Thursday, 16 February 2012

The right to write.

I was talking to a friend this morning about the release of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Sans Foer sparked by this BBC article and she had some very interesting thoughts I wanted to share and explore in a blog post. She said, in short, it was a pointless book: "there are plenty of real victims out there, why fictionalise one?" She found it irritating, said if she was someone who lost someone in 9/11 she would be offended, and asked me how I would feel if someone took a traumatic event in my life and fictionalised it, but never mentioned me.

It's provoked a lot of thought, however I can't go into it. Why? I don't know that I have the right to. I feel that thinking and writing about it would involve speaking about victims, of whom I know nothing about. I am not a New Yorker, I am not American, I didn't lose anybody in that tragedy. Why, therefore, do I get to speak about victims? I know 9/11 affected everyone, I know it changed everything. But one thing in all of this, the most important thing, is who directly suffered. So how can I presume to speak for them? Can I really say, "I think it is offensive to the victims?" or otherwise when I am not a victim?

This made me think about "the right to write". In the past, I kept a blog where I explored a lot of feminist issues that didn't directly affect me. The difference was, I learned the importance (the crucial importance) of educating myself fully. Shutting up, listening to people's experience, and not colouring them with my own theory. When I felt more confident, I would write a little, but I would always say about my lack of full education in the matter. I know the importance too of acknowledging my privilege. For example, if I wrote about trans women, I knew that it must be said I was cis female, white, British, with a middle class education (though I am not myself middle class). Even then, I got it wrong umpteen times (one example was I wrote "transwomen" instead of spacing "trans" and "women"). So, I learned also how to apologise ("I'm sorry you found that offensive" is not an apology). If you're writing about how issues affect people, you need to be educated. And, returning to Extremely Loud for a moment: I'm not saying JSF didn't educate himself - I've moved on from this: I am passing no judgement on this book, film, or it's author.

So what of fiction? What, when fiction resembles reality so closely, do you do? How do you interpret that fiction, is what I'm asking. If someone has written something about a real life event or person, or fictionalises a real issue of which you have no experience, how do you write about it? How do you do a blog post about it? Can you comment on whether or not it was appropriate? Of course we can write about how well it was written, how it moved or failed to move you, but what of the rest? And even if it is well done, even if you were moved by Extremely Loud, how do you feel about judging it? Can you get past nagging thoughts about "cashing in"? Do you think about how the "real victims" felt? And if so, how would you express it if you were me, a white, cis female, British woman with a middle class education and no direct experience?

It makes me wonder if fiction is for everyone. Someone once told me it was, but I disagree. For example, I've said before, The Catcher in the Rye was not written for me. My instinct, when fiction resembles truth so closely, is to shut up and listen. I feel that this book being written does not give me the right to start writing about things I know little about. You could ask where I drew the line? Should I shut up about Jane Eyre as well, if I've never been in love, or indeed, never been a governess? If I say (if I had never been in love) that it is silly and unrealistic, should I just have shut up? Perhaps. But this isn't Jane Eyre. Furthermore, if I was to write about marriage in Tom Jones, Clarissa, and He Knew He Was Right, I would want to write about the portrayal, and would wish to look further into women and marriage in the 18th and 19th Century.

I think this is a bit of an off the cuff blog post, but I would really love your thoughts on this. And I suppose my conclusion is that I feel that just because a book has been written for me to read, it does not give me the right to churn off blog posts on how it affects things, people, or events that I don't fully grasp. On the other hand, perhaps you could say everyone has the right to an interpretation, even an uneducated interpretation. Freedom of speech and all. I just think freedom of speech isn't a carte blanche to trample on people. 

But let me know your thoughts. And let me stress: I am not judging Jonathon Sans Foer or how he educated himself. I don't know anything about him or the process of writing this book.


  1. you know, I wonder. I think sometimes that part of what Virginia Woolf meant to talk about and didn't really get to was that the people who write works of genius at some point sit down and just write them.

    which is a hugely double-edged sword.

    and men are more likely to simply do this than women are. we do question our right to speak or to write. and relatively privileged women within feminism feel this on both sides--we feel not allowed to write by the culture that says women should not speak and we also feel guilty for our relative privilege, we do worry about telling stories not our own.

    but if we don't tell stories not our own, then the stories we tell are limited by our relative privilege, aren't they?

    in this case, I didn't lose anyone on 9/11, but I have lost friends and family I loved. I dated a guy who lost his father on 9/11--does that mean I know better from having been with him than I do from knowing how it feels to watch someone slip away from you?

    I think in making up one fictional story about a tragedy we try to universalize the tragedy--but we also run the risk of, as I think "Extremely Loud" does, making the face of the tragedy the face of the white guy, right?

    I don't know the answers here, really. But I think we can get so caught up in our fears of writing the wrong thing that we don't write at all. We have to consciously do the best we can, and we have to apologize when we fuck up, and we have to create a world where well-intentioned people fuck up sometimes and that's OK.

  2. I've been thinking about this lately, so I'm glad you've written a post on it. A uni lecturer of mine one said that literature is the study of life, and I think to a certain extent he was speaking the truth. Reading literature is a means of understanding human experiences that are not our own.

    I think the same can be said for writing. Creating fiction can be seen as a way to understand, I think it can facilitate empathy for the real-life people who have experienced similar events -- for the author and the reader.

    The writer will almost certainly misinterpret something in the storytelling. But I still think it's important that such attempts are made. It forges human (and sometimes animal) connections.

  3. The Danish standupper Carsten Bang recently used the Utøya tragedy in Norway in his show. It created a lot of stir, especially in Norway - mostly because of a misunderstanding. Bang wasn't making fun of the victims but criticizing the harsh language in the medias and from certain political parties and wondering, whether such rhetorics can potentially cause such tragedies.
    Your post reminded me of this. I think Bang used the Utøya tragedy to make us think about how we say things, what we say to each other and especially about one another.
    I think fiction can teach us a lot of things. I think that Diana is right that fiction is life. As long as you are respectful, you are allowed to write anything.
    Foer wrote a novel about 9-11 - no one thinks that what he wrote is the 'Truth' and he didn't claim so - and of course he's allowed to do that.



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