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'Write what you know, read what you don't' is not an excuse anymore

Writing by Charley Jones. Illustration by Dafne de Fine Licht.

There is a huge amount of controversy over the topic of character representation. There is a well-known saying amongst writers: ‘write what you know, read what you don't.’ To a degree, I think this holds true: if you are including a character in your writing just because you feel like you have to and you don't actually know how to write that character… don't.

However, I do feel like writers have a responsibility to their reading audiences to attempt to understand the world as being multi-faceted and experienced by more than just one perspective. This means including voices and lenses in your writing that pay tribute to those who aren't exactly like you. As a queer woman, I am extremely exasperated by representations of queer women being defined solely by their queer journey, and more specifically by their queer pain. This is as if to say: you exist only in relation to my heterosexual experience of straightness.

To be able to do this respectfully, I suggest that writers hold on to the second part of the statement made earlier: read what you don't know. Research experiences and voices that differ to your own, research them respectfully and pay attention to the nuances of these individual experiences. An individual is not just their pain. An individual is not just their sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, or gender identity. The world is not by default white and straight, for example, and so identities that exist outside of these binary categories do not need to be marginalised in your writing and treated as merely an oppressed 'Other.'

This is not to say that ALL writers should strive to do this ALL of the time. The Patrick Melrose novels worked so brilliantly because they were written from the narrow perspective of the title character, a white middle-class male drug addict, and to apply this article to his writing and therefore criticise it would be wrong.

Nonetheless, we live in a non-binary world, and to attempt to write it otherwise would be amiss. I would also argue that as readers and citizens we have a certain responsibility to widen our own understandings of the world and the different perspectives that co-exist alongside ours. We need to be willing to listen to one another, respectfully, and to learn and understand through actively reading texts written by those with different identities.

This kind of conscious consumerism from readers who actively engage with the market by buying new books also sends a message to publishers about what we, as an audience, are wanting to read. Just this year, the Black Writers' Guild sent out a letter to the top publishing houses outlining racism that some writers had experienced, including publishers asking them to ‘add white or racist characters to their books.’ This links in to my earlier point - black writers and characters should not need to conform to popular narratives surrounding racism in order to be taken seriously as a valid voice.

Finally, I wish to reiterate that I am not one to dismiss a book based on any identifying characteristics of the author (unless it is an author I actively know and dislike.) Neil Gaiman, a straight white man, is my favourite author. I adore the writings of Iain Banks and I love Nabokov's Lolita. However, my reading and my writing has been unbelievably enhanced by my active decision to seek out works from writers with different backgrounds and cultures to my own, and I feel like everybody should ultimately strive to make the literary community a more inclusive and interesting place to be. 

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