Monday, October 08, 2007
Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men?
So, it came up again, the idea that a writer can't really write from any head save his -- or her own. I've had this discussion a number of times, and it still troubles me that people seem to believe this.
Here's how it goes: A writer -- or sometimes, just a serious reader -- will tell me that s/he can always recognize when somebody not of his or her group is writing a story pretending to be one of 'em.
They'll say, "Oh, so-and-so tried, but I can always tell if it's a woman writer pretending to be a man. Always."
For woman/man, you can substitute a raft of others: white guy/black guy; straight/gay; old/young; cop/civilian; military guy/non-military guy.
To which I answer: If the writer is good enough and does the research? Bullshit, you can.
If that were the case, nobody could never write from the viewpoint of anybody save his or her own sex, race, and occupation, and there'd be an awful lot of action-adventure heroes who were fat, middle-aged white guy writers.
I'm not talking about a white Jewish guy telling Robert Townsend in Hollywood Shuffle to "Make it blacker !" I'm talking about finding the common humanity we all share and using it to build a character that resonates.
Sure, there are bad writers who get caught. But there are also good ones who pass.
In science fiction circles four decades back, there was a hot new guy, James Tiptree, Jr. Ole Jim came in and blew the doors off the staidmobiles in the field. Muscular, tough fiction, won awards, got great reviews. Only thing was, ole Jim was really named Alice "Racoona" Sheldon.
She kept it hidden for ten or so years, and only was outed when she mentioned that her mother had died in Chicago and somebody tracked down the obituary and made the connection.
Brightest, most talented writers and editors in the field were fooled, and publicly caught flatfooted. Bob Silverberg went on about how Tiptree had to be a man. In an intro to an A:DV Tiptree story, Harlan said that Katie Wilhelm was the woman writer to beat that year, but that Tiptree was the guy ...
Sheldon supposedly got the name "Tiptree" off a label on a jar of marmalade ...
Me, I'm not a great writer. On my best days, on a scale of one-to-ten, I'll allow myself a six-point-five. Even so, I've been invited to speak at black writers conferences; gay writers conferences; and women writers conferences because they all thought I was one. I've been asked by professional military guys what my unit was in Vietnam, and had surgeons ask where I did my surgical residency.
For a redneck Louisiana cracker who dropped out of college in the sixties and was a hippie and against every war we've had since WWII, that indicates to me that if I can fool people into thinking I'm one of them and I'm not, and that a really good writer can do it blindfolded with one hand tied behind him.
If you are a writer and somebody lays this one on you, you can smile and nod and avoid the argument if you want, but -- don't listen to them. You do the research, and I'm not just talking about reading books, but hand-on stuff, you can convince a lot of folks you are more than you really are.
It doesn't have to be real, it only has to sound real.