Our world, more than at any other time in history, is made up of stories. Snapchat feeds capture your entire day, Instagram users meticulously organize their pages and stories, and detailed Twitter feeds tell what happened during the morning commute. We are storytellers, narrators, transmitters of tales – sometimes those of others but especially our own. We were assured that we all have a story and what we need is courage and space to tell it. But today, it is no longer enough to have an experience, or even to share it. People feel compelled to claim stories, plant a flag and proclaim, “This is mine.” Instinctively, some people value their own experience over any other; that their story is always the “authentic” one.
When this story is rooted in trauma, a whole host of ethical implications suddenly come into play. How do we tell the story of such experiences? Why should we? How much does it desensitize the audience to future stories? And perhaps the more relevant question, at least in this era of authenticity, is: who can tell?
Enter My Dark Vanessa. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut, for which she reportedly received a seven-figure advance, is one of the highest-profile books of 2020. (These two points are not unrelated.) The novel opens in 2017 when, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Vanessa learns that her former English teacher—whom she had a relationship with in high school—has been accused of sexual assault by a former student. The allegations cause her to reevaluate her own past with him.
At the start of the year (and in the wake of another controversy regarding a high-profile book with a lot behind it), Latinx author Wendy C Ortiz wrote that the premise and marketing of My Dark Vanessa was “strangely” similar to her 2014 memoir Excavation, about her teenage sexual experiences with an English teacher. The Twitter mob shifted into high gear, bringing charges of plagiarism against Russell and accusing him of being another white author co-opting and profiting from the experiences of marginalized communities. In a month of January testOrtiz shared that Russell told her she read Excavation – alongside other material (naturally) over the 20 years she spent writing My Dark Vanessa.
Although Ortiz is careful not to use the P-word, she questions Russell’s rationale by writing a novel about sexual abuse and “exploring books that deal with the subject” in order to write it. His use of the words “fictionalize” and “sensationalize” are noteworthy because they seem to imply, in the case of the former, that a white woman cannot experience this type of trauma, and in the case of the latter, that a novel is not an appropriate way to relate such an experience. When people started demanding that Russell prove that she had had the experience her novel depicts (one shudders to think what such evidence might consist of), Russell revealed that My Dark Vanessa is based on experiences she had as a teenager. “I don’t believe we should be forcing victims to share details of their personal trauma with the public,” she wrote in a short statementsharing his fear that “opening up more about my past invites an investigation that could be traumatic again”.
Here we come to the heart of the matter. It’s bad enough that people now feel comfortable telling novelists what they can and can’t write about, but this controversy highlights something more troubling – the notion that you have to have lived trauma to write about it, and that there is only one way to tell it, and that is through an autobiographical medium. Is it inconceivable that a person could choose to articulate their experience behind the veneer of safety offered by fiction?
Whether it is to get away from a traumatic memory or to avoid the reactions of loved ones (writers may have friends and family to whom they do not wish to reveal such experiences), fiction offers a space to explore and work on sensitive and complex subjects. Do we really want to put ourselves in a position to dictate How? ‘Or’ What someone should write about such experiences?
Aspiring novelists are often given the oft-misunderstood directive to “write what you know”, and there is a long history of early women’s novels being considered thinly veiled autobiography; my own first, which deals with the unacknowledged trauma of a young woman, was treated in the same way. That a fiction writer was able to experience the trauma told by his novel has long been assumed by the public, critics and academics, but this requirement that a novelist to prove such a thing seems new and more than a little alarming.
Whether or not Ortiz thinks Russell’s note about her own experiences is, as she admits reading Excavation, “a bit too late,” when she says she has no interest in a fictionalized account of something she lived, I understand her grievance. It refers to the appropriation of an experience and touches the heart of the ethics of traumatic representation. When you’ve survived something monstrous, others’ attempts to create art from it can feel offensive, as if it diminishes the uniqueness of your experience – especially if you feel your own story has been overlooked. .
Another dimension to that is that we read novels and watch movies and watch art because we derive some pleasure from it. When this pleasure is built on someone’s very real pain, it produces a deeply uncomfortable tension. The question, however, is where to draw the line? Can we only write about war if we have experienced it? What about cancer? Addiction? Mental Health? Domestic violence? Do you have to produce evidence of your own personal experience with such trauma in order to fictionalize it?
The past two years have seen a necessary call for #OwnVoices in the writing community, a desire to amplify the voices of marginalized authors. However, this got confused with an #OwnStories argument, which is not the same thing and not necessarily the role of fiction. We have life writing for that, and we can’t afford to standardize the font of novelists.
There is a larger issue that cannot be separated from these controversies, an Ortiz emphasizes in his essay: the ramifications of a predominantly white publishing industry: 89% of workers in the UK and 76% in publishing in the US identify as white. There are many implications to this, one of which is that the industry is geared towards white readers. When publishers told Ortiz that it would be too difficult to market Excavation to a broad readership, she was correct in understanding that meant a “blank.” The market being thus oriented, publishers ask themselves two questions: what does the reader expect from a book by a Latin or Arab or black (or other) writer and does this book meet this expectation? If the answer to the second question is ‘no’, the publisher is unlikely to take the risk – let alone shell out a seven-figure advance and deploy the machine to make it. Instead of asking why anyone would write a novel about sexual abuse, a better question is, why does the industry think it can’t sell a Latinx writer’s memoir on this issue? What do they think readers expect from such a memoir, and why aren’t they willing to question those assumptions?
A more diverse industry would mean a copy editor could point out that the Spanish in the text isn’t quite appropriate for where the story is set. That would mean a cover designer who wouldn’t be immediately drawn to the more stereotypical designs. This would mean an editor or publicist who is embedded in marginalized cultural and artistic outlets. A more inclusive field would mean more diverse books aimed at a more nuanced and diverse audience. That would mean publishers would be willing to put their weight behind riskier books. Until the industry begins to view diversity as more than just a check mark exercise, we’re destined to see more controversy over who writes what and how.