The Art Versus the Artist: On Authenticity in Creative Writing

November 28, 2018 § 10 Comments

zoeBy 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 or on Twitter @zoebossiere

§ 10 Responses to The Art Versus the Artist: On Authenticity in Creative Writing

  • fritzdenis says:

    One of my favorite books is Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler. The first person narrator is a young man. The writer related in interviews that she had trouble getting a fix on “Barnaby” when she started the novel, and that discovering who he was became one of the driving forces of her creative process. Is her process wrong? Should she have chosen instead a character based on her direct experience?

    Does the book lose validity because Anne Tyler is not a young man? Would her experience in dealing with young men have no value in creating a male character as the author has never been a man and is no longer young? Should Barnaby have been described instead by the women characters in the book? One was a socialite from a blue collar background. One was a rich girl. One was a blue collar worker. One was a banker. Two were women in their late seventies. How many of these characters would have been valid for Ms. Tyler to use? Do we have to read a biography of the writer to check her age, social standing and work experience, and then cross off characters that don’t match her resume’?

    • Laura Miller says:

      Thank you for this astute response. You’ve voiced my own fears that our literary world is sliding into rigidity.

    • Sue says:

      The problem with seeing everything as appropriation is that at a time when people’s imaginations are more and more stifled, this viewpoint enforces the idea that we are completely unable to empathise, to see from another person’s perspective, because our individual identities make us separate species, just about.

      The idea that our identities and cultures are so rigid and for-all-time fixed that we are our own little islands, sharing nothing in common with the rest of humanity, is a narrow-minded idea that I hope writers resist.

      Humanity shares far more in common than some people think. A people who are as divided and conquered and isolated and alienated as we all are need to be reminded of this. Art is one awesome way of doing itt. There are sensitive ways of portraying other characters.

  • aklotz2014 says:

    Thank you for this–years ago, I was teaching a memoir called The Education of Little Tree, and it was revealed that the author was not, in fact, who he claimed to be writing about his own childhood on a reservation, but rather a white supremacist–the conversations with our students were remarkable–we do crave authenticity and, as you say so well, finally there are venues that value that authenticity.

  • Thank you, Zoë. There are several issues here for all writers.

    Writing fiction limited only to writing one’s own identity means, for affluent white male authors, that the story is limited to affluent white male characters. There was a time during my lifetime when most stories were written by and about affluent white men. Other than Anne Frank, I was never assigned a book in school not written by a man and focussing on men. More recently, most of the stories I was urged to read during my MFA program were written by affluent white men about their own experiences. Needless to say, it was annoying.

    On my own, I searched for stories from other perspectives. I reread Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, and Tillie Olsen who each wrote and write well beyond personal experience. Sandra Cisneros, for example, writes about a poverty she did not experience with admirable authenticity. Others have not done so well, and some miss the mark entirely.

    Li Bai writes as she. What to say about translations by Lowell?

    Even writing memoir, authenticity is at the mercy of perspective. I distrust the male view of Alexie when he complains about his mother and the affluent white perspective of an adult Vance writing about his “hillbilly” childhood. A few years ago I read a mother’s memoir that was completely lacking in objectivity. The author did not lie about her experiences and pain, but utterly failed to take any responsibility for her part in the events of her life. These are “true” stories but biased and self-righteous. I recognize this as a mother, as a teacher, as a writer, and as a human reader because I examine the truth of narrative based on broad experience.

    In the mean time, we must honor authentic experiences in all writing—memoir, fiction, and poetry—from those who expand their view (and ours) beyond the mere self. We can also strive to write from a broader perspective than our immediate self. We can examine our stories, whether memoir or fiction or poetry, from outside our selfish selves.

    It is not easy, but it never is.

  • Relax... says:

    I don’t think we ought to fix what ain’t broke! We don’t need story police, we’re not cupcakes, and Wee should not have apologized unless his intent was malicious. As best I can tell, it certainly wasn’t.

  • Colleen L Roberts says:

    Thank you, Zoe, for this thoughtful piece. I am a writer of color, female, and over 50 years old just beginning to find the power in nonfiction writing. I write mostly fiction, but I am awakening to other types of writing. I have time on my hands these days because I am not working outside my home. I am committed to my writing life full time. I’ve been writing stories since I was six years old. I believe stories have the power to transform, whether they are fiction or poetry or creative nonfiction or essays.

  • […] “To preface, historically, writers—and especially white writers—of fiction and poetry have… […]

  • kathybjones says:

    Quoting: “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.”

    I must respectfully disagree on two counts: First, I don’t think an analogy can be drawn between the requirement that memoir writers be truthful in depicting their stories as authentic personal narratives, instead of making things up a la Frey and the demand for authenticity from fiction writers or poets requiring them to limit their representations to what their own identities or backgrounds give them immediate access to. How does that demand address what a writer like Colson Whitehead created in The Underground Railroad, a novel written about the experience of slavery by someone who, althogh African-American, could not have had that experience directly, and who also portrayed white characters as well as black in it.

    Second, I think we are all outsiders, even to our own experiences and communities, as narrators. We adopt a persona, the narrator, whenever we describe an experience, even our own, whether in fiction or nonfiction; the description is already a step removed from what happened; it is an observation of what happened, always perspectival and partial, even if it happened to me. I think this distancing is essential to the writer’s craft. We faithfully replicate when we achieve enough distance from the immediacy of experience, in the furnace of developing voice and syntax, to represent it, as accurately as possible.

    What a writer has to gain from representing an experience not her own is empathy, understanding, and connection, attributes i think we need more than ever in the increasingly tribalized world in which we live.

    • “What a writer has to gain from representing an experience not her own is empathy, understanding, and connection, attributes i think we need more than ever in the increasingly tribalized world in which we live.”

      If I were only able to depict what I know without reaching from personal experience, I would be writing only about 66 year old white women—and without stretching, I might still get things wrong.

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