We’re reading The Help by Katherine Stockett in my book group next month and as I’m moderating the discussion I thought I’d better start on some background research. Everyone I know who read The Help has loved it but there’s also a fair amount of online criticism about Stockett, who is white, writing in the voices of black women. Quite apart from the claims that the book is racist per se, many people seem to think that as she is white and middle class she cannot possibly enter into the reality of the existences of black, working class women and should not have tried.
Should you then level the same criticism at William Boyd for writing in the first person as a woman in The Blue Afternoon and Restless? In my opinion it’s probably even more difficult to get under the skin of someone of the opposite sex than someone of a different colour and Boyd does it very well. (I’ve read some truly horrid examples from less skilled authors though.) William Boyd is a very good writer but of course he can’t really “know” what it is like to be a woman, any more than CJ Samson knows what it’s like to be a hunchback lawyer in the reign of Henry VIII, or Donna Leon a Venetian police officer (different nationality and different sex there) and Anne McCaffrey can only guess at the reality of being a brain powering a spaceship. But then I wrote a novel where my heroine had worked in the City and then went to work for a country estate agent, which is way removed from anything I’d ever done. So, in a far smaller way I’ve used my imagination to create part of my fictional world in exactly the same way those other, better, authors have.
One of the first rules in any How-To-Write book after ‘show, don’t tell’ is ‘write about what you know’. Like all rules this one is subject to interpretation. Or being ignored completely. Some authors stick almost entirely to what they literally know, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Jane Austen is supposed never to have written a scene where there wasn’t a woman present, if she’s describing men together it will be done in reported speech not directly and Nancy Mitford didn’t only write about her own world, she used the people she knew as the basis for nearly all her characters (my cousin knew the man who was the model for Davy, the health food fanatic in The Pursuit of Love and said it was a direct likeness, right down to him helping himself to all the salad at lunch). Others are prepared to push the boundaries right away from their own experience, science fiction and fantasy are obvious examples, but I suspect that even the most imaginative authors have to include some of what they know to make their books come alive.
Diana Wynne Jones, who has to be one of the most inventive fantasy authors for children (and appreciative adults) of the last fifty years peopled many of her books with splendidly unpleasant and neglectful parents, anyone who has read her biographical details on her website will know where she got the inspiration for them from. William Boyd’s women are articulate and middle class (like him I should think), Katherine Stockett was brought up by a black maid so she would have been familiar with women like her Abilene and Minny, and Donna Leon lives in Venice which is almost as big a character in her books as her detective Guido Brunetti.
I have to admit that I stick fairly closely to what I know, all my main protagonists are women, they all read a lot, like animals, none of them has ever been the most popular girl in the school or good at sport though as I fantasise about being able to dance once of these days I might have a heroine who does a mean tango. One thing though, my main characters are never short. I’m tall myself and I’ve got no idea what it’s really like day after day not to be able to reach the top shelf or look at people’s collarbones rather than their eyes. I remember reading a book where the heroine who was 5’10”, my height, “towered” over everyone else in the room. I presume the author must have been pretty small because in general I certainly don’t tower over roomfuls, though perhaps my friend Mary who is five foot nothing might think so.