The Art Versus the Artist: On Authenticity in Creative Writing
November 28, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
Amid the Twitter controversies in the writing world this past summer about grifters like Anna March and serial harassers like Junot Diaz, you’ve no doubt heard the buzz about Anders Carlson-Wee and his now-infamous poem, originally published in The Nation in July of 2018. Carlson-Wee, a white man, wrote “How-To” from a black dialectic persona, instructing the reader how to survive on the streets as a homeless person. The backlash online was quick and incisive. Within three weeks, both Carlson-Wee and The Nation had publicly apologized for “the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem.”
For many, the Carlson-Wee poem was but a blip on the radar of an already scandal-packed few months. But the phenomenon is worth examining further, especially considering how, even just ten short years ago, “How-To” would not have incited nearly as fierce an outcry as it did this past July. This is in part because the use of social media as a platform for activism has grown (there are more of us, and together we’re louder than ever), but the response to this poem is also indicative of a broader trend I’ve observed in the literary world as of late.
To preface, historically, writers—and especially white writers—of fiction and poetry have appropriated other cultures, classes, and perspectives in their own writing without much thought to the ethics of this practice. And for a long time, they were highly successful in doing so. Many of these works were (and still are) hailed as masterpieces, taught in high school curricula around the world. The place of these works in western literary canon has never been called into question before.
Now, however, poetry like Carlson-Wee’s offers us an opportunity to discuss how we as readers should evaluate a piece of writing, with consideration for how the writer’s identity affects the authenticity of their work. In the literary world, as in other spheres, the conflation of the art and the artist is beginning to hold some real currency in the question of which work gets published and by whom. Agents and publishers are more interested than ever before in the identities and backgrounds of the writers they choose to represent. The gap between an artist and the art they create is beginning to close; readers are less and less willing to suspend their disbelief for a black persona poem written by a white person, or a novel with a female protagonist written through the male gaze.
The most common argument I’ve heard against this trend is that if a story or a poem is well-written, it shouldn’t matter who the author is. Writing sages like Madison Smartt Bell and Francine Prose have both critiqued this change within the last year in their essays “Policing the Imagination” and “The Problem with ‘Problematic,’” respectively, lamenting what they might call an unjust limitation of writerly creativity. They, and others, insist “good” art can (and should) be considered separately from the artist who created it. That otherwise, we risk stifling the imagination and, thus, the productivity of our favorite (mostly white) writers.
But, I wonder: at its core, is the idea that art and artist are intrinsically connected so very different from the expectation that a writer’s experiences in memoir be rendered truthfully, or that a journalist’s facts in an article be checked? Isn’t this expectation why readers (and especially Oprah) felt so betrayed when we learned James Frey had fabricated most of his wildly successful memoir, A Million Little Pieces? And also why readers demanded an explanation when The Nation chose to print “How-To” without checking Carlson-Wee’s privilege? The art was “good,” yes—but it wasn’t true.
And as readers, we crave authenticity. Learning a piece we love wasn’t written by the person we thought not only spoils the enjoyment of the art, but also forces us to ask questions about what a writer has to gain in attempting to capture an experience that isn’t their own, as well as what other, less privileged, writers may have to lose.
That’s why, as readers, we have a responsibility to understand there are experiences that a writer observing another community cannot—by virtue of being an outsider—faithfully replicate or accurately represent in their work. We must recognize that in attempting to do so, more privileged writers risk depriving marginalized writers, who are more qualified to depict their own experiences, the opportunity to publish their work.
The stakes are high, but there is some good news, too. As a community, writers are beginning to prioritize the voices of actual women, people of color, and queer-identifying folx over those simply writing as them. I’ve never seen so many literary magazines sending out calls for submission specifically seeking underrepresented voices, or such a diverse range of memoirs and essay collections currently on (or soon slated to hit) the market.
Of course, this awakening has been coming for the last several years, and not just in the literary world. Whether it be a work of comedy, film, fine art, music, or literature, modern consumers value authentic experiences in art, now more than ever before. The uptick in memoir and general nonfiction sales reflect this trend. As does the #MeToo push for work by women breaking the silence of harassment and abuse, such as former Brevity managing editor Kelly Sundberg’s memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl, and the success garnered by queer comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette Netflix special.
And while I understand this change may give some poets and fiction writers pause, all this makes now an exceptionally exciting time for nonfiction as a genre. Because a world that demands authenticity—where artists are required to draw from their own bodies of research and experience—is a world that reflects what we essayists have suspected all along: that nonfiction is not only inclusive of all art, but that all art is, on some level, a work of nonfiction.
** The above has been adapted from a paper I submitted for the NonfictioNow húslestur discussion on “Writing for Social Change” in November of 2018. The húslestur, an Icelandic “family custom of gathering at night to read aloud and discuss ideas,” is a themed roundtable-style discussion on the nonfiction issues of our time.
Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and the Managing Editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com or on Twitter @zoebossiere