Empathy is needed to write about someone else’s fate and life

In this week’s Author Cave video I talked at length about how I find it problematic when minority authors demand an exclusivity of sorts to write fiction about themselves. I react instinctively against that sort of arguments. Maybe it is because I am a liberal (the European definition) and not a socialist. I think that at the core, we, as humans, all share so much more than that which divides us. But I also believe that the differences we have are individual, and must be explained as such, not because of what group we belong to (which is normally what socialists refer to when explaining the world).

Today, I feel compelled to also write about this, because of something I’ve read in a blog post the other day:



It is particularly the first point that had me stupefied. What is the difference between a book about people of color written by John Ashcroft or a book written by John Adams? See, you don’t even know which of the authors is of color and who isn’t. They don’t exist. I’m trying to make a point.

The problem isn’t the writer’s own ethnicity. It is their ability for empathy. Empathy to understand the plight of the people (or person) they write about. A good author should be capable of writing about ANY human being, no matter who they are. However, in order to do so, they’ll need to do research and get to know who they are writing about. I could make countless examples of great novels written by white authors about people of color, but I will not, simply because I’m sure there’s an equal amount of examples of bad novels. Am I then contradicting myself? No! Here’s why.

More books doesn’t necessarily equal more diversity

There are, increasingly, a lot of bad books out there. The ongoing development in the publishing industry, the rise of self-publishing, decreasing prices on books etc. all lead to fewer publishers / agents who vet manuscripts, less money invested in editing and proof reading and more and more manuscripts being uploaded straight from the author to Amazon et al. Anyone can write anything. Overall, this is a development we should celebrate, because it democratizes writing as a form of artistic expression. However, it also, inevitably leads to people searching their luck in writing, not to express themselves or an idea, but to simply make money. I recently wrote about one such author. And from a freedom of speech and enterprise point of view, even that is acceptable. It was the catphishing I was opposed to.

For the rest of this post, let us therefore disregard “bad” authors and ask ourselves: should great authors only be allowed to write about their own little group? My answer is still a forceful no. For two reasons mainly:

  • It is divisive. How can we ever hope to learn about the plight and lives of others if all we do is look within ourselves?
  • It is limiting. Because the consequence of majorities not being allowed to write about minorities will automatically lead to minorities not being allowed to write about the majority either. This is problematic not only from a philosophical point of view, but also economically.
  • As I’ve written before, the identity of the author should be irrelevant to the story. A great book lives on its own merits.

Allow me to explain. As a liberal, I truly feel and believe that if we use our empathic abilities more, to get to know each other, to better understand each other, thus tearing down the walls that stand between any dichotomy out there: white – non-white, gay – straight, young – old etc. But it’s worse than that. And I’ll use the romance genre as an example. The het romance genre is huge. Those novels are sold everywhere, even at our tiny grocery stores here on our island. They are translated to many languages, including Swedish, only spoken by some eleven million people. Many authors make money on the back end of that huge market. By comparison, the M/M market (i.e. gay romance) is tiny. Hence fewer authors. If gay authors were only allowed to write M/M romance novels, but not het, they’d be excluded from the potential opportunities of writing to a much larger market. The only people gaining from such a “rule” would be the het majority.

What’s the solution?

I believe the best way to move forward is not to exclude certain groups from writing about certain topics, or even to “prefer” one’s own to write about a certain topic, but to encourage more minority members to write in the first place. I am not naïve. I do understand that racism, misogyny, trans- & homophobia etc make it difficult for minority writers to be published by the large publishers who are largely in the hands of cis-white men. I also understand that minority members enjoy fewer opportunities to study and that fewer have the opportunity to set aside time for the arts. However, just because we can’t easily walk to the moon doesn’t mean we can’t get there at all. In my corner of the world (North America & Europe), the white man is the dominant part of society for now. That will only change gradually. One of the reasons why I write gay fiction is because I feel that I want to be a part of that diversity, adding more books for my “own kind”, but I also write about people who are not cis, not gay, not white, people who are disabled etc. Writing diversity, to me, is about empathy, not ethnic & group membership.

I do understand the call for books “written by my own”. It is a desperate cry after having read miserably written books by people who clearly have no clue what they do. They have no empathy, they completely lack the skill (or interest) to do research and get things right. However, I am convinced that if books were published without the name of the author on the cover (which is tested successfully in many HR departments when recruiting people, to give diverse people a shot), we would focus on that which is relevant: how the book is written, rather than who wrote it. We’d easily be able to sort good books from bad books without applying this sort of “reverse racism”, misogyny, trans- or homophobia, where white people can’t write fiction about people of color, women couldn’t write about men, and trans people couldn’t write cis fiction. I’d not want to live in such a world.

What is your take? Let’s have it… This is an important topic!

Have a good weekend.

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PS: A first version of this post was headlined with two important words in the wrong order. While explained as a factor of English not being my first language, that is no excuse and I sincerely apologize for hurting anyone’s feelings. It was certainly not my intention.

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