Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Zadie gets it right

Somehow you need to get your hands on a copy of the October 24th edition of The New York Review of Books so you can read Zadie Smith’s piece, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction.”

Unfortunately, it’s sitting behind a pay wall, so you’ll have to go to your nearest highbrow library and look at the genuine article. Or, hell, subscribe to the NYRB.

What Ms. Smith gets into here is a troubling trend in the culture, which doubles down on the “write what you know” dictum and prohibits fiction writers from imagining characters unlike themselves. Bottom line, fiction has to be “correct.” It has to boil individual identities down to categories: black, white, gay, straight, female, male. The depictions must reinforce each identity’s idea of itself. There’s no room for singularity.

This piece came at such a good time for me because I’m in the process of querying agents with a novel whose protagonist is a transgender man.

What Zadie talks about I’ve experienced myself: The irresistible curiosity about what someone else’s life must be like. How does it feel to be a girl who’s really a boy inside? What kind of anxieties, and pleasures, does that person have? How does he want to be seen in the outside world? The inside world? What steps would he take to protect his idea of himself?

Take any “other” and start digging deep about the reality of his or her being. This is the motivation of the best novelists, I think—this need to get inside that “other” and try to experience the world from that point of view.

And the new rules say you can’t do that. Only people in those groups can write about what it’s like. Only they can get it “correct.” Fiction as memoir.

These rules might be holding my book back too. I’ve queried over a hundred agents without so much as a nibble so far, causing me to wonder if the agents are going, “Why’s this middle-aged white guy writing about transgender? He needs to write about privilege and joint pain and outliving his money.”

What I’d like to say to them, if they’d listen, is that fiction (as I recently told Marie Bailey in an interview) is about individuals. It’s not about types or categories. Each character’s life is sui generis. A novel is not anthropology. The moment someone says something like “a middle-aged white guy would never do that,” I want to say, “This one does.”

Great literature is about exceptions to the rule. The special cases. Even Everyman, when we encounter him in books, finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. That’s what fiction is for.

Like Zadie, I wish we could all just chill a little bit about our identity issues and let the writers and artists and songsters and playwrights show us what their imaginations have come up with. Some jerk said, back in the day, “art holds a mirror to reality,” but I’m not buying that bill of goods.

I’m going with Bertolt Brecht’s spin on it: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

That’s what a novelist is supposed to do.

3 comments on “Zadie gets it right

  1. kingmidget
    December 19, 2019

    If I was forced to write from the perspective of a 55-year-old white male, I wouldn’t bother writing. As I tell people who ask me about my writing — what I most enjoy is the opportunity to create characters and stories that are as far removed from me as possible.

    These efforts to force this on writers need to stop. It’s ridiculous and completely ignores the fundamental nature of fiction.

  2. Marie A Bailey
    December 20, 2019

    I read Smith’s essay and I definitely appreciate her argument against limiting fiction. It’s a bit buried in her long essay, but she also notes how what we read, how we respond, what and how often we tweet (for example) have become “data points” that are then used to “recommend” what we should read, how we should respond, what and how often we should tweet. This problem of fiction–that readers are no longer readers but consumers–is much bigger than the ongoing, academic debate of who gets to write which protagonist. I remember listening to arguments for and against white authors writing from the POV of the other back when I was in grad school, a couple of decades ago. It’s not new but the social media milieu in which these arguments now take place have changed the dynamics and the reader loses.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 24, 2019

      Good points. All of it just drives home how much things have changed over the last 20 years or so. What you and I originally set out to do as fiction writers seems impossible now. Or quaint. Oh boy …

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This entry was posted on December 19, 2019 by in Writing and tagged , , , , .
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