Ask yourself three things you must always ask yourself before you say anything: 1) Does this need to be said; 2) Does this need to be said by me; 3) Does this need to be said by me now.
— Craig Ferguson
It’s a tight-wire act to balance authenticity with passion. On the one hand, the further you write from your own experience, the further you get from authenticity. On the other hand, does a lack of authenticity mean something is bad? Not necessarily. The opposite is true too: just because something is authentic doesn’t mean it’s good. And writing about yourself all the time gets tiresome. I don’t think authors should be limited to writing about just themselves or people exactly like themselves. But the truth is, authenticity brings depth to narratives.
Authenticity comes down to experience. You can replicate it through empathy and research, and the judicious deployment of sensitivity readers, but you can only ever approximate it without having lived it first. It’s a lottery of life factors.
This brings up gatekeeping, and who can decide what’s worthy of being called art or not. My policy is write what you want, but be prepared to stand by it. There is certainly a different dynamic to writing a narrative about what you, yourself, have experienced, rather than having to guess what such an experience would be like. Writing from lived experience doesn’t remove the need for sensitivity readers, because no experience is universal. And having sensitivity readers will not protect from bad decisions if they are ignored (nor can you reasonably expect sensitivity readers to find everything). But it is a person’s right to write about their lived experience without censure. And it is the obligation of those who write outside of their experience to write with care. To write respectfully from a marginalized perspective requires a tremendous amount of consideration, research, and revision. To do anything less would be an act of exploitation—of treating identities as costumes.
Which, of course, brings me to the topic of M/M romance and people writing M/M without being male, or gay. Certainly there seems to be fewer people with masculine identities than one would like if expecting authenticity. This is a known criticism of the M/M romance community and the subject of charged debate, often complete with link round-ups and timeline analysis. Our community has a pretty bad track record when it comes to facing the very legitimate criticisms leveled at it. Like an oceanliner, we turn around slowly. But it’s also undeniable that our community is home to a large percentage of queer creators writing romances that are also queer, in one aspect or another. And—even more exciting—our community as a whole has become increasingly open to narratives that aren’t (cis, white) M/M.
I, myself, am not male; however, I do identify as queer (in both gender and sexuality). But, if a gay man tells me that my writing about his experience is inaccurate in some way I must both acknowledge that he is correct that it is not authentic to his experience and realize that I have no right to say otherwise. On the other hand, I do have the right to say this is my story and parts of it are authentic to me. But then I have to do better. I owe it to the community to do better because I am writing outside of my identity. I have an obligation to my readers, and even to myself, to realize when I am wrong and to do better. Because I am better than my mistakes. That’s the key: take criticism with grace and the nerve to own up to your mistakes without letting the mistakes break you down. Without crying foul or playing the victim.
Writers from outside a community who choose to create characters and storylines speaking directly to and about that community need to understand what they are doing. They are adding to public perception of marginalized people, and their depiction has weight. They are also sharing space with creators from that community—and perhaps occupying space that would be better filled by one of them. Writers have egos; fragile ones, sometimes, it’s true. It can be very difficult to face the fact that your critics might have a point, and that authorial intent is not a defence against inauthenticity. Do the work. Respect the community. Listen to those who have lived through what you are only imagining. Learn. Be better.
edited by Vee Orpal