I recently read a fantastic article by Aminatta Forna in the Guardian, 'Don't judge a book by its author', where she eloquently argues that authors should not be expected to write what they know, that she doesn't want to be pigeonholed as an 'African' or female writer, and that writers not from minority groups should not be afraid to write as 'the other.' I found her account of publishing her third novel, The Hired Man, after having written two novels set in Sierra Leone, especially striking. One New York bookstore shelved it under 'African Fiction' even after Forna had given a talk at the store that emphasised that the novel was set in Croatia. 'Where should a bookshop shelve a novel set in Croatia and written in English by a Scottish Sierra Leonian author?' she wonders, and notes that 'I could count on one hand the reviewers who did not mention that I was a woman of colour writing in the voice of a rural, Croatian man.' I'm proud to say that I didn't mention Forna's race in my review of The Hired Man, but have to admit that I'm not exempt from her more general criticisms: before starting The Hired Man, I assumed that it was set in Africa. The flipside of this issue, of course, which Forna discusses in her article, is the dominance of white male writers writing about other white men, too rarely taking on the challenge of centring a novel around somebody who is very different from them. Fears of cultural appropriation, are, I think, genuine; this takes me back to my earlier post about the lack of female characters in fantasy, and the worry that one won't be able to do justice to a character of a different race or gender. But a lot of this also comes down to simple thoughtlessness.
There was one paragraph of Forna's otherwise excellent article with which I did not agree. Despite writing that 'to write a peasant woman born at the turn of the century, to imagine what it might have been like never to have read a book or seen a film, I found the toughest act of all' she suggests that 'Historical novels are exempt from accusations of "inauthenticity", presumably due to the lack of critics with first-hand experience.' Reading reviews of historical novels would surely indicate that this isn't the case at all. Two of the examples she gives - Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Jim Crace's Harvest - have certainly been criticised from all sides for 'getting it wrong', or in Crace's case, for not being precise enough with his use of historical detail (a criticism with which I agree). As I also discussed in a recent post, historical novels are definitely vulnerable to attacks from those who believe they have greater expertise, although this is not tied back to identity politics in the way that accusations of 'inauthenticity' are (or not always - how about if a white writer writes about the slave trade from the point of view of a slave, or a black writer takes on the court of Henry VIII? Neither of these scenarios are problematic in my view, but it's conceivable that others could think that they were.) Whatever one writes, someone who does indeed have, or believes that they have, greater expertise than the author will be able to question it. Furthermore, as Forna indicates, if you are a white male novelist, is it really any easier to write as a (white, male) Tudor peasant than a present-day woman of colour? It seems that writers are more willing to take on the former challenge, and yet, as a (white, female) historian, I would balk at trying to write a novel from the point of view of an illiterate peasant at a time when there weren't any novels at all - though I'm sure it could be done.
The answer for both historical and contemporary novelists, therefore, seems to be the same: do your research. Just as historical novelists aren't exempt from considering present-day power inequalities, contemporary novelists aren't exempt from research. Nevertheless, I would agree with Forna that trying to reach outside your own immediate cultural background isn't appropriation, if done properly, but is exactly what writers ought to be doing. Writing isn't journalism, and novels shouldn't be seen as a series of truthful accounts from a range of people with different life experiences (although of course it is important to hear from writers who are not straight white men). This is what novels are for, both for the reader and the writer: to understand people who are different from ourselves.