News | 2007 | Whose Story Is It, Anyway

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

Recently, I've been listening to writers fighting about voice appropriation. I've been listening and keeping my mouth shut. These debates get very heated and battle-lines are usually drawn up very quickly. Battle-lines that seldom move and opponents rarely change their position once they publicly take a stand. The argument goes something like this: how can a writer from one demographic group (say, white heterosexual males) write convincingly about another demographic group (say, oriental homosexual females)? And further, should writers even be writing stories about other groups in the first place? Don't those stories belong to the groups being written about? I've heard it said that if a white heterosexual male writes a story about an oriental homosexual female, then he's stealing her voice, and robbing other oriental homosexual females of the right to tell their own stories. Quite the can of worms, eh? Anyone got a ten-foot pole? No? Let's set this aside for a bit.

Recently, I was asked a question about one of my stories. The story is about a young man who encounters his buddy's underage sister in a strip club. My questioner wanted to know when had I ever been in a strip club with a person we both knew who's sister had been a stripper. At first I was a little flattered that I'd pulled off the story so well my questioner thought it was real. On later reflection, I realized that this mistake wasn't so great a thing. The story is pure fiction--I have never seen a friend's sister strip. Ever. I made it up. By my questioner's assuming that it was real, I realized my questioner had assumed that my character's voice was my own, that I was my character. Hold this thought.

Last night, I went to a reading put on by Guy Gavriel Kay. Before he read from his new book, Ysabel, he touched on this same topic. Now Kay primarily writes fantasy in worlds richly populated with a great variety of characters: young and old, male and female, human and, well, you get the picture. Until recently, I couldn't imagine anyone mistaking his characters for Kay, himself. But last night, he was talking about that very issue. He told us that he gets insulted when people tell him that he's successfully pulled off the voice, say, of an aged grandmother. He's a writer. If he only wrote stories about people exactly like himself, then his stories would be quite boring. He said he uses imaginative empathy to get into the heads of his various characters and bring them to life. They are not him, nor would he want them to be. He's a writer, he's good at what he does, and he's enjoyed some success because of it.

I felt like cheering when Kay said this. Of course writers make stuff up. Of course they people their stories with a cosmopolitan cast. Their stories would be boring if they didn't. Their voices would be authentic if they didn't, but in the end, no one would read them. I'm glad, and I'm sure you are too, that not all writer's take the old adage "write what you know" too literally. It's this old admonishment to beginning writers that I think is partly to blame for this argument for voice appropriation: writer's not being imaginative enough or brave enough to make up a good story. The other part, I feel, is a disservice done to fiction by the success of non-fiction today (yeah, another huge can of worms that I don't really want to get into). How many movies have you seen advertised in the past few years that are tagged with the line "based on a true story"? Heaps. But fiction isn't real, and should never claim to be. It's fiction. It's made up. It's a story. Take it for what it is, and what you can get out of it, and leave it at that. Because honestly, I do not want to write all of my stories about people exactly like me, and I'm sure you wouldn't want to read them, either. If I want to write stories about white males, or gay females, or abusive mothers, or suicidal caterers, or psychic washouts, or even ghosts of the long dead, I think I should be allowed to. Whether you read them or not is completely up to you.

Back to 2007 News [...]