to read widely. See how people who are successful and good get their results, but don’t copy them. And then you’ve got to write! We learn to write by writing, not by just facing an empty page and dreaming of the wonderful success we are going to have. I don’t think it matters much what you use as practice, it might be a short story, it might be the beginning of a novel, or it might just be something for the local magazine, but you must write and try and improve your writing all the time. Don’t think about it or talk about it, get the words down.

It is undoubtedly a lonely career, but I suspect that people who find it terribly lonely are not writers. I think if you are a writer you realise how valuable the time is when you are absolutely alone with your characters in complete peace. I think it is a necessary loneliness for most writers – they wouldn’t want to be always in the middle of everything having a wonderful life. I’ve never felt lonely as a writer, not really, but I know people do.

Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it’s always the setting. I think I have a strong response to what I think of as the ‘spirit of a place’. I remember I was looking for an idea in East Anglia and standing on a very lonely stretch of beach. I shut my eyes and listened to the sound of the waves breaking over the pebble shore. Then I opened them and turned from looking at the dangerous and cold North Sea to look up and there, overshadowing this lonely stretch of beach was the great, empty, huge white outline of Sizewell nuclear power station. In that moment I knew I had a novel. It was called Devices and Desires.

Never go anywhere without a notebook because you can see a face that will be exactly the right face for one of your characters, you can see place and think of the perfect words to describe it. I do that when I’m writing, I think it’s a sensible thing for writers to do.

I’ve written little bits of my next novel, things that have occurred to me. I’ve got the setting already. I’ve got the title, I’ve got most of the plot and I shall start some serious writing of it next month, I think.

I never talk about a book before it is finished and I never show it to anybody until it is finished and I don’t show it to anybody even then, except for my publisher and my agent. Then there is this awful time until they phone.

I’m usually pretty confident by the time I’ve sent it in but I have those moments when I think, ‘well I sent it to them on Friday, by Saturday night they should be ringing up to say how wonderful it is!’

I’m always aware that people might have preferences and think that one book is better than another.

I am lucky to have written as many books as I have, really, and it has been a joy. With old age, it becomes very difficult. It takes longer for the inspiration to come, but the thing about being a writer is that you need to write.

What I am working on now will be another detective story, it does seem important to write one more. I think it is very important to know when to stop.

Some writers, particularly of detective fiction, have published books that they should not have published. I don’t think my publisher would let me do that and I don’t think my children would like me to. I hope I would know myself whether a book was worth publishing. I think while I am alive, I shall write. There will be a time to stop writing but that will probably be when I come to a stop, too.”

I usually try to edit pieces like this, because I’m conscious that most of you don’t want to read a long wheeze. But with this piece, as I read through it, the warmth and openness of Ms James prevents editing. I agree with everything she said, except that I’ve never been motivated and clinical enough to carry a notebook to record my observations.