Here is Key's dilemma and question:
For example, I started a fantasy book with a society dominated by civilized werewolves and vampires. Here’s where I hit a cultural dilemma. As I was writing, my characters were naturally white, as that is the race that has dominated the genre I have read and seen on television (from Lord of the Rings to Goosebumps to Stephen King). Sometime into it, I realized that this was a little off: if I was truly ‘writing what I know’, wouldn’t all my characters be black since that’s what I’ve grown up around? Wouldn’t I incorporate all of the cultural nuances from the black community, much like Harry Potter taught us about current British culture? Shouldn’t I?Myers says (and this is in an independent blog post unrelated to Key's post)
Maybe I should. But I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want that to define my book. I wanted it to be seen as a good story, and nothing else. Some of us may have ambitions of writing the next Great American Novel. But that means something different than the Great African American Novel or the Great Asian American Novel.
So, where does this lead me?
It seems to me that diversity is a good medium. Some of my characters will be white, some black, etc, etc. The only thing about that is, it’s not really much different than any other successful/popular white author. They virtually all include diversity at some point. The challenge for me is incorporating my minority perspective into my writing without isolating the general public (as that is my desired audience, NOT solely the black community). This could be done by having black main characters, but with a ‘supporting cast’ typical of what the average American is used to. Or having a strong minority character.
In the end, I just want to write good horror stories which scare the crap out of you, whether you’re white, black, or purple. But do I have a greater responsibility than that, as a minority? What are your thoughts?
But there is also a theoretical question, which is the more interesting. If a character in a novel is not described as being fat, is he fat nevertheless? Could he possibly be fat if the novel never says so? Obesity is treated as extraordinary, a distinguishing characteristic, but what if it is not? What if it is as unexceptional, as unworthy of comment, as teeth and nails? Obesity is extraordinary only from a specific point of view, and where it is “central,” then, the novelist is testifying to his ideology.Which echoes an earlier observation made by Key.
One of my group-mates had a critique of the passage, stating that ‘…wasn’t something that helped the white residents sleep at night…’ was a strange thought, assuming the main character himself was white. I found that a little odd, as I didn’t really give any indication that the main character was white. Granted, I hadn’t given much indication that he was black, either (except, maybe, for the very passage you’ve just read). It reminded me that in America we tend to assume that characters are the standard white male or female unless stated otherwise. Even I, an African American, have this automatic view after growing up reading literature by white authors.Myers' answer is
A female character in fiction has undergone an abortion if and only if the abortion is inscribed in the fiction. Perhaps the mere fact of reporting or describing an abortion makes it seem “central” to a critic for whom abortions should not be so; perhaps a prescriptive criticism will emerge that urges novelists to write about abortion (and also obesity, while they’re at it) more nonchalantly. They must write about it at all, though, to write about it with small concern; and the mere inclusion of it—the plain fact that the novelist decided to speak of it instead of remaining silent—will be significant. What is excluded from fiction signifies nothing, because it might as well not exist. Nothing outside the language of a novel is true about the men and women who are sentenced to live within it and nowhere else.Advocates and ideologues everywhere want to read into a text all sorts of things that either explicitly were not in the mind of the author or for which there is no evidence of such intent on the part of the author. They do not want to take Sir Thomas More's counsel, "It will mean what the words say!" More than that, once they have read into a text what they want (or read out of it what they don't want), they then wish to hold the author accountable for their interpretation. A childish perspective but too prevalent.
I think the only answer to Key's question is that he has no obligation to any other party than his own conscience and muse. There is no right way to write, just as there is no gain-saying exactly what ought to be added or removed to make a passage attractive or effective. What is your story and to whom are you telling it? You as a writer: not you as someone else's placeholder for some arbitrary identity - sex, age, orientation, income, religion, class, nationality, race, education, marital status, etc. All of these are pertinent contextual elements, influencers of an individual author's development, but have nothing to do with what they actually choose to say or do.
Homophily (the study of the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others) is a recent field but extremely pertinent in network theory with enormous application (such as NSA surveillance). What is emerging is the commonsense perspective that we all define ourselves differently and the critical attributes of self-identification change over time. At twenty, perhaps my most conscious self-identification is that I am male, or am attending Princeton, or am passionate about archaeology. At forty, perhaps my most conscious self-identification might be that I am Christian or that I am a father, or am a partner at a law firm. I am both the same and different at every stage, much like a river.
If we are all just a churning portfolio of attributes which evolve over time, do we at any given point in time have a particular obligation to profile that attribute? I would say, in response to Key's question, no! No obligation to anyone else, we are answerable only to our own moral conscience regardless of the expectations of others. People always expect more of other people, and regrettably, they usually expect more than they themselves are willing to do.