Writers are arrogant pretenders.
We freely usurp identities, characteristics, ideas, thoughts, voices of people we imagine as characters in our books and stories. These are all part of our craft—our toolbox—of storytelling.
We step over the boundary between reality and fiction when we decide we also have the right, indeed the obligation, to speak for others. Two recent articles in the RWA’s Romance Writers Review are cases in point.
Both articles address a “social” issue and make it a “creative” issue by assuming the right to tell us—their colleagues—what we should be writing.
I personally experienced this “presumption of right” while writing an American historical romance set in post-Civil War New England. I was told by another writer, “You had better be on the right side of history.”
This response shocked me and was meant to silence any disperate interpretation of history that clashed with her “accepted” impressions.
I had thoroughly researched my historical setting and was aware of both sides of the Constitutional as well as the moral arguments. I chose the path that best represented my understanding of events 150 years before my time.
A writer must always be free to express ideas, regardless of the perceived “right side” of any matter. Any attempt to silence a writer’s voice is dangerous. Attempts to place filters and constraints on writers goes entirely against our hard-won freedoms, the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights and has the odor of censorship, which we all must resist.
These writers may have had the best of good intentions in mind, but unfortunately, they both chose to suggest (dictate is perhaps too strong a word but comes readily to mind in the case of one of these articles) that we, their colleagues, follow an essentially censored path to “diversity” and “inclusion.” What they both failed to realize was that they were leading the way along the path to restriction of freedom of expression in order to placate the thought-police of “social justice.”
They also did not/do not understand that their “suggestions” assume a superiority and usurption of freedom of expression over the very voices they are claiming to enfranchise.
My case in point is a novel which became a best-selling book and critically acclaimed film written by a New York writer in which the writer, through the female protagonist, assumed the voices of domestic servants, spoke for them, recreated their lives in the writer’s imagination and had them act according to the writer’s own expectations for them in their situation. In doing so, the New Yorker took their voices, capitalized upon them, without regard for their personal reality, all in the name of “giving the disenfranchised a voice”—the writer’s voice, the writer’s reality.
Writers do that. We speak for men, for women. We speak for children. We speak for ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies and our siblings.
Where we cross the line is when we take the truths of others, altering them to our own version of reality and claim the moral high ground. By doing so, we assume the gratitude of the “disenfranchised.” We assume only we are capable of speaking for them—a particularly arrogant point of view.
We do not need to make our writing “inclusive” or change our truths to the alternative reality of what anyone else thinks or believes. If we have any responsibility as we write, it is to be always and completely true to ourselves, to speak our reality, our truth, thoughts and ideas—never to bow to the dictates of “accepted” speech, “accepted” truths, “accepted” history and never to allow anyone to determine what is acceptable content.
Once we bow, we betray all the writers, artists, journalists, dramatists, philosophers, scientists and women & men who have fought and sacrificed more than we will ever be asked to sacrifice, in the name of these freedoms. Protecting our creative freedom is crucial, regardless of our subject or genre.
Only we can accomplish that—for ourselves.
We do, indeed, live in “the land of the free because of the brave.”
Freedom is not without cost or sacrifice. Giving even a fraction away for the sake of expediency or personal comfort, results in expedited erosion of the whole, as the tide erodes the shore.