Stay in your lane: the oxymoron of ‘authentic fiction’ (Part II)

Part I of this essay can be found here.

A fiction: authenticity authorises authorship

It is disingenuous and illogical for a journal to claim to ‘uphold the integrity’ of the blind judging process whilst asking authors a ‘not mandatory’ question about identity. If one is judging fiction based upon a story’s quality of imagining, thinking, research and crafting then identity is irrelevant: such qualities should be evident in the work. If a judge or editor cannot evaluate such qualities, then they are not fit for the job. If a journal wishes to judge stories based on their ‘authenticity’, why not just say so? This is entirely the journal’s prerogative, and there are valid reasons to do this. The notion of ‘authentic identity’ is, however, very slippery.

Zadie Smith states that it ‘insults’ her ‘soul’ to think writers ‘can and should’ write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ them. (She says she could never have written her novels labouring under this belief.) She laments how her students believe that fiction ‘can or should be’ the product of an ‘absolute’ form of ‘correctness’. This belief assumes that fiction can be right or wrong when, in reality, fiction can only ever be un/convincing. For readers to judge writers or characters as being in/authentic, Smith argues, they must subscribe to (and thus perpetuate) a reductive ‘fixed caricature’ about different ‘types’ of people. Recognising that fiction has often been a vehicle for ‘appropriation, colonization, delusion, vanity, naiveté, [and] political and moral irresponsibility’, Smith understands why people are increasingly drawn to what they ‘perceive to be’ the ‘safer ground’ of the ‘supposedly unquestionable authenticity of personal experience’. Guy Rundle also notices how a desire for ‘safety’ is perpetuating the rise of authenticity as a cultural value.

Lionel Shriver points out that simply belonging to a larger group ‘is not an identity’, and warns against clinging to identities that have been imposed by others:

…we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves…and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.

Poet and critic Prithvi Varatharajan likewise notes how group identification forces individuals to ‘elide their differences’. He states: ‘To reject essentialism is to reject the premise on which such prejudice operates—to show how deluded it is’. Importantly, he notes Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s observation that an identity’s ‘strategic essentialism’ might allow ‘a group identity’ to be ‘temporarily solidified for political purposes, to protest or seek justice’. This suggests that identity is a fundamentally political—not literary—construct: in other words, the abstract, simplified, group ‘identities’ that serve politics are simply not analogous to the concrete, complex, individual ‘characters’ that populate literature. 

Whilst Varatharajan sees ‘the re-enshrining of authenticity’ as being good because ‘it amplifies suppressed voices’, he warns against automatically imbuing ‘particular bodies with knowingness [simply] by virtue of who they are’. He also describes the claustrophobic experience of having his chosen identity as a writer constrained by his perceived identity as ‘ethnic’. He states:

There is currently significant pressure for ethnic minorities to do auto-ethnography, for their experiences to be articulated for the enlightenment of the majority. Do we exist to perform our minority status over and over, so that, through its articulation, it’s made permanent? …to those who say, ‘educate me about you’, I want to say… ‘I refuse, because I have other things I want to speak about’. I am more than my ethnicity, I say, to which they answer, No you’re not: own your body and speak its experiences.

Kelly Bartholomeusz also baulks at the ‘opportunities’ offered her by institutions who wish to tick off a ‘diversity checklist’. She notes: ‘I’m being asked to perform a character. The more reductive my performance, the higher my odds of success’. By demanding that writers ‘write narrowly about their diversity’, such pseudo-opportunities corner writers into the ludicrous position of being allowed access to mainstream power structures on the condition thatthey remain contained within their minority identity. This is a perfect example of how social activism (affirmative action) can be confounded by a fixation on the ‘wrong object’. As Bartholomeusz concludes: ‘if the objective is to encourage diverse voices, perhaps those in charge should allow writers to choose where they direct their energy’.

Like these writers, I recognise how the notion of ‘authentic authorising identity’ forces writers (and their characters) to be reduced from a diverse multitude of individuals into homogenous ‘representable’ categories that are defined by de-individuating and thus dehumanising singularities. I am female, but I would never claim to ‘know female experience’ or expect a story to ‘represent’ me because its author is also female. I hope my writing will never be evaluated in relation to aspects of my identity that I do not choose, and that others might place a significance upon that I do not. (I loathe being reduced to a ‘woman writer’ writing so-called ‘women’s fiction’.) If a non-female wishes to use fiction to ‘imagine into’ a female body I’d be fascinated to read what they write. Also, there are aspects of my identity that I could reveal, emphasise, exaggerate—or even fabricate—in order to seem an authority on certain communities or experiences; I do not do this, because I do not think that the fixations, fashions and power dynamics of any given zeitgeist should matter more than the inherent qualities of my work.

Smith neatly sums up the impact that a reification of the ‘authenticity of personal experience’ can have on writers: ‘The old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane. I understood the ‘not mandatory’ question, which prompted this essay, to carry exactly this threat: Stay in your lane, or else. Or else what?

Where fiction meets fact: the reader

In all of this worry about authenticity, authority and authorial/appropriated identities, there is one identity that regularly gets forgotten: that of the reader, and it is as a reader that I felt most disturbed when I saw judges asking for help with the ‘agonising’ process of choosing ‘appropriate’ stories.

If the journal has a genuine concern for readers’ ‘safety’ then they are proving Rundle’s chilling observation true: our current cultural milieu increasingly believes ‘safety…is better than freedom’. I’d add that it is ironic and revealing that those who ostensibly fight for such ‘safety’—by censoring writers and texts deemed prejudiced—are themselves clearly driven by prejudice. In other words, the presumption that readers need ‘protection’ from ‘inappropriate’ texts is grossly paternalistic, and suggests a stereotyping belief that an ‘average reader’ is a passive, ignorant, possibly stupid—and definitely uncritical—receptacle into which writers ‘place’ their problematic ideas.

Shouldn’t editors and judges assume that readers are themselves capable of evaluating stories in relation to wider—and urgent—political contexts and cultural sensitivities? Isn’t this act of evaluation—that is, the interrogation of text, self and context—the very reason that we read, and the very reason that reading and writing are such compelling and powerful cultural forces? By what right should anyone deny, constrain or control this reading experience for others? As Smith warns, ‘the identity, sensibilities, and feelings’ of readers can ‘never be entirely known, controlled, or predetermined’. Nor should they be, I’d add, and I agree with Smith when she concludes that it is for the reader to decide if a piece of fiction might be ‘an attempt at compassion or an act of containment’.

I believe that the judges’ anxiety in choosing ‘appropriate’ stories derives much less from a fear for readers than a fear of readers. As Smith points out, reading is no longer a ‘private’ and ‘risky’ experience but a performance enacted before (and thus for) a global audience via social media. Citing Anthony Appiah, Smith notes how, in this performative world, identity is increasingly understood as a form of ‘cultural ownership’ that shares ‘some DNA with the late-capitalist concept of brand integrity’. Social media thus grooms and coerces us—and our institutions—to privilege the development and promotion of identity-as-brand.

Like any other brand, we neither exist nor have power unless we are noticed. But what does it take to get noticed in an ether heaving with billions of others? Your average toddler knows the answer: throw a tantrum. Extreme behaviours, which fuel—and are fuelled by—extreme emotional responses, are exactly what gets noticed, encouraged and rewarded by both our reactive ‘lizard brains’ and the data-making, data-harvesting, profiting-seeking algorithms that are primarily designed to serve the interests of Big Tech.

The competition guidelines’ ‘not mandatory’ question is thus, I think, a strategy by which the journal wishes to pre-emptively defend itself against such performative readings—performances where accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ have already been proven to win individuals the ‘power’ of garnering others’ attention. If it is true that this fear is shaping our literary landscape, then perhaps the real object of our concern should be this: how have we allowed every single aspect of inner and outer human life to be appropriated by the insatiable commodifying machine of capitalism—and what the hell are we going to do about it?

A mandatory question: should we submit to fear?

If publishers want to ‘encourage imaginative and provocative submissions’ (as the competition guidelines claim) then they must avoid overt or covert warnings and directives about what writers may write. If publishers are against cultural appropriation then they must not publish fiction. If publishers wish to judge fiction based on notions of ‘authentic identity’, that’s their choice, but they cannot claim that writing is being blindly judged if they seek any identifying information about authors before selecting work—nor should they pretend that claims of ‘authentic identity’ make fiction non-appropriative. If journals are running scared from the Twitterati, they have a choice: they can submit to that fear, or they can resist it. Fear won’t kill anyone, but it just might kill the rude and risky business of fiction, which depends upon—and cultivates—a free-thinking society.

Facebook and Lionel Shriver, by Simon Cooper

Arena Magazine no. 144, October 2016

On Censorship and freedom in digital capitalism

About the author

H. C. Gildfind

H. C. Gildfind is the author of the short fiction collection The Worry Front (Margaret River Press) and the prize-winning novella Born Sleeping (Miami University Press, 2021). @ltercation

More articles by H. C. Gildfind

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I hope these two essays are widely read. Clarified my thinking. Thanks for the brave voice.

These two essays are critically important. They have helped me think through the relationship between authenticity and the place from which we read and write. I was prompted to think of The Hand that Signed the Paper, the novel by Helen Demidenko (Helen Dale), as a possible counter-case to your argument H.C. G., but on deeper refection it actually supports your point. Dale misrepresented her own biography, falsely claiming Ukranian ancestry. This constitutes fictionalizing one’s own life as a writer. This is an inauthenticity that involves lying. That is very different from writing in a novel about people who do not have one’s own identity. Where is it going to end? Will it mean that female novelists can only have women of their own age in their pieces of fiction. Thanks for your care.

Thanks for reading, and for your thoughts here. I also thought of Demidenko when I was writing this. You’re right, her story is a whole different kettle of fish, yet it still shines a light on questions of authenticity, fact and fiction; the expectations and desires of readers, and also authorial motivation. I wonder how her novel would have landed today?
— HC

Thank you for arguing logically. And for being brave. And for putting forward the view of any numbers of writers, including me. I don’t want to be forever constrained to writing from the perspective of an aging Australian woman. I also dont want to be told what I can and cannot write. What kind of repressive world would that be?
Thank you.

Thanks for reading, Susan Francis. I hope this article challenges people to clarify their *own* values and ideas about reading and writing fiction – including how fiction relates to real-world social injustice. — HC

What a thorough, brilliantly articulated argument. I too have been wrestling with these ideas and am glad to discover I am not alone. I deliberated over submitting a story for the competition you allude to. In the end, I decided not to as answering the ‘not mandatory’ question seemed to disqualify me, as would opting not to answer at all. I hope more voices like yours are heard so that fiction is promoted rather than constrained.

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