Three Taboos 2
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 In my twenties, there were still rights to be won and homophobic laws to be repealed, so I was more politically active and angry.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.