Like with any publication or piece of writing, though, I read with the understanding that no writer is objective and the site has a particular base they’re looking to appeal to. I addressed this somewhat in Who Are You Writing For? There is a problem, however, when a writer puts appealing to a target audience above truly representing the subject, especially when that subject is real people.
As was the case a couple weeks ago when BBC News’ magazine published a story about a 74-year-old man living in la Puna de Atacama, a high desert plateau in Argentina.
There is some self-awareness in the piece that the reporter came expecting a hardened tale of human survival and found instead a human being just living his life, but little in the way of exploring why the reporter had such an expectation in the first place and why he’d be so thrown that a man finds his own life perfectly normal.
This is something any novelist needs to think about when writing an experience that is not their own. Even if it is a made-up world, but especially if it is based in this world because that is where harm comes in.
When presenting something in their novel as different or weird, even if it’s meant to be in a positive way, a writer should step back and question their impulses:
- Am I presenting this as strange because the POV narrator thinks it is or because I think it is?
- If I think it is, why? Are there people on Earth to whom this is normal? Am I certain?
- Am I showing it this way to reflect the character’s experience or for the benefit of a presumed reader?
- If the POV is presenting it as strange, is it something strange to them and their worldview?
- If the POV has not experienced this and would find it strange, but it is something normal to other characters, do I make it clear that it is not inherently strange? Do I show other characters treating this as normal and perhaps even calling the POV on treating it as strange?
- Does my presenting this as strange do harm? Am I certain?
The “Am I certain?” is particularly important. You don’t know what you don’t know. People experience exotification every day, so reflecting that thinking unquestioningly adds to their hurt. As ever, it comes back to careful research and consideration.
So let’s have some examples on the flip side. What books have you read that made you question your own perspective and assumptions as a reader? (I found Ancillary Justice to be a great way to question my assumptions of gender.) What did you take away from such books as a writer?