There’s been a lot of discussion lately about authenticity in literature (or the lack thereof). I like to believe most of the failures in this area aren’t someone intentionally trying to demean, dismiss, or disrespect the culture of another. I think many of these are simply the writer being unaware of the amount of work it requires to authentically represent a different culture or subculture, or perhaps being unwilling or unable to put in the necessary hours to bring the work up from “stereotype” to “accurate representation.” Authenticity in fiction requires respect, research, and empathy. And craft, which is sometimes overlooked in these discussions.
The first decision an author has to make—before a single word is drafted—is to decide whether or not they should even write the story.
Let’s imagine someone suggests that a good character and setting for a realistic contemporary novel might be the story of a Japanese teen-age lesbian, struggling to make it through high school in modern-day Kyoto. It wouldn’t take me long to arrive at the conclusion that maybe I should pass on this one… I was raised in the States, have never been to Kyoto let alone absorbed the culture, and have scant knowledge of the LGBT culture among Japanese youth (which may very well vary between big cities and smaller towns). There are many ways I could get it wrong, and the cost to insure I didn’t would be too high. This isn’t to imply that a writer with my general background couldn’t do it, but the effort needed to get up to speed and do it authentically would be very substantial.
Of course, all cases aren’t this blatant. There is a subculture with which I am intimately familiar: that of the working musician, playing in clubs both locally and on the road. So when I wrote Road Rash—although I was deeply concerned with things like voice, character, plotting, theme, dialog, and the overall vibe of the story—the one thing I didn’t have to sweat too much was the verisimilitude of the background, because BT/DT.
But what if you want to write about something you haven’t been steeped in for years? Does this mean you can’t do it? Not necessarily. Let’s compare and contrast two approaches taken in recent realistic/contemporary novels… both featuring fairly similar band-on-the-road settings, and both written by non-musicians:
In the first one, the author basically took the "plug & play" approach: they sat back and thought, “Hmm…I wonder what it’s like to be in a band on tour, playing smaller venues?”, then wrote the story based on what they assumed it might be like, with zero research. How do I know? Because the book is so full of large, almost-comical errors that any musician who’d vetted the book would have pointed out the howlers immediately. I realize everyone’s experience is not my own, but there are basic facts of road life that are universal. (Just one of many: a band on tour—hauling their own equipment, including sound system—does not pull up at a new venue, waltz inside and get a drink, and then begin playing within five minutes. Trust me.) I could go on, but you get the idea. I finished the book and thought, Wow—they didn’t bother to ask a single question or do any research to even try to get it remotely right. This is a traditionally-published author, by the way, who lives in a city with a vibrant music scene. So basic fact-checking would have been easy-peasy.
[*An interesting side note is that none of the book’s reviews—which were mixed but overall fairly favorable—mentioned this. Which goes to show that just because a book seems fine to a mainstream audience doesn’t mean it’s not problematic to other sectors of the reading public.]
With the second book, the author (well published, with a long and successful writing career) realized their next book was going to contain settings that were new to them (a couple of the main characters were in a touring band) so they did their research. Realizing they still had some gaps in their knowledge base, they contacted another author they’d met on book tour who they knew was a musician (yours truly, but it could just as well have been the bass player at the local bar). They asked a number of questions regarding life as a working musician, including queries about logistics, finances, band politics, etc. Then they laid out the part of the plot that revolved around band life and basically said, Does this make sense? Does this feel authentic, from a musician standpoint? I’m happy to report that yes, the finished book felt completely authentic, and I was never pulled out of the story because something unbelievable happened. All because the author took the time to do some vetting and fundamental fact-checking.
Granted, sometimes it’s a bit more difficult than asking a few question of an informed source. Sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves and get seriously involved to really get at the emotional heart of a story. I can think of no better example than The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen—a YA novel about a teenage girl who loses a leg in an accident. There were two years of solid research behind this book before a word was written.
First was the decision to even write the book at all. She fought against the urge to write it for quite a while because she knew it would involve a ton of work to do it right, but the story (conceived on our flight home after running the New York marathon, where we’d seen people with severe challenges struggle to run 26.2 miles) just wouldn’t let her go. Once she decided to tackle it, she started where you might expect—she read several books about amputation, prostheses, and recovery. It’s important to note that this was not to write the book itself (which is a common mistake writers make) but simply to give her the technical background so she’d be able to ask the right questions of doctors, prosthetists, and amputees. Once she understood the mechanics of the process, then the real work began—getting to the emotional truth of what it’s like to go through such a life-altering event, and then the long adaptation process afterward, leading—in most cases—to finding a new normal, emotionally as well as physically.
She interviewed people who make prostheses. She interviewed people who fit and install them. She interviewed a medical technician who used to be a dancer before she lost her leg, and can now move quite well on her prosthesis. She interviewed doctors. And of course she interviewed amputees. Lots of amputees. Which takes a slow and thoughtful approach—you can’t just walk up to someone and ask them to please take off their leg for you. But the opposite happened. One patient who was visiting his prosthetist for a re-fit and a “tune-up” answered Wendelin’s questions, then asked, “Do you want to see how this all works?” He allowed Wendelin to watch (and photograph) the prosthesis removal and re-installation process, and then talked about the entire ordeal he’d been through since losing his leg.
After the book came out, a woman who was a medal-winning Paralympic athlete (below-knee amputee runner, just like the protagonist in Wendelin’s book) read The Running Dream, loved it, and used it in her own educational visits to schools around the country. When she learned through a mutual acquaintance that Wendelin had two organic legs, she expressed her surprise. “When I first read the book,” she said, “I thought for sure that the author must be an amputee, because she got everything so right… not just the medical stuff, but the way it feels… the way you feel when you wear a prosthesis every day.”
I’d guess I’d call this the definition of “getting it right.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I just finished reading a book featuring a protagonist who has a neurological condition with which I’m familiar. The author got it so effing wrong—in seriously fundamental ways—that it seemed like she’d simply gone down a list, looking for a condition she could plaster across her character’s forehead as a device to differentiate her from other teen protagonists. And once she found something she thought sounded interesting, she stopped long enough to read a single paragraph (at most) on Wikipedia, then invented a bunch of wildly inaccurate stuff and ran with it. (And this book was traditionally published, which begs the related question of where was the editor?)
So yes, it is possible for an author to write authentically about a group other than their own—females can write male characters, middle-aged adults can write child characters or senior characters, authors can write characters outside their religion, race, or gender identity. But only if they treat their characters with enough respect to do the hard work necessary to get it right.
And there’s a bonus to getting it right… One of the very best things about being a writer is all the interesting stuff you learn when you take a deep dive into something new, and a big part of authenticity in writing involves exactly that—research, interviews, study, and other forms of self-education... up to and including gathering hands-on experience. And in the process your writing becomes more accurate, your characters more three-dimensional, your setting more believable, your plotting more realistic… and you get a bit more educated in the bargain. What’s not to love about that?
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.