Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
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.