Sarah LaBrie on Writing About Race

If Your Book Presumes an Entirely White World, It’s Not Universal

Why Writing and Reading About Race is a Privilege, Not a Burden

By Sarah LaBrie

Over the past handful of years, any number of essays have appeared decrying the overwhelming whiteness of publishing. Interviews with frustrated editors, roundtable discussions on cultural appropriation and essays on what it means to avoid prioritizing white male writers’ work have ignited new conversations about race and literary fiction and highlighted issues that have gone ignored by the industry for a very long time.

I’m grateful for any effort to broaden dialogue about blackness and literature, but often, in the discussions that pop up around these initiatives, the reading of books by black authors winds up being presented as a should. Editors should build more diverse rosters. White readers should read books about black people. Writers of color should focus on telling our own stories. I find that should with all its attendant pedantry (“you should eat your vegetables”) unsettling.

The ability to incorporate race into one’s fiction is a privilege not a burden. It’s the refusal to write about race that’s the handicap. If the universality of a novel’s narrative has to do with a shared moral code between the writer and the reader (and I think it does), then it’s fair to say that a novel succeeds or fails in its investigation of that moral code. Race underlies every inch of America’s moral code, and the introduction of race into a fictional narrative allows writers to complicate that narrative in ways that might not otherwise be possible. It’s unfortunate that some writers avoid doing so, either out of a mistaken assumption that being white means being raceless, or out of a desire to distance themselves from conversations about race altogether. This mode of thinking is detrimental not only to those writers’ own work but to the state of the literary novel as a whole.

As Toni Morrison put it years ago in an interview with the Times, “I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither . . . it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” Blackness is a tool that makes fiction more universal, not less. Writers who accept the fact that no one exists outside the network of cultural, ethnic and racial relations that make up the world can engage more fully with their chosen subjects. Readers of these writers’ work will find themselves exposed to more honestly conceived fictional spaces. It’s here, in its ability to take on controversial subjects that touch everyone, that literary fiction carries the potential to expand beyond its current niche status and speak to the world. Read the full essay at LitHub.

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