I’m following the various subreddits, like r/writing or r/writers, among others, and I’m on several writing discords, such as “Tokyo Fantasy Writers”, “/r/WritingHub” or “Indie Writers Ascending”, and what I’ve seen a lot these days are “can I write about” questions.
There is a nice podcast by Sanderson about “writing the other”, be it the opposite sex or people from other ethnical or cultural backgrounds. That this question is even still coming up is a bit unsettling to be honest, and the existence of subreddits such as /r/menwritingwomen, or articles about “cultural appropriation” can surely make one feel uneasy whenever the thought of writing a character not of one’s own background comes up.
I’m not an American, and I notice that most of that noise is coming from the USA, as part of the relentless culture war going on there, sometimes spilling over elsewhere. Be it discussions about pronouns or “race” (more about this later), many new authors aren’t sure anymore if they can even write such characters, or how many “sensitivity readers” they might need to be safe from cancellation on Twitter or other platforms.
I find this regrettable. Even someone like me, who thinks of their writing as more of a craft dedicated to entertainment, still sees their work as part of the greater field of Arts (with a capital A), for which part of the job description is to make people aware of problems in society and politics.
While I’m not politically active online, some of my books contain political views. Not mine, but those of my characters; but that’s a problem in itself. Readers these days seem to not be interested in separating the views of a fictional character from those of the writer anymore, which is rather troubling. If I want to, say, call out racism in a rural community, am I in danger of being seen myself as a racist if one of my characters is a raging lunatic, throwing slurs around or being antagonistic towards immigrants? If that’s the case, is it even possible to put the finger on wounds in the current climate?
I believe this has always been the case, but there have not always been global communication tools like current social media. In my opinion, it’s now even more important to write “the other” than 100 years ago, and to do it right. That means, to do your homework, get in touch with people whose background you plan to utilise, and be respectful.
However, I’m writing SF, and my new project will have raptors as protagonists, living in a matriarchal society. There will surely be people who accuse me of patriarchal viewpoints, reading these stories, and I think I’ll be able to live with it.
Part of being a writer is having a thick skin, and that’s probably what it comes down to. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your best to make it clear whose POV you’re showing; but no matter how good your craft, some people will try to misunderstand you just to make a point or have some new content to use online, as ammunition in their culture war.
Regarding “race”, I don’t think any human on this planet belongs to any other group than homo sapiens sapiens. The number of melanin pigments, or the exact place of birth on a tiny speck of dust in an unbelievably large universe shouldn’t lead to separation between humans of this or that kind. I’ve always had a huge problems with racial conflicts. That’s also why I find the current war in Ukraine terribly tragic. We’re racing through this galaxy at 200 kilometres per second! Think bigger already, this is not the 1940s! But I digress.
So my opinion on all this is: You can always only ever do your best. Do what you can, that’s basically it. If there are still cancellation attempts, maybe see them as positive feedback. If someone believes you’re “a patriarchal pig”, you wrote some damn convincing prose and deserve a pat on your shoulder.