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Back To Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson


Reverse Discrimination in Literary Critique

My writing friend Leora Krygier was asked by a reporter for the Orange County Register if she felt qualified to write from the point of view of a young Vietnamese girl in her book When She Sleeps. Having once been in journalism and been in a position to do some interviewing of my own, I was a bit incensed. It seemed amazing to me that someone would presume to tell a writer they couldn't or shouldn't do that or that it would cause any resentment at all. I mean, how could a reader (or a reporter) possibly presume we couldn't write from the point of view of someone of a different race, a different religion or culture. And why would they tinge that question with a hint-of-haughty in the voice, a bit of a look-down-the-nose demeanor.

My daughter, a cultural anthropologist, suggested that such ideas were a function of our intensity to be as politically correct as possible and I realized that the Register did have a large Vietnamese population, which was probably one reason they were doing the interview in the first place. Because I believe that being politically incorrect in most instances, simply promulgates bigotry, I tried to put all my arguments—arguments in favor of creative writers—aside and forget about it.

Then, in the October 1, 2012, edition of Time magazine, I ran into another instance of this kind of question. Belinda Luscombe put on her snarkiest interview hat to interview Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Michael Chabon. It went something like this: "A central character in your book Telegraph Avenue, Arcy Stallings, is the black co-owner of a record store. Did you feel anxious writing from the point of view of a black guy?" In addition to the haughty and snooty tendencies listed above, her question smacks a bit of the passive aggressive.

I admit it. That got me a little riled. But the interviewer persisted: "But race is a charged subject. In the book, there's a white lawyer, Moby, who talks like a black guy. You didn't worry that that was you?"

Then I went on a full scale rant, albeit a quiet one to myself. Exc-u-u-se me! But don't writers of fiction always use something of themselves when drawing a character? None of us can pull any character trait that we haven't personally seen, experienced, or read about from thin air! I sniffed! But it doesn't have to be us.

And doesn't fiction work—especially great fiction—because at our cores we are all the same. Sentient human beings who share needs and feelings? When I suffer under one kind of prejudice, as an example, isn't that at some level very similar to what someone else suffers under another? So wouldn't that qualify white-girl me to write from the point of anyone I so chose—if I took care. If I had a worthy subject and theme. And isn't that the job of the artist to decide?

And, (I actually huffed! Almost aloud!), haven't these reporters ever heard of research? Or imagination?

And what about that idea of getting too close to something, so close that we may feel responsible or fear we're putting our souls in danger? Or that someone might mistake sincerity for satire? Of vice versa? Wouldn't any thoughtful person understand that every time an author picks up a pen he or she puts themselves in some kind of emotional (philosophical?) danger? And don't readers understand the difference between fiction and reality? Do they really think that every character in our books is us rather than seeing that every character may be but may also be a reflection of someone we've observed? Or read about?

And this is the answer I came up with. Apparently not.

Tips and Tidbits

(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better. She will also include a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)

A Tip for Writers: :

Writers of all patterns and stripes will enjoy the quick tips and questions and answers format of my blog, The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor Guidelines for submitting questions are in the left column of the blog. It is inspired by The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success which won USA Book News Best Book 2007 Award, Reader Views Literary Award and was a finalist in the New Generations Indie Award. It is also available for Kindle,

A Tip for Readers' Tip:

Don’t forget that I give a Noble (Not Nobel!) Prize in conjunction with MyShelf every year. That’s another great way for writers and readers to share something they love with others. You’ll find submission guidelines in each January issue of “Back to Literature” on MyShelf. Check the archives! Last call!

2012 Past Columns


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