Clubhouse Rules: the Toxic Atmosphere in Literary Discussion

I won’t use proper names here. One writer doesn’t deserve to get involuntary abuse, or be caught in a possible flame war, or whatever else, and the other person… Well, they simply don’t deserve a wider forum. The situation is this: The writer expressed on Twitter anxiety over representing her own culture in a novel. Because I follow this person, I wrote a comment intended to be encouraging: “ What you write about it is your truth. It’s as valid as anyone else’s. You’ve done the homework, you’ve done the research, which shows you care. And that will always shine through the work. And quite frankly, if someone wants to be an asshole, they can always find an excuse.”

I followed this up with: “ I have a different problem. Without trying to self-shill, I wrote a narrative history about Ethiopia. My worries were… should I be the one telling this story? What if I screw it up, etc.? But 99 % response from the E community has been super positive b/c no one else did it.” I then wrote: “ And that’s someone tying himself in knots over trying to tell a true story. Your tales come from you, no one else. It’s your world, your [country] spun by your heart, so by definition, it cannot be wrong. Just get it on the page and then out there. Bon Chance!”

The writer took these comments graciously. Someone else decided to be obnoxious and take issue with my vanilla-flavoured encouragement. “Honestly, I don’t think you understand or appreciate what [the writer] or other AOC are talking about here.” She went on to add, “And one more thing — citing ‘I’ve had 99% positive response’ sounds a little ‘well, my black friends said it was okay’, so — be careful there. Because permission of a few does not speak for an entire community esp when it comes to co-opting experiences.”

First of all, I don’t need to be anything to encourage another writer to write what they want. I don’t need to be from a specific background, I don’t need to be a Pulitzer or a Giller Prize winner, anything at all. I can simply be a fan. And it boggles the mind that someone is so obtuse as to declare that I am not entitled to express flat-out, open support because I don’t happen to belong to the race of the original writer.

And sure, you can get into all the dynamics of issues of Diaspora culture versus the Motherland, whether depiction is accurate, etc. An unqualified person weighing in on this can be quite easily dismissed or ignored because their remarks are uninformed. That’s all there is to it. They shouldn’t lose the right to participation; it’s just their views won’t carry the same clout as someone who knows what the hell they’re talking about.

But this is not what I was doing. To be brutally clear: I never offered an opinion on what the writer was writing, how the writer constructed her novel, how she did her research, any specifics at all. I simply encouraged her to write what she wants. That should be true for every writer, no matter their background. Audiences and the market place will determine its immediate validity, and Time will also have its say. Today’s classics didn’t always fare well, some reviled upon publication, while other “correct” books have been consigned to remainder bins and obscurity.

And it’s Twitter: a forum so open that anybody with a view, qualified or not, can talk back or comment on the ravings of POTUS or remarks by Justin Trudeau.

This obnoxious individual then chose to question the popularity of my work with a snide “sounds a little” based on nothing. They don’t know me. They don’t know my book. They’re just tossing out venom because I must automatically be suspect as a white writer working on a subject of interest to black populations. Oh, and by the way, I neither seek nor was looking for anyone’s permission.

Moreover, they didn’t even do their homework. Because I mentioned clearly that I had written narrative history. There is no “co-opting of experience” because nothing in the book was my experience. I interviewed witnesses. I tracked down records. I quoted verifiable sources. And if someone wants to start a new flame war over whether I’m entitled to write facts about another country’s history, let alone fiction, I’m all ready for that as well.

I don’t need to offer my bona fides here, but suffice to say the book does well. The book trailer that plugged it got — and still gets — thousands of views, mainly from people in the Diaspora community. It is endorsed in a blurb by a high-profile novelist of that community. It has the blessings of respected historians from that community. And I get invites from that community to speak about their history. Because ultimately, that’s what matters. The work. The rest — who the writer is, what their background is, all of it — is sideshow noise. Either your work speaks to readers or it doesn’t.

What is so toxic about this kind of racist policing is the inherent and sometimes overt presumption that even on an open forum as Twitter or Facebook or anywhere, only the Select Few may voice an opinion. Doesn’t matter who the Select Few are, and they can retroactively change the definitions anyway, depending which way the wind blows for the group. But again: if an argument has validity, it’s valid whoever’s saying it. Argue the point, not the identity label. And consider again how idiotic this assertion is: “You don’t know the issues of People of Colour, so how dare you offer writers blanket encouragement to write what they want!”

Funny. My former student in Myanmar is consulting me about a novel he’s writing that’s intrinsically linked to his culture and recent political events. He doesn’t give a shit that I’m not Burmese. He’s asking me about plot, characterization, the mechanics of craft. It’s a given that he knows far more about his culture than I could ever hope to know, and I think I’ll ask him next time if I’m somehow colonially oppressing him with my white privilege by responding upon request to his queries. I think he’ll get a good laugh out of it.

The creative professional has to cope these days with a whole level of Orwellian intellectual fascism we don’t need. It’s prompting many of us to self-censor or not submit at all. It’s forcing us to keep quiet even over the most banal of literary topics. And we’re not talking about workshops or discussion groups that have closed memberships because it makes sense to have private communication and camaraderie. We’re talking about open forums.

The moment you say you can’t comment there because you’re not the right colour, you have automatically granted license and validity to the right-of-centre white types who bitch disingenuously about “political correctness” and then work covertly and sometimes overtly to undermine inclusion and diversity. No, some animals are not more equal than others — in every context.

Because otherwise you go down the rabbit hole of “not just the country, you don’t speak the right dialect, or you’re from that region, or you’re a lighter shade of the colour,” and on it goes. Before the word even reaches its intended audience, some on the Left have policed creativity into extinction so that there might be no representation at all, because a portrayal or narrative doesn’t fit its criteria. And so we all lose.

A YA novelist I know ran into grief from her editor because she did her research, interviewed trans people, tried to get it right and put a trans character into her novel. The editor bullied her into changing the character because the author isn’t trans herself. This is lunacy. Under this logic, I would never be allowed to write female characters, and so then my books could be pilloried because “you have no female representation.” It is insane to try to write according to the shifting goal posts of an editorial Shadow Cabinet that decides what is socially acceptable in terms of politics.

Does this mean writers shouldn’t be mindful of changing social norms, perceptions of minorities and gender and sexual identities? Of course, they should. But let them find their own way. The audience will reward their commitment or lack of it appropriately with reading the book… or not.

Ray Bradbury wrote an excellent afterword for a later edition of his Fahrenheit 451 because he recognized this nonsense for what it is. It was already happening to him, thanks to editors and librarians who presumed to know better. “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib / Republican, Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme…

“If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.”

The shame of it is that some jackass may well say, “Well, of course, he would write that. He’s a white writer of privilege from a bygone era of white-dominated literature…” And miss the whole point. You either let everyone have their say — no matter how ignorant, misinformed, unintentionally callous, whatever — or you have the Ever-Obedient, Cowed Choir. I opt for the individual voice, thanks.

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.