Who tells your story?
On biography and cultural appropriation.
What I’m working on
Richard North Patterson—the author of 16 New York Times best-selling thrillers—apparently ran into trouble when trying to publish his latest novel, which centers on a young Black man on trial for shooting a white sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop. Told in part from the perspective of Black characters, the book, Patterson writes in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, was rejected by 20 imprints at major publishers as too politically “charged.” Editors told him that they admired the novel but were concerned he (and, correspondingly, they) would be vulnerable to criticism. The belief that “white authors should not attempt to write from the perspective of nonwhite characters or about societal problems that affect minorities,” Patterson concludes, is a “new phenomenon in publishing.”
It seems possible that what happened with Patterson’s novel is more complicated than the way he depicts it. (I haven’t read the book; it will be published next month by Post Hill Press, which describes itself as an “independent press.” A book about “Covid fascism” called Rise of the Fourth Reich is on their current list.) Still, there’s a lot of anxiety these days in all arenas of publishing about whose stories are permitted to be told, and by whom. Patterson’s op-ed was posted in a biography Facebook group I participate in by a writer who wondered about its repercussions for biographers: Is a white biographer allowed to write about a Black writer? A similar question came up recently in a private seminar I attend for women writers of biography and memoir.
Women biographers may be uniquely sensitive to this question, since women’s history, when it has been narrated at all, has been told primarily by men. Women writers who wish to write biographies of female historical figures find themselves stymied by editors who complain that their subjects aren’t “household names”; when women’s stories appear at all, it’s often as footnotes to those of their more famous husbands (as in most presidential biographies). At a conference I attended a few years ago, a well-regarded political biographer spoke poignantly about Hannah Nixon, the former president’s mother. Then he paused and shrugged. “No one will ever write the biography of Nixon’s mother,” he said. Maybe not, although a line from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own came to my mind: “There is the girl behind the counter too—I would as soon have her true history as the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon.”
There are many examples of men thoughtfully telling women’s stories. In The Path to Power, the first volume of his LBJ biography, Robert Caro devotes a long chapter to the conditions for women in the rural Texas Hill Country before Johnson brought electricity to the region: endless, back-breaking days spent lugging many gallons of water to perform household chores, like washing clothes and canning, in sweltering heat, by hand. Caro openly acknowledges, in the notes to his books and in his memoir, Working, that he could not have won the trust of these women without the help of his wife, Ina, who conducted many of the interviews.
Biography is founded on the principle of radical empathy: You attempt to see the world from the perspective of your subject. In addition to reading private papers such as letters and diaries, this can mean immersing yourself in the history and culture of their moment, as I did with Shirley Jackson: reading the books your subject read, listening to their music, cooking their recipes. As I understand it, novelists do much the same thing, albeit with fictional characters. The point is to get inside someone else’s mind, in whatever way you can, to try to understand the forces that affected them and the decisions they made.
Writers who take on subjects deeply dissimilar from themselves—in terms of race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.—risk not knowing what they might be overlooking or misunderstanding in their subjects’ lives. In his op-ed, Patterson assures the reader that he took pains during the course of his research to overcome any blind spots he might have, conducting interviews with dozens of people in situations similar to the one he writes about, many of them Black. But nowhere does he acknowledge that research can’t substitute for lived experience. For this reason, many writers seek professional feedback on areas outside their personal purview. This practice has become known by the somewhat disparaging term “sensitivity read,” but it seems less about sensitivity than correcting failures of either research or imagination. Patterson’s op-ed doesn’t mention whether mainstream publishers suggested he work with a sensitivity reader or if he was willing to do so.
Of course, blind spots can also arise when writers feel a too-easy identification with their subject. If you write about someone with whom you share many characteristics, you may fall into the trap of assuming that they looked at things in the same way you do. I identify with Shirley Jackson as a mother who struggled to find space for herself as a writer; my narrative of her life emphasizes the importance of her motherhood to her creativity. (For this reason, I object to the fictional depiction of Jackson in the movie Shirley, in which she doesn’t have children.) Are there other aspects of her life I downplayed or even overlooked because I didn’t relate to them? Probably.
None of us can be reduced to a singular identity. I’ve thought about this often in the context of Anne Frank’s life regarding the writer Meyer Levin’s conviction that he, and only he, was qualified to adapt her diary into a Broadway play. Levin became literally crazed with rage at the idea that a non-Jewish writer might be called upon to adapt the book. “No stranger can as well express the soul of a people as someone from that people,” he wrote to Otto Frank. Yet it never seems to have occurred to him that, as a middle-aged man, there might have been aspects of Anne’s diary that he wasn’t equipped to understand—her excitement at getting her first period, for instance. His identification with her as a Jew caused him to overlook other forms of difference.
I believe that a diligent, committed writer can overcome the barriers imposed by race or gender difference—or simply historical distance—to write a thoughtful treatment of just about any subject. Look at Stacy Schiff, whose subjects include Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Véra Nabokov, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Adams; or Jonathan Eig, a white writer who has written well-regarded biographies of Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. (out this month). But I also think writers must be honest with themselves about whether they’re willing to put in the necessary work to overcome such differences—and to acknowledge that with certain subjects it might be impossible to fully correct for their blind spots.
They might acknowledge, also, that members of marginalized communities—such as women, people of color, and queer people—have for a very long time suffered the consequences of having their stories told by people outside those communities. Instead of asking, “Is it possible for me to tell this story?”, they might ask instead, “Is it necessary for the world to hear my voice on this subject? Are there others whom I might be in danger of drowning out? Have I done everything I need to do in order to tell this story in the best possible way?”
What I’m watching, reading, etc.
“A Small Light,” which tells the story of Anne Frank from the perspective of Miep Gies, one of the helpers who supported the residents of the Annex, is now streaming. As Bel Powley, who plays Miep, describes it, the show is about “what takes place on the other side of the bookcase.” I haven’t watched it, because—though it’s based on a true story, obviously—it fictionalizes scenes and dialogue, which is too confusing for me as a biographer. But it’s getting great reviews! Liev Schreiber stars as Otto Frank.
I traveled to LA to see this production of The Diary of Anne Frank, staged with LatinX actors. Yes, I have a lot of thoughts! They’ll be in a future newsletter.
Judy Blume named Anne’s Diary as a book everybody should read before the age of 21.
My favorite Shirley Jackson quote (below) was named one of the “top 10 first lines in fiction” by The Guardian. The line immediately draws the reader “into a universe of uncertainty,” novelist Liz Nugent writes.
I’m about halfway through Means of Ascent, the 2nd Caro LBJ book. In the chapter I just read, LBJ harnesses a new tool—the helicopter—to campaign harder than anyone ever has before. His manic, mercurial behavior made me wonder if he had unnamed mental-health issues.
No public appearances this month! Please send good vibes as I race to meet my manuscript deadline, at the end of June.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are considered, by some, to dream.”—Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
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