Shooting the Messenger

Kenen Malik wrote an interesting article this weekend about politics. And how inherent truths are lost if we pay more attention to the messenger than the message (with regards to the hospital incident with Boris Johnson last week, and the fact that the message of under-resourced hospitals was lost in the face of BJ’s ridiculousness and the political activist label attributed to the father).

And then I turned the pages to read the book reviews in various newspapers, and became rather incensed that reviewers too were more engaged with the messenger of the book than the message. One review of the Zadie Smith collection of short stories admired the contents and her intelligence, but another felt disappointed in it, having higher expectations of Smith. Is it right to view a book through the prism of the identity of the author rather than the new text that has been written? In the book review section for children (and I am thankful there were children’s books reviews), the reviewer also focussed on the authors. One of whom had written her last book for the target readership more than fifteen years ago. Is this relevant? Certainly not for the children, who weren’t even alive at that point.

And it is this obsession with identity with which I struggle. The argument comes into play again with cultural appropriation. How dare a person without a certain background write about it, is often the exclamation. And yet, if there is inherent truth in the message delivered, does it matter who wrote it? We don’t level the accusation at historical novelists – we accept the inherent truth in the landscape they have created if it feels authentic – if they have the facts and details honed.

In the same way that the Reflecting Realities report last week (a survey that looks at the representation of ethnic minorities in children’s literature) mentioned that what’s important is what is portrayed within the text. It looked at the content of what children read rather than the identity of the messenger. In fact, it cleverly pinpointed where the content feels less than truthful – the report spelling out key traits that were an indication of failure, an ‘erasure’ of the minority as the report called it. For example, the lack of specificity in a foreign country thus implying it could be anywhere, the short termism of the ethnic character (meaning they disappear from the text), a disproportionate use of the name Jasmine as the only cue to denote an ‘ethnicity’.

It is probably easier to write a ‘true’ picture of something if it resonates with one’s background. There is a reason they say ‘write what you know’. So maybe there is an argument for saying that those from BAME backgrounds are more able to write those characters. In fact, in some recent books about Jewish refugees from Europe in World War II, I have been quietly disappointed in the lack of depth to their cultural difference – it is mentioned that the character is Jewish, but beyond that there seems little recognition of their deeply held culture – which remains even if the character isn’t practising to any great religious extent. A person of Jewish descent, no matter how secular or assimilated, probably still has remembrance of customs, and smells and language and all sorts of things that I didn’t see portrayed. Perhaps from an author with a Jewish background, the nuance and layering may just have pulsed through. But a thorough author of any cultural or religious background could have written it with integrity if they had finely tuned research, or maybe a consultant on board.

So again, I come back to the fact that most writers can write of ‘another’. Writers don’t all have to write autobiographical fiction. Wally Lamb nailed the experiences and emotions of a young girl in She’s Come Undone, yet he isn’t a girl. Hilary Mantel has honed her portrayal of Tudor England, yet she very much lives and breathes now.

For the average reader, the identity, sexual orientation, gender, race of the author isn’t crucial. (Access to publishing for different minority groups is a whole different matter). What is crucial is what lies in the text. Does it read authentically, does it contain a deeper truth?

Of course, for some, it is precisely the author who holds the key to the book purchase. Who hasn’t, in the past few months, pre-ordered Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments before the reviews, and before the Booker longlisting, simply because of her name? Which adult purchases the latest David Walliams for their child on the book blurb alone? Of course not. We all have favourite authors, and strive to read their books – but should we read them in light of who the person is, in light of our expectations of that author? Are authors expected to have an upward career trajectory – each book better than the last? Or can they just be different? And should they even be compared? Should each text be a standalone affair?

But as a reviewer, there’s a fine balance between getting excited for an established author’s latest book, (because there is a memory that this is an author one has read before and liked and so the style might be similar), and seeing a debut as someone who could be the next big thing, a new discovery. Think how much more excitement and intrigue and surprise there would be if all review books were sent out without authors’ names attached – just a text, on its own, to be judged free from preconceptions. What treasures reviewers might unfurl!