It all started innocently enough. I offered those familiar words of encouragement to a fellow writer: write what you know. Then came the storm. I was suddenly awash in a wave of angry tweets from other writers who had no qualms about pointing out how wrong I was. What happened?
Unbeknownst to me, I had stepped into the middle of an active thread on Twitter, a very angry one. I had seen a lone tweet from a writer I admired, commented on it, and moved on, unaware of what was really going on. The core of the discussion was this: the writer in question (the author of a very well-known novel about a close-knit band of young men from the wrong side of the tracks) had been asked why none of the characters she created were gay. Her argument was that she based her characters on people she knew in real life as well the real life setting of her youth. Not a lot of openly "out" young men in 1960's Oklahoma, I guess.
The gist of the discussion was how writers needed to grow diversity in their writing, to include characters of all colors, races, religions, and sexualities. I certainly have no argument with that but I personally don't feel that I can write from these perspectives because, in my eyes, I would be doing these communities a disservice by writing from outside my own perspective. I could certainly research and talk to people in the real world in order to gain a broader point of view, but would that be enough? A story on NPR while I was on my way to work addressed just this dilemma: the growing role of the sensitivity reader.
A sensitivity reader is like a beta reader but with a special mission in mind: to look for instances of racial or social negativity, however unintentional, in a piece of writing. For example, a woman wrote a novel about a young black man in college. Drawing from her own experience on college campuses, she wrote her character to be very similar to the white frat boy types she had known during her own years at university. Two women of color who acted as her sensitivity readers were quick to point out that no, no, no - black fraternities were vastly different from the whitewashed world she had portrayed in her novel.
The writer meant no harm, she simply didn't have the personal experience to know any better. By using these beta readers, she was able to learn how to craft her character and his world in a way that made sense to, and was true to, the black community. Pop the term "sensitivity reader" into a search engine and loads of articles, as well as readers for hire, will pop up. Arguments are already being made both for and against this practice. The goal of this type of beta reading is to help the writer avoid unintentionally offending or alienating readers.
Yes, yes, some may say "that's politically correct bullshit!" I prefer to think of it as reflecting the world as it really is, in all it's rainbow colored glory, rather than advancing stereotypes by writing from what you assume rather than from reality. It's less about "don't offend anyone!" and more "write what's real."
That being said, it's important to remain true to the setting of your novel. If you're writing about the antebellum American South, there's going to be certain degree of racism and slang that was considered "normal" back then. How members of the gay community lived in 1950 is a far cry from how they lived in 2000. Write what's real based on the world you are creating, however unpleasant or potentially offensive. Mark Twain certainly would.
Check out these links for more info on the growing role of sensitivity readers in today's publishing market.
The Amusing Take: