Three Taboos 2

The Arts

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Our next taboo concerns ghettoised writing. As someone who prefers inclusivity at any cost, I now feel impatient with the ghettoisation of certain types of literature; women’s writing, gay writing and to a lesser extent black writing, only because I find it hard to read about any section of the population in isolation from any other.

I appreciate that in a geographically diverse America these sub-sections have more of a place, but in Barnes & Noble the other day it took me twenty minutes to wade through all the divisions before finding General Fiction.

Stories of black experience can de-familiarise the familiar and prove revelatory, of course. Samuel Selvon wrote the terrific ‘The Lonely Londoners’, a kind of reverse Eldorado story in which a young West Indian gives up paradise to come to a dank, prejudiced London in the 1950s. This novel perfectly catches the feeling of what it’s like to find yourself alone in a big city. Selvon penned his tale in a richly evocative, hilarious patois that, although easily understandable, limited his readership at the time. He had tried writing it in standard English but the result simply sounded wrong in the mouth of a youngster arriving into an alien culture.

Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is not black writing, and an award-winning novel like ‘Dodgers’ by Bill Beverly, entirely set in a black milieu, happens to be written by a white man. Black should be able to write white, women can write men – have any straight men written gay characters well? Certainly they have. Adopting identities is what writers do.

As a gay man I’m more defined by those with whom I interact. This was not always true. In my twenties, there were still rights to be won and homophobic laws to be repealed, so I was more politically active and angry. Gay writing, like black writing, was about finding a voice and being heard, but in writing terms it also preached to the converted. It was rather like paying £70 a ticket to watch a play set in a council house at the National Theatre. The audience had already been won over before the polemic started.

While my female characters are strong and rarely spend their time discussing men, nor do they exist on all-female desert islands. Arguments need to be played out in situations to which we can relate, which is why, say, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali work so well; their characters exist in broader tapestries. I’m bothered by Hollywood films that exist in exclusively white or black settings because it feels like restoring segregation. Besides, we now have new ways of representing ‘outsiders’, as anyone who’s seen ‘The Shape of Water’ knows.

I would place all fiction in ‘general fiction’. Who wants to know what’s coming up in advance? It’s the diversity of fiction that surprises and delights.

5 comments on “Three Taboos 2”

  1. SimonB says:

    Oh yes, that would work for me too. It is all too easy to browse the shelves we know and never find a work from a genre we have yet to try.

  2. Brooke says:

    Writing is segregated into ghettos because our societies are conglomerations of ghettos. Publishers and book sellers fall in line. E.g. Harper Lee’s TKAM is oft mentioned; yet I and many other black people find it silly propaganda (see Malcolm Gladwell’s review in NYorker). But Lee is promoted while Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar is not.

    And it’s one thing to adopt an identity; it’s another thing to feel it and more importantly to suffer the consequences of that identity. When William Styron, white liberal, was awarded the Pulitzer for The Confessions of Nat Turner (he also wrote Sophie’s Choice) about the leader of a slave revolt, I joined the protest against the award. Neither Styron nor the committee could see that writing about Turner’s sex life did not address the suffering of slavery.

    Sorry we are a long way from diversity in fiction–perhaps that’s why so much of fiction writing is so bad.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    In my teens I had a great love of Jewish American writing; Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Groucho Marx and Woody Allen among others. There’s a certain take on life, a warmth and a wit, that seemed remarkably different to the world I lived in in a north eastern town split 50/50 between Catholics and Protestants. I’m still a sucker for the likes of Michael Chabon and Kinky Friedman. as they say, “go figure”.

  4. Graham says:

    I think crime fiction can be a home for all different sorts. Kinky Friedman, to cite one name already mentioned, or Walter Mosely, or Joseph Hansen, or Laura Lippman.

    Even though it’s balkanized in its own way, many readers like to “travel” broadly in crime and mystery.

  5. Good afternoon. Thanks. Really enjoyed reading this page.

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