About Writers

On Leaving the Safety of the Self


We live in a self-regarding – some might say narcissistic – age. The combination of digital cameras, selfie sticks and social media allows us to display as much of ourselves as we want to as many people as care to look at it. So it comes as no surprise that writing too is affected by this trend. As author Rebecca Watson puts it in this article, “Internet ubiquity has bred creativity. It has encouraged us to perform: to use our life material for effect. It’s not a coincidence that the rise of blog posts and Reddit threads has aligned with the rise of autofiction – where the author self-consciously feeds details from their life into the construct of a novel.” The technique was carried to an extreme by Karl Ove Knausgård, who to great acclaim turned the minutiae of his own life into My Struggle, six volumes totalling more than 3500 pages. A similar approach was taken by Ben Lerner, of whom Watson says that he chose to write autofiction “not out of passion for the genre, but out of an aversion to the ‘great American novel’, where the highest goal is to achieve a state of universality through a supposedly omniscient voice that believes it encompasses all experience. Lerner’s form is born of kindness. It admits that he, as a white man, can only write what he knows, that he cannot presume to know what he has not lived.”

Fair enough. But how can we not agree with Philip Roth: “Fiction is a way of asking… what if I was different than I am?” It’s a way of exploring other possibilities, other people; infusing them, I dare say, with traits and foibles and fantasies of our own, but freeing ourselves from the confines of the narrow world we inhabit. As Zadie Smith – who incidentally is a great admirer of Knausgård – puts it “what insults my soul, is the idea… that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally.” At the risk of laying myself open to the charge of cultural appropriation, I can, if I want, write about a sweatshop labourer in Bangladesh or a Chinese multi-millionaire. Or as Jeanine Cummins did, arousing much controversy in the process, about a family of Mexican migrants.

So what stops me? Actually, as I grow older – and bolder – less and less. In fact the Chinese millionaire is a central character in Mystery Manor – I had great fun writing about his childhood in Guizhou province, where I’ve never been (though I spent many hours researching it).

We’ve touched on this topic before, notably in the comments to a recent piece by George Salis, Falling in the Name of Research. What interests me here is how far your own boldness goes. Assuming what you write is intended to be plausible (i.e. not fantasy, magic realism, paranormal etc), how willing are you to risk the leap into another person’s culture and experience? How far have you gone already, and do you too find yourself getting bolder? Is it simply a matter of self-confidence? My own conviction is that if you do enough research, you can go anywhere. But I’d have to think a lot before deciding that the character I need is worth that amount of research – and perhaps, after all, there are cases where no amount of research can be enough.