Sunday Salon: Who Can Tell the Story?

There are some issues about which I think I have a clear and firm opinion, but then as I think about it, my view gets more and more muddy and I don’t quite know what I think. Do you ever find that? Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole question of diversity in literature and what kinds of story ought to be told and who should be telling them. And the more I think about it, the more complex it gets.

The big example that everyone seems to be talking about these days is The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which I haven’t read, mostly because I’m tired of stories about rich white Southern ladies and stories about white people empowering black people. Both in one book just isn’t my thing. But I have been interested in the conversation about whether Stockett, a white woman, should even be telling this story. (The stories at The Rumpus and NPR’s Talk of the Nation were especially interesting.)

I believe strongly that a multiplicity of voices can only enrich the literary world. It bothers me tremendously that white authors dominate best-seller lists and that male authors dominate review pages. There are brilliant authors out there of all races who don’t get much attention because their publishers don’t push their work hard enough or because readers aren’t willing to try something new—or they’re willing to try something new but aren’t willing to take the extra effort that’s sometimes required to find it. In addition, insofar as it’s my goal to understand something of the black experience or the LGBT experience or the Latin American experience and so on, I’m probably better off seeking out books by people from those groups than relying on books by people outside those groups.

That said, I’m conflicted when it comes to saying certain subjects or voices are off-limits for certain authors. When I think about the question in terms of sex, it’s easy for me to see the problem. I do not believe that there’s such a thing as a male voice or a female voice, and it bugs me when people say that women authors can’t write believable men and male authors can’t write believable women. For me, an author who can write believable people should be able to write believable men and believable women. I’ve read plenty of books by women and about women that seemed to have nothing to do with me and the way I view the world, but then I’ve read books by men with female characters that I could totally relate to. I wouldn’t want to say that those men shouldn’t be writing about women. Is race any different?

Regardless of who’s doing the writing, writing is a work of the imagination, and some authors are better at it than others. Kathryn Stockett might be better at imagining the lives of domestic help in the 1960s than a hypothetical black author born, like Stockett, after the Civil Rights era would be. (Whether she is skilled at imagining those lives is not for me to say, not having read the book. I’m just saying it’s not outside the realm of possibility.)

The Help is a story about the recent past, and so any novel written about that era today would have to rely on imagination and research or, because it’s the recent past, memory. (A firsthand account by someone who was a maid in 1960s South might have an authenticity that Stockett’s book does not, but it would still only express one person’s experience and rely on that person’s memory.) Go further back, and the role of research and imagination becomes even more important and the race of the author less relevant. If I want to read about 19th century or early 20th century China, for example, am I more likely to get an authentic story from Lisa See simply because she’s Chinese American? If I want to read about 1930s China, might I be better off with Pearl S. Buck, who lived there at that time? Is Andrea Levy, a black author of Jamaican extraction born in London, a more authoritative voice about the Caribbean than Monique Roffey, a white women who grew up in Trinidad? See, it’s complicated. (And for what it’s worth, I’ve never read anything by See or Buck, but I’ve read and loved books by Levy and Roffey.)

Does the actual subject matter of a book affect how we feel about this? As Jenny notes in a comment on an earlier post, there might be a difference between Neil Gaiman’s use of black characters in Anansi Boys and Stockett’s in The Help. If a book is about race or gender in some way, maybe it’s best for members of the group to be the ones to tell the story. Then again, I never would have been able to stomach Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place had I not gotten some context about race and post-Colonialism in the Caribbean from a white perspective in Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle.

The flip side of this is that I wouldn’t want to say that non-white authors ought to limit themselves to stories about their own race or about racial “issues.” Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan, but his novels don’t necessarily feature Japanese characters. In the 1960s, Japanese author Shusaku Endo wrote about 17th-century Japan in Silence, but his main character was Portuguese. Andrea Levy writes from a white perspective, as well as a Jamaican perspective, in Small Island. Is this different, or less authentic, than a white author writing from a Japanese or Jamaican perspective?

It’s important to remember that there’s no single truth about any group. What feels authentic to me will feel false to another, even if we both have the same background. (Nicole discussed this recently and gave me a lot to think about.) Reading black authors, or Russian authors, or Japanese authors won’t necessarily teach us the “truth” about black, Russian, or Japanese life. How could it? I’ve read a fair few white Southern authors, and hardly any of them write about a world that seems to have anything to do with me, even though I’m a white women who’s lived in Virginia my whole life. Despite having geography and race in common, our experiences and perspectives are different. How then can I expect to get a clear picture of African life or American Indian life by reading a few books by African or Native American authors? I’m not saying that reading these books is a wrong  or misguided thing to do—I’m certainly making an effort to seek out more nonwhite and non-English-speaking authors because I’m interested in getting a taste of what they have to say—but it’s a mistake to assume that any authors represent their whole race or gender.

As I said, the issue is complex. The fact is, what I want are good books. I want the best authors, whatever their race or sex or sexual orientation or social class, to have an equal shot at success. I want lots of different kinds of stories by lots of different kinds of people to be told. I want authors to be able to write the stories that speak to them in a way that is exciting and interesting to readers like me. I don’t want to tell people what to write—or not write. I just want whatever they write to be good. For me, I’d rather look at each book on a case-by-case basis—reading reviews, sample chapters, and so on when deciding whether to plunge in—than to say any subject is off-limits for anyone.

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41 Responses to Sunday Salon: Who Can Tell the Story?

  1. Ellen Rhudy says:

    Fantastic post. I’ve wanted to write something about this for a while, too, but I’m never sure where to start, let alone where I’d end up. I’m curious about The Help, especially given all the talk about it recently, but there’s a part of me that hesitates to read something like this book – because there is something a bit repugnant about a book by a white woman about a white woman helping black women to understand or escape their oppression. When I was in school and still planning to go on to study literature as a grad student, I was hesitant to declare that what I wanted to do was to study blues influence in Af-Am lit because it felt wrong, somehow, for me to do that…almost as if I was attempting to impose myself, or to appropriate something that wasn’t mine for the taking. I’d never say that someone shouldn’t read a book because it’s about a group (or culture or gender) they’re not part of, though (that’s ridiculous!) so I can’t find a way of understanding my feelings about books like The Help, or scholars critiquing literature that’s emerged from a culture they’re not a part of.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m still working out my own feelings, but writing about it and seeing what others think helps me work it out.

      I think with The Help, my discomfort has something to do with my (possibly unfair) perception that the African-American characters being treated as vehicles for the white character’s awakening. That and the fact that it feels like a wish-fulfillment fantasy, like she’s saying what she would have done had she been alive then or what she wishes she were brave enough to do. But I don’t want to say she shouldn’t have written it. That seems wrong too.

      To be completely truthful, too, part of my resistance to reading the book has to do with my sneaking suspicion that the writing is only OK. (It feels like book club bait to me, and I’m bored with book club bait.)

  2. This is such a great post. I’ve been reading a lot of various things said about The Help–having never read it or seen the movie, I’m not sure I really have an opinion…but the opinions are certainly divided.

    I think what you say close to the end though, about no single truth is spot on and brilliant.

    • Teresa says:

      Even though I’m not interested in reading the book, I do like how it has opened up discussion about these issues.

      And Nicole at Bibliographing gets a huge chunk of credit for that thought about there being no single truth.

  3. I think that there’s no problem with an author of a determined sex/race/sexual orientation/… that writes about characters of another sex/sexual orientation/race/… since I believe that an author does some kind of thinking and research before approaching a theme that’s strange to them.
    If we limited ourselves to only read authors that have some similarities with their characters, and subject of writing (sex/race/sexual orientation), literature would be dull, and books wouldn’t be as believable as they seem because male authors, would only write male characters, gay authors, would only write gay characters, black authors would only write about black characters,… and we all know that in the world there aren’t only males, or gay people, or black people. All the diversity of the world, would be lost in the world of literature.
    So, when I try to learn something, let’s say about Latin America, I read books ,fiction and non-fiction, by authors that lived and grew up there, and by authors who probably never visited that countries, but learned about them by listening to others, reading, studying and researching … to get the bigger picture, because let’s face it, we are all biased by our past experiences, and it’s very hard to get a sense of something by only reading one author, or several authors with the same background.

    • Teresa says:

      I’d like to presume that authors do their research, but I’m not sure that’s always the case, alas. But I think you’re quite right that looking at different kinds of sources is key to learning about other cultures.

  4. Lu says:

    Excellent post! So well-written and absolutely hits the nail on the head about what has been bothering me about all the discussion surrounding The Help. I haven’t read it, for similar reasons to those you list here, (though for whatever reason, I’m much more interested in seeing the movie…). As a novel, the description and all the positive reviews have really done nothing to entice me and, well, the social issues involved of course turn me off. But the discussion has turned to “Stockett never should have told the story in the first place” and I disagree wholeheartedly with that. We should promote and encourage stories like this to be told from all perspectives, not from one. Like you said, no one person can have the authority on any topic. I want us to be able to point out what is problematic with Stockett’s narrative, but not to say she has no right to the story.

    I’m also really interested in Ellen’s comment. As a Spanish major, I’m constantly an outsider, never really able to comment on what it is like in Spain or Latin America or as a heritage speaker or immigrant in the United States. I can just sit back and learn and discuss from my own perspective, that’s all I can do. You start out as a Spanish major, interested in language, and you end up reading and learning about an entire literature and culture that aren’t your own. That you can never fully inhabit or understand, just because you did not grow up in it. That’s the reality of it, but to wholly immerse yourself in someone else’s culture and history and traditions, allows you to learn a lot about yourself. I don’t know if it’s appropriating someone else’s culture… I think you can be a student of and a scholar of a different culture without fear of appropriation. Just because your perception and background are not the same does not mean you don’t have knowledge or perspective to add to the conversation, you absolutely do.

    So with all that said… I still don’t know how I feel about any of this, except, you can’t and shouldn’t tell any one group to avoid telling the story of another. Not across gender, sex, orientation, race, height, weight. A story is a story, and as such, we will always be able to criticize and praise and detail exactly what is problematic about the story. But we can’t do that if people aren’t writing them, so. That’s the answer. Keep writing and we’ll keep critiquing.

    • Teresa says:

      It really is complicated, isn’t it? At what point does interest become appropriation? I doubt there is a clear line, and maybe the best way forward to is assume good intentions on the part of other but to be willing to also keep moving the conversation forward.

      And like you, I’m more willing to see the movie than read the book, although I’m not in a hurry to see the movie. I just figure it’s a smaller chunk of my time, LOL.

  5. Frances says:

    Great post! I think that The Help is throwing this conversation into the mix in a lot of different circles. But ultimately, I am with you in just wanting great books to read and do not believe, especially as we are discussing fiction, that direct affiliation with the subject material makes for a more compelling or authentic read. I am a white woman but by virtue of that fact, am I an expert on all white women, etc?

    • Teresa says:

      It’s a good conversation to have, I think, even when (maybe especially when) the answers aren’t clear. And yes, good books from whoever can write them.

  6. Emily says:

    it’s a mistake to assume that any authors represent their whole race or gender.

    Yes, exactly. I was in a conversation just yesterday about how it really rubs me the wrong way when people ask, on hearing that a male author wrote a book with a female protagonist or from a female first-person perspective, if I think the author “got” women. I mean, should I know? I’m just one woman, and I’ve certainly known a huge diversity of women with a huge diversity of perspectives in real life. It’s offensive to me to imply that the one defining characteristic of any character would be that character’s gender, and that a single real-life person would have insight into that just by virtue of belonging to the gender in question. In the vast majority of cases when I’ve found characters unconvincing, it was for totally unrelated reasons.

    That said, I do think the under-representation you discuss in publishing is a problem, and certainly the trend of “white person empowers black people” stories is fairly nauseating. I have to say that I would find it nauseating even if the book were by a black person, however (in which case I’m sure accusations of Uncle Tom-ism would be rife).

    • Teresa says:

      That kind of thing drives me nuts when it comes to gender. I’ve read so many books that claim to represent women that have nothing whatsoever to do with me, but certainly other women relate to them. I imagine people of other races sometimes feel the same when it comes to books by authors of their race.

      Underrepresentation is a big problem, which is what puts me on the fence about this whole business. Still, as much as I want there to be more books easily available by nonwhite authors, I wouldn’t want all their books to be the same. I know I’ve read somewhere of nonwhite authors complaining that they’re expected to write “issues” books instead of just good books if they want to get published. I find that galling as well.

  7. I agree with most of you writing here that ANYONE must be able to write and publish ANYTHING about ANYONE else, regardless of race, gender, religious creed, etc. Anything less than that is mere censorship, and, in the examples that have been discussed here, political censorship.

    I have deliberately not read The Help, for many of the same reasons that you all have noted here.

    Yet I wholeheartedly believe that Stockett has every right to write any story she pleases about whomever she pleases. And I believe any reader has the right to criticize her for whatever reasons he or she wishes about what Stockett writes.

    A Great Post!

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly, she has a right to write her story, and readers have a right to critique. If enough people speak up in dissatisfaction about this kind of book, maybe publishers will see the value in offering other options.

  8. JaneGS says:

    This is a thorny topic and one that I, like you, struggle with. Authors making up stuff that they pass off as true really bugs me, but when it comes to fiction and stories, I can’t help but give everyone who attempts to tell a story the benefit of the doubt. It really bugs me that Stockett is denounced for trying to walk in someone else’s shoes and tell a story from their perspective–isn’t that how healing begins, through empathy? Stockett’s story doesn’t prevent anyone else from telling through story too–no one has the “right” to tell a story.

    • Teresa says:

      I tend to want to assume good intentions on the part of authors like Stockett. Good intentions can be misguided, sure, but they can also open doors to conversation.

  9. amymckie says:

    Very interesting and very well said. I agree with a lot of what you say here, and it definitely has me thinking. Personally I don’t agree with revisionist books – I haven’t read The Help but I keep hearing about how it is the white woman convincing / helping the black women to speak out, whereas the civil rights movement was more than just white people helping black people, it was black people helping themselves. I also have this niggling thought that if this book by a white woman is doing so much better than similar books by black authors… perhaps there is a reason for that. Do white readers prefer to see themselves as the good people rather than realize white people were often at fault during the era the book is set in?

    My main issue though is availability. White authors have so many more opportunities and publicity. As you say, so many brilliant authors who are ignored. If we aren’t going to give the authentic voices the same opportunities then I just don’t feel right supporting the white authors who are writing about that culture or experience, it feels like thievery in a way simply because they have so much more opportunity to profit over a story someone else has lived / is living…

    • Teresa says:

      You express a lot of my own discomfort with books like The Help. It’s like its easier for us to cast ourselves as heroes, or else as villains who are so cartoonish that it’s easy for us to say we’re not them. It’s just not very sophisticated. Yet I’m pleased that it has people talking, even as I hope that the conversation will go deeper and lead to more interest in stories of Civil Rights from the black perspective. Like how Monique Roffey got me interested in reading Jamaica Kincaid. I needed that doorway in; otherwise, I would have flung away the Kincaid in fury.

  10. litlove says:

    I find it hard to believe that anyone thinks they have the right to tell another person what he or she may write!!!!!!!!!

    I’m sorry, you do a beautiful job of bringing out all the elements that go into this argument, Teresa, so my feelings here probably seem crude. But really. Who gets the power and authority to tell anyone what they may or may not create? The last place I heard that it was okay to do that was Soviet Russia.

    • Teresa says:

      I like the way Lu and Judith put it above. Writers have a right to tell the stories they want to tell, and we as readers have a right to critique them. (And I’d add that publishers have a right—maybe even a responsibility—to see that the best stories get spread around.)

  11. Jenny says:

    Wonderful, complex post. I think part of the issue is the history behind it. When Litlove says that she finds it hard to believe that anyone thinks they have the right to tell anyone else what he or she may write, of course that is exactly what has happened for centuries. Women, indigenous people, slaves, Incans, Africans… if they could write at all, their voices were almost always altered, muted, shaped into what the dominant narrative wanted to hear. Now that those voices have a chance (and not always as good a chance as everyone else) to be heard on their own terms, I understand the feeling that underrepresented people don’t want someone else speaking “for them” or imagining how they might speak for themselves, yet again.

    This is not to say that I think anyone should be discouraged from writing whatever story they want to write. Only that I see the reasons and the history behind the resentment some people might feel about it.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, exactly. I can totally understand feeling that way when you feel like your history has already been shaped by others. And then to have the story of that history to be told by those same others. It’s understandable to be frustrated, even angry. And I think what most people are expressing is frustration, not a desire to literally censor Stockett’s voice.

  12. Christy says:

    Wonderful post – I like how you delve into the different facets. Count me in as one more reader hesitant to pick up The Help for the reasons you cite, and also what you said in one of your comments about it coming off as book club bait. But I have no problem with the book being written.

    I confess that I’m troubled by what it means that this book and then not too long ago The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd are hugely popular. They are both written by white authors, set in the 1960’s South, concerning a white female protagonist and her relationships with black women. Again, haven’t read The Help so my comparison of it to Kidd’s book may be terribly off, but it’s partially my ‘meh’ response to Kidd’s book that’s keeping me away from Stockett’s. Are they popular because they’re palatable? If the main characters were predominantly black instead of white, would that affect its popularity?

    • Christy says:

      Should clarify on my last question: I know Kidd’s and Stockett’s book do have main characters who are black. What I meant is what if there was no white character at the center – would that affect its popularity?

      • Teresa says:

        I wonder the same thing. On the one hand, I can see how for some white readers it might be helpful to have a character to help them enter into another point of view. But I wish we were past needing that.Or that other ways of telling these stories were just as visible.

        I did kind of like Kidd’s book, mostly because I thought she did so well with the setting and dialect and that it was more about the working class, which is unusual in Southern fiction. But it was kind of simplistic.

  13. rebeccareid says:

    I dont feel I really have much to add. this is a fascinating post and I’ve enjoyed reading all the comments too.

    I did read The Help and I loved it. It does portray very negative/racist white people, so it did seem balanced to me.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks!

      One of the things I’ve wondered is whether there’s much nuance in the depictions of racism. I’ve gotten the impression that there are clear lines between racist and non-racist among the white characters. I’m not sure the lines can be so clearly drawn.

  14. Jenny says:

    Excellent post, and yeah, it is dead complicated. I saw another post about The Help recently that compared it (unfavorably) with Tony Kushner’s play Caroline, or Change. Caroline, or Change deals with that part of history — it’s about a black woman and the white kid she’s basically raising, in 1960s southwest Louisiana. And I didn’t have anything like the same kind of problems with that one. I think The Help hits a particularly sensitive chord by having the white protagonist “saving” the black ones. I don’t know, it’s tricky.

    • Teresa says:

      It is tricky, and I think you’re right that it’s the “saving” element that feels wrong, and also the black characters existing for the purpose of a white person’s enlightenment. (The whole “magical Negro” problem.)

  15. Dorothy W. says:

    I recently read an essay by Cynthia Ozick on this very subject (in her book Quarrel and Quandary, called “The Rights of History and the Rights of the Imagination” or something similar), where she discusses the responsibilities or lack thereof of authors when they write about difficult subjects and about experiences not their own. She is very much in favor of the freedom of the imagination and the author to write about whatever he or she wants, but she has interesting things to say about how such writing can go very wrong and end up covering over difficult subjects, kind of in the way people say The Help does. She comes down hard on William Styron for the way he portrayed the Holocaust in Sophie’s Choice. I thought she handled the ambiguities of the problem well.

  16. Stefanie says:

    Definitely a thorny and complex issue but you have expressed your thoughts on it quite well. I think an author should be able to write about whatever s/he wants to write about. To say a peerson of a particular race or gender can only write about that particular race or gender is ludicrous. It limits creativity and creates literary ghettos. Given the history of the west, white dominance and colonization, I understand why white people writing about people of color causes an uproar. But if an author does the research and writes with sensitivity to the issues, I think it is perfectly fine.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re quite right that sensitivity and research are key, and I’d add attention to this sort of controversy is helpful for authors looking to write across racial lines in this way. Maybe even having several beta readers from the racial group you’re writing about would help an author catch some of the unintentional missteps. There are definitely ways to do it successfully, but it’s tricky.

  17. Iris says:

    I haven’t figured anything out about this. I don’t know what to think, most of the time. But I do agree with this:

    “it’s a mistake to assume that any authors represent their whole race or gender.”

    That is what is getting to me about the whole discussion really. It implies this understanding of essentialism that when you’re a woman, you’re better able to represent women in print. I am all for equal representation of authors and issues, but I think this idea of representation is what is undermining the discussion, really.

    • Iris says:

      Okay, that makes no sense now that I reread the comment, because I’m using representation as a word for both things. I meant to say the idea of one woman author being able to represent “women” makes no sense, while the question for more equal representation of women/men authors and international authors do make sense. Hope I explained it better now?

      • Teresa says:

        I understood what you were getting at, Iris :) It’s complicated because there are two separate but related issues. There’s the issue of wanting equal opportunity for writers to get published and read, which IMO is a very good thing to strive for. And then there’s the misguided idea that people are defined by their race or gender or represent all others from their particular demographic group. Related, but different.

  18. sakura says:

    Great post Teresa. I find it really interesting that when authors don’t declare their gender or background, the focus is solely on the story. But when we learn more about the author, it often throws the discussion wide open bringing in issues of gender, race, education, etc. which can make things interesting and problematic. I have to confess I sometimes fall into the category of thinking male/female authors sometimes don’t write believable characters of the opposite sex but then I come across those that do. In some ways it brings up the prejudices and issues we, as readers, bring to our reading of the stories. Ultimately I’m in the camp where if you are a writer, no subject should be taboo as long as it’s done well. I’ll have to think long and hard about this one!

    • Teresa says:

      That is interesting! I do sometimes wonder how an authors’ gender or race affects how the book is perceived by the public–or even by me as a reader. I think it’s a question worth considering.

  19. Emily says:

    This is a complex issue, and I think you’ve done a good job of taking it on in a thoughtful manner. Whenever issues of who has a right to tell a story comes up I’m reminded of something my undergrad thesis advisor said to me years ago. I wrote my thesis on contemporary Native American women’s poetry (which, in hindsight, I’m almost embarrassed to admit. Did I really try to tackle such a huge topic in one little undergrad thesis?). Anyway, when I first started it, I expressed some concern to my advisor about my right to write about this poetry, not being of Native American descent myself. My advisor, (who was of Native American descent), informed me that I had as much right to write about Native American writing as a Native American had to write about white writing; my perspective was just as valid. I never entirely shook off the feeling like I was intruding in a world where I didn’t belong, but I took what comfort and confidence I could from them as I wrote my thesis.

    Thinking on it now, I realize I haven’t changed much. I tend to shy away from writing about non-white literature for the same reason I almost backed out of writing that thesis. Hmmm. Interesting. Great post, Teresa. You’ve given me a lot to think about!

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