Read Stories In Which You Don’t See Yourself
There’s more value in stories about people who aren’t like you
I recently read a report that there will be an openly gay character in a Star Wars movie, which got me clicking over to an incident involving author Chuck Wendig last autumn.
A few months ago, Wendig’s latest Star Wars novel was released, and it included a gay protagonist. It met with some homophobic backlash that, unfortunately, one must expect today, and which I presume a Star Wars film with a queer character would also receive (after #BoycottStarWarsVII trended on Twitter, you know someone’s going to hate on a gay character). Wendig had a pretty good retort, which you can read in this article.
But more interesting to me than that response is this quote from Wendig:
I think fiction has sort of a value and an opportunity to speak to audiences beyond both the author and beyond what you “expect” that audience to be. And it allows people to see themselves in stories where, before, they hadn’t. I don’t think it’s necessarily the responsibility of storytellers to do that, because everybody’s free to tell the stories they want to tell, but I think there is a value and opportunity in doing so.
This is where Wendig and I disagree. And probably a lot of writers and I disagree.
I do not think there’s an inherent value in seeing yourself in a story.
In fact, I think there’s a much greater value in consuming stories where you see characters nothing like yourself.
I’m a Jewish guy, so there are plenty of stories with characters in whom I see myself. Portnoy’s Complaint, Hope: A Tragedy, the entire canon of Woody Allen films. And I like them, but when it comes to character these stories are something akin to an inside joke. There are lines and scenes where I can pick out the analogous moments in my life, and probably every Jewish guy’s life. That’s fun, but not really so rewarding.
Then there are the stories with characters nothing like me. Some of my favorite examples include: I Loved You More by Tom Spanbauer, How To Be Both by Ali Smith, Crossing The River by Caryl Phillips, A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozecki. Those books broadened my mind in a different way than those by Jewish guys with lives similar to mine — they took me into a different and sometimes uncomfortable existence that I previously didn’t know much about. I think (hope) I’m a better writer and a more empathetic person for having read them. To me, that’s the real value in the literary canon.
There’s nothing harmful in taking in all the stories by Jewish dudes. Those books and movies are largely great, but for me there’s no value to them just due to the fact that the characters or authors are like me. (There are, of course, lots of other values for me in those works.)
In turn, and more akin to what I think Wendig was talking about, I don’t in any way feel excluded by stories with no sign of a Jewish man from the American suburbs. I think a good story includes any reader willing to engage with it, regardless of the lack of similarities the reader has to the author or characters. Good is good, bad is bad. That the story is well told and genuine is all that matters.
To be fair to Wendig, he explicitly said that his idea wasn’t some sort of universal writing principle. I have a lot of respect for that, and for the way he handled the poor reactions to his gay character. But when it comes to the idea that it’s somehow inherently good for readers to see themselves in a story, I respectfully disagree, and actually urge people to seek out the stories with characters that are nothing them.
It’s a big world out there, most of it is different from your life, and lots of it is cool — literature is a really good place to experience it.