Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Write What You Know fascism

Apologies in advance for the following rant, but an opinion piece in this morning's Guardian newspaper has irked the hell out of me. If you're looking for today's 28 Days of 2000 AD features, just scroll down a bit. If you're still reading, I'll assume you're somehow interested and get on with venting my spleen. Reviewer Marcel Berlins complains about authors who write about places in their fiction on the basis of research, rather than from a personal experience of visiting them.

He cites the example of Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves, last week named the Costa Novel of the Year: 'One aspect disconcerted me and diminished my liking of it. Penney, a sufferer from agoraphobia, had been unable to travel to Canada, where her book is set. She conducted all her research in the British Library.' Berlins admits the number of people who could spot inaccuracies might be small. 'To me, thought, her lack of direct knowledge matters. As a reader, I feel short-changed and disappointed. When place plays an important part in a story, I expect the writer to have been there.'

Excuse my language, but Marcel Berlins is a twat. It's this sort of Write What You Know fascism that denies and restricts imagination, that suggests factual reality is somehow more important to the quality of the storytelling than anything else. The plotting, the prose, the characterisation, the depth, the wit, the intelligence, the emotional impact - all those things pale in Berlins' appreciation because a writer hasn't been to every street in every place in every setting for their novel.

Bollocks. By that definition, no writer can every successfully write about anything they've never experienced. A women could never write from a male character because she's never been a man, and vice versa. A gay man could never successfully write a straight woman, or a Chinese writer ever produce a novel about being a white child from Glasgow. Most authors haven't committed murder, so how can they write about taking a life? Most writers don't rape or steal or fight in wars or fly to the Moon.

Berlins tries to have his cake and eat it: 'Can you think of a great novel that takes plae where its author has never been? (Be reasonable; obviously I exclude Orwell's 1984 and other fantasies.)' Apparently fantasies are excluded from Berlins' you-must-have-been-there-to-write-about-a-place edict. Does that mean all works of speculative fiction, or all works of imagination?

There's another massive hole in what Berlins has to say: 'Admittedly, Penney's book is set in 1867, but I still would have felt more satisfied if she had absorbed the atmosphere, the cold and scenery at first hand.' So if I visit Dublin today, I can more convincingly about how life during the potato famine drove people towards the city? If I went to Colchester, I could write a better novel about the Roman invasion two thousand years ago? There might be some slight benefits, but Berlins' apparent belief that a writer has to have been somewhere to achieve full veracity.

The truth is that if Berlins' didn't know Penney had never been to Canada [let alone to Canada of 1867!], would he have known any better? Probably not. I'm not denying the value of research or visiting a place you intend to write about, I've done it myself, going to divers places like New Lanark and Florence in search of the mood and atmosphere of a setting. But the most important parts of any novel are surely the talents and skills of the authors, not the size of their research travel budget!

UPDATE: Apparently I'm not alone in my disdain for Write What You Know fascism. Bestselling author Lynne Truss has an article online on this very topic - and she's much more eloquent than me.


pillock said...

Totally. The most important research is what goes on in your head.

Adam McGechan said...

Lynne Truss has also commented on this in an interesting piece for the BBC site ( Some of the comments that have come out surrounding The Tenderness of Wolves are bizzare, to say the least.

Adam McGechan said...

Sorry didn't see your link to the BBC article! I swear my browser wasn't showing your updated entry when I posted!

James Moran said...

Couldn't agree more. The fact that he says fantasy doesn't count is bizarre, surely (according to his logic) a made-up location would feel less real than a real location you've never been to? We make stuff up for a living. Research can be great, but the end result is what counts.