Recently one of the members in a writers group I belong to posted a question asking if fellow authors would or had used a website called Writing in the Margins. The tagline of the site is Helping Underrepresented Stories Find Their Place. As a novelist who believes we need diverse books, I was dismayed by the vehemence and quantity of dismissive, negative reactions to the suggestion—a mere suggestion, mind you—that it might be a good idea to solicit the review of a member of the minority community that you, the author, are choosing to represent in your fiction.
The main objection, the hue, and cry, as I understand it I’ll paraphrase as “no one can tell me what to write or how to write it, that’s censorship, I won’t bow to the PC police.” This reaction brought to mind the controversy over Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in September 2016. In the speech Shiver stated, “this latest and little absurd no-no (students chastised for distributing sombreros at a party at Bowdoin College) is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible,” and “Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply.” These statements seem to, sum up the feelings of my fellow authors at the writers group pretty well.
There were a few dissenting voices to the outcry over the Writing in the Margins post, just as there were to Lionel Shriver’s speech, including Yassmin Abdel-Magied who chose to both walk out (on the speech) and to speak out. In a blog post entitled “Identify and Narrative: A Response to Lionel Shriver,” Foz Meadows writes, “Narrative is a force that shapes our humanity, our history, and our perception of others – and that is why unresearched, stereotypical and thoughtless portrayals of vulnerable groups can be so very harmful.”
My latest novel, Golden Dragon, features a diverse set of characters in locations ranging from Algiers to South Africa to Hong Kong. Though the book is historical fantasy, I should have done more to reach out to the communities that some of my characters identify with. I’m an adventure writer but I was too timid to approach my Persian or Malaysian acquaintance with my two hundred page manuscript, and ask for a review. When I discovered the website Writing in the Margins—some months prior to the writers group post but after publication of Golden Dragon—my reaction was different than the majority of outraged commenters. I felt grateful, grateful there is a resource that I can go to and pay—yes, pay of a reader’s time—in exchange for a sensitivity read. Because, as Francine Prose wrote in her article The Trouble with Sombreros for The New York Review of Books, “we might hope that fiction writers and the rest of us will think harder—about racism, stereotypes, history, immigration and social justice—before, as Shriver ultimately did during her speech, donning that wide-brimmed Mexican hat.”