‘If you haven’t lived it, you can’t write it.’ That is the title of an article that featured in the Sunday Times Culture magazine last week. Although many will argue that ‘cancel culture’ doesn’t exist – just look at JK Rowling whose sales and prominence have increased despite the efforts on Twitter and elsewhere to shut her up (including death threats and ceremonial Harry Potter book burning events) because she wrote in defence of women’s rights and single sex services.
The threat of being cancelled is a message many writers feel is being made explicitly or indirectly to them. Few have JKR’s fame and fortune to rely on to keep going. Remember Gillian Philip? Or Kate Clanchy? Or Jeanine Cummins? Never heard of them? – Look them up, they are still in the public eye (sort of), but much less than before they, and their publishers, were on the receiving end of social media attacks for ‘wrong think’ of some sort. Gillian now earns a living as a lorry driver, rather than a children’s author.
As a result, many authors these days are reportedly self-censoring, and publishers are restricting what their authors should write about (as well as what they say in interviews and on social media; be it re politics, gender identity, racism, sexism, anything really).
It isn’t all doom and gloom. Swift Press is a UK publisher that is now making its name by publishing ‘cancelled’ books, and authors, that its rivals are afraid to; such as the Canadian author, Paul Carlucci. And many prominent authors are speaking out.
For example, Bernadine Evaristo has said that it is ‘ridiculous’ that writers should not be able to write outside of their own experiences. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, who campaigners had earlier tried to ‘cancel’ for saying that transwomen are transwomen, argued in her recent Reith lecture, “There are writers who want to write novels about sensitive subjects but are held back by the spectre of social censure. Publishers are wary of committing secular blasphemy.” Kazuo Ishiguru is adamant a writer should have the freedom to write about whatever subject, and from whatever viewpoint, they want – it’s for the audience or the critics to say if it is rubbish and they don’t know what they’re talking about. That is, it’s not for self-appointed Twitter warriors, or publisher appointed ‘sensitivity readers,’ to decide on the merits or otherwise of a book.
As one writer says, “If we take this to its logical conclusion, could it be the end of novels?” And another, “Sure, we’ll still have memoir – but in my novels I imagine other people’s experiences. If I can’t do that, why would I write?” (N.B. Prince Harry has been accused of making things up, or at least being a bit elastic with the truth, in his recent memoir – maybe ‘memoir’ really is the way forward with fiction?).
A lot of writers lead very humdrum lives – do readers really want to read about their lived experience of middle class / middle aged angst all the time? Or would they prefer be taken on a journey that an author has researched and poured her imagination into? Anyway, if your writerly life is not that humdrum, and you include elements of it in your novel, your family and friends might complain. A few years ago, a novelist wrote a story around living with a drug addicted son. Son, and some critics, objected to this invasion of privacy. Seems, aas a writer, you just can’t win!
Links to my social media and books (in which I write variously from the POV of a teenage boy, adopted girl, working class girl, gay man, transwoman, old woman, Shakespeare character, deaf woman, medieval lord of the manor … None is my lived experience – though the old woman character is creeping up on me.)
You can find all my books and short stories on Amazon books, At least one story always free. ALL BOOKS FREE ON KINDLE UNLIMITED