But of course being strict about this proposition leaves us with serious inclusivity problem. Novels can be rich and complicated critters. I have written several novels, and most of them contain any number of diverse, three-dimensional characters. If I people my novels only with cis, gay, white, American men about my age, I would and should be quite fairly criticized for erasing people who aren’t like me.
I do write what I know, so my protagonists are usually more like me than not, but included in the set of the ‘things I know' are people who are black, women, straight, transgender, Mexican, German, Filipino, etc.
I have to work hard to make my characters real and three-dimensional. I have to work hard to make my novels real by peopling them realistically.
And that can often mean, and I think should often mean, telling the stories of people who are unlike me.
Clearly, there comes a line where a novel crosses over into primarily telling stories people don’t know enough to tell. But the problem the literary world is coping with in that respect is much more complicated then it might appear on the surface.
Literature is evolving and should be evolving into something much more rich and diverse than used to be the norm. We don’t want literature to be primarily about privileged white people anymore.
We want writers to spread their wings and be more inclusive and diverse as they weave their tales. Maybe that’s easier in the United States as the country itself becomes more inclusive and diverse.
But I think we’re going to need to be careful not to indulge in knee-jerk reactions in a general sense when a specific writer does a bad job.
It’s one thing to say this book sucks because this writer didn’t know what she was talking about. I think it might be quite another to generalize from that and say that her project had no right to exist in principle.
Although from what I know about the specific book you’re talking about, it’s actually not a project I would have felt comfortable pursuing.
As a counter example, I do have a dream novel I’m working on in the research stage. In a little-known but fascinating corner of historic trivia, Japanese samurai warriors based in the Philippines during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries contracted out to Spanish conquistadors in Mexico to provide security for gold transport routes.
For about a century and a half, a small but thriving samurai feudal culture developed in parts of Mexico with strings of traditional Japanese-style castles and everything.
This is a story that has been so little told and is so fascinating that I’ve been putting piles of notes together and have even sketched out a rough outline of a novel.
But should I be Japanese to have the right to tell that story? Or should I be Mexican? Or maybe I should be Filipino given that the Spanish recruited from the Philippines. Or maybe I should be Spanish.
I don’t know, but I actually feel comfortable with this project. It isn’t one anybody else apparently has any interest in working on, but it’s a fascinating, neglected story.
Just an example of taking care in not overreacting.