Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Point of View, Political Correctness, and Creativity

Guestpost from Carolyn Howard-Johnnson

Many of you know that in my other writing life, I take up serious themes like discrimination so I’m especially sensitive to it when I see in the publishing world.

Not long ago, my writing friend Leora Krygier was asked by a reporter for the Orange County Register if she felt qualified to write from the point of view of a young Vietnamese girl in her book When She Sleeps. Having once been in journalism and been in a position to do some interviewing of my own, I was a bit incensed. It seemed amazing to me that someone would presume to tell a writer they couldn't or shouldn't write from any point of view they so choose  or suggest that doing so would cause resentment. How could a reader (or a reporter) possibly presume we couldn't write from the point of view of someone of a different race, a different religion or culture. And why would they tinge that question with a hint-of-haughty in the voice, a bit of a look-down-the-nose demeanor.

My daughter, a cultural anthropologist, suggested that such ideas were a function of our intensity to be as politically correct as possible and The Register did have a large Vietnamese population, which was probably one reason they were doing the interview in the first place. Because I believe that being politically incorrect in most instances, simply promulgates bigotry, I tried to put all my arguments—arguments in favor of creative writers—aside and forget about it.

Then I ran into another instance of this kind of question in Time magazine. There is was in my face again:

Belinda Luscombe put on her snarkiest interview hat to interview Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Michael Chabon. It went something like this: "A central character in your book Telegraph Avenue, Arcy Stallings, is the black co-owner of a record store. Did you feel anxious writing from the point of view of a black guy?" In addition to the haughty and snooty tendencies listed above, her question smacks a bit of the passive aggressive.

I admit it. That got me a little riled. But the interviewer persisted: "But race is a charged subject. In the book, there's a white lawyer, Moby, who talks like a black guy. Didn't you worry that that was you?"

Then I went on a full scale rant, albeit a quiet one to myself. Exc-u-u-se me! But don't writers of fiction always use something of themselves when drawing a character? None of us can pull any character trait that we haven't personally seen, experienced, or read about from thin air! I sniffed! But it doesn't have to be us.

And doesn't fiction work—especially great fiction—because at our cores we are all the same? Sentient human beings who share needs and feelings? When I suffer under one kind of prejudice, as an example, isn't that at some level very similar to what someone else suffers under another? So wouldn't that qualify white-girl me to write from the point of anyone I so chose—if I took care. If I had a worthy subject and theme. And isn't that the job of the artist to decide?

And, (I actually huffed! Almost aloud!), haven't these reporters ever heard of research? Or imagination?

And what about that idea of getting too close to something, so close that we may feel responsible or fear we're putting our souls in danger? Or that someone might mistake sincerity for satire? Of vice versa? Wouldn't any thoughtful person understand that every time an author picks up a pen he or she puts herself in some kind of emotional (philosophical?) danger? And don't readers understand the difference between fiction and reality? Do they really think that every character in our books is us rather than seeing that every character may be us, but may also be a reflection of someone we've observed? Or read about? Or devised by mixing traits of many people we've met?

And this is the answer I came up with.

Apparently not.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson occasionally contributes to AuthorsOntheMove. She is the author of award-winning books This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a series of chapbooks of poetry; and how to books for writers including the award-winning second edition of, The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or by partnering with your publisher; The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success; and Great Little Last Minute Editing Tips for Writers . The Great First Impression Book Proposal is her newest booklet for writers. She has three FRUGAL books for retailers including A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. Some of her other blogs are TheNewBookReview.blogspot.com, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor .


Heidiwriter said...

Political correctness has damaged our society greatly. The question is, if you write from a POV not your own, does it work? Does the reader identify with the character? Then it shouldn't matter.

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, well put. I agree that political correctness has gotten out of control. To assume a writer shouldn't write from a POV other than their own background is contrary to what fiction is. Aside from creative license, fiction can be pure imagination. And, as you mentioned it can also arise from our own experiences, from things we've heard, and so on.

I wrote a middle-grade children's book on ancient China. Although I did lots of research, I'm not ancient (not yet anyway) and I'm not Chinese. Does this mean I had no right to re-tell an ancient tale?

Magdalena Ball said...

Your reporter's questions (all too common- and I also huff almost outloud when I get it :-) also miss the point that the characters we create who *look* like us are no more us than those characters who don't look like us. Every character we create in fiction is an amalgam of what we've seen, experienced, imagined and perceived. They are all us, and all not us.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

I think the question also comes from our constant search for the "experts" on a subject.

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