My day got off to a bad start. I overslept and felt burnt out and struggled to get going. I just missed my train, then got on the wrong train (going on the wrong branch of the Northern Line), but didn’t realise until two stops after the lines diverged. Then I got lost in Euston Station trying to find the right branch and get to work. I was fifteen minutes late for work in the end, although fortunately J didn’t object (or say I was an idiot when I told him why I was late). Then I made a mistake writing a receipt.

At this stage I was ready to label today as a Bad Day, but I remembered something I heard a few days ago from Kayla Levin on the Normal Frum Women podcast (which I listen to sometimes despite not being a woman and possibly not being normal) about being wary of creating narratives that have no objective measure. In this case, I can’t objectively see a “Bad Day,” it’s just a label I put on a series of events that I could understand and narrate differently.

So I tried to see it just as an ordinary day with some bad things, and I think I did OK with that. It wasn’t a great day, it was a dull and boring day at work followed by a Doctor Who episode I’ve never liked (New Earth) and distractingly noisy neighbours when I Skyped E in the evening, but not necessarily a universally Bad Day. And I enjoyed Skyping E.

***

On my blog and other people’s blogs, I shy away from controversy, particularly politics. I keep quiet rather than voice opinions that I feel others may disagree with. Yet, when I think about the type of fiction I want to write, I think I’m increasingly drawn to things that might arouse controversy and even “cancellation.” I can’t work out if I’m actually a secret controversy-hound, or if everything nowadays is politicised and there are no “neutral” subjects any more. I guess I want to write about things that interest me, things that make me feel emotional (positive or negative emotions), and to deal with topics where I’m trying to work towards some kind of understanding of a complex situation. Often those things lead to things that are controversial.

Then this evening I read an article about diversity readers (people who read a manuscript to critique its portrayal of some kind of minority identity). I had already heard about this, but I can’t make up my mind if they’re positive or not. I can see the advantage of weeding out egregious errors and pointing out if someone has written something grossly offensive, but I worry about a drift towards banning writers from imagining what it’s like to be someone else, someone very different, which I think is an important part of being a writer, not to mention a reader of fiction. As Lionel Shriver said, this will end in the banning of all writing that isn’t autobiography, because we can never really know what other people think.

Looking at my own writing about a high-functioning autistic character, an autistic diversity reader might see my novel as not reflecting their experience… but it’s based on my unique experience of autism, mixed in with artistic licence and plot necessity. I haven’t captured all of my experiences, partly because I’m not a perfect writer, partly because it’s impossible to capture a complex life in 80,000 words. I’m sure my other characters are open to criticism from an identity politics point of view, and up to a point I would work with criticism, but beyond a certain point it’s my novel, my characters and my plot, not the diversity reader’s.

Just to show how difficult it is to present an “authorised” version of someone’s identity, when the film of Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience came out, set in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in the UK, a lot of online American Jewish commenters complained that the characters were constantly wishing mourners a “long life.” “Jews don’t do that,” they said. Except that wishing mourners a long life is a very established custom across the Anglo-Jewish community, from the frum (religious) to the very non-religious. It just wasn’t a Jewish custom they were aware of, because they were so focused on Judaism in America and maybe Israel representing the Jewish experience everywhere. An American Jewish diversity reader might have criticised Alderman for writing something that was true to her experience of Jewish life in the UK. I think this shows how difficult it is to judge whether a depiction of an individual or community is “acceptable.”

16 thoughts on “(Not) Bad Day

  1. I can see diversity readers being helpful if they were to focus on picking up over-reliance on stereotypes. Presumably someone from a disadvantaged minority community would be more aware of the diversity of individual experiences within that community than someone from outside, who’s likely to see the community as more homogeneous than it actually is.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I forgot where I read this, but you can definitely break up your day into four chunks, morning, noon, evening, night. Just because one section of the day turns out bad doesn’t mean the next section can’t be good. Helps me live in compartmentalised moments. Anyway, thanks for this post!

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  3. I think about the diversity thing a lot. Mostly, I avoid characters that aren’t generic white people because I’m afraid of screwing up. A while back I had a fantasy series on my blog about “island” people in the South Pacific and I grew pretty uncomfortable with it (it’s deleted now). In my novel Switching Positions, I wrote about different people, but that was a spoof. As far as being mentally different, that is fair game, in my opinion. Since people present differently with autism, narcissism, OCD, anorexia, schizophrenia, etc., each perspective is valid…

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  4. Write what you write. You can always edit, you can work with beta readers who come from diverse backgrounds to help you fix what went wrong. What you want to avoid doing is getting so stuck in the desire for perfection in your writing that you never get past the first page. If something exists, you can try to fix it. If it doesn’t exist, you can’t. And there’s no getting around that. So just write.

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  5. I appreciate the intent of diversity readers, and I do think that generally, it’s important to solicit feedback from a variety of readers who can give constructive feedback. But I worry about what this trend means for the future of fiction. Fiction should be different from autobiography and memoir.

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