The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Limiting what novelists can write about won’t help readers

Jeanine Cummins signed copies of "American Dirt" in January 2020 before her book tour was canceled. (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)
9 min

“Fiction is where I go to tell the truth,” the late, great Pat Conroy once said. In his acclaimed novels, Conroy cut close to the bone, exposing human truths that left readers breathless with painful recognition.

Lucky for him and his readers, Conroy’s death in 2016 meant he was spared the pre-publication censorship that fiction writers face today. He escaped the full force of the steamrolling appropriation-and-sensitivity movement currently in vogue.

“Publish or perish” in this new age of you-can’t-say-that has been retooled as publish and perish. Certain words are essentially verboten — “plantation,” for one. But at the heart of the new restrictions is the notion that novelists can’t (or shouldn’t) write in the voice of someone whose experience and heart they cannot know. This means that Whites should write only about White characters, Latinos about Latinos, Asians about Asians and so on.

The hashtag #OwnVoices helps young adult readers find books in which the characters and the author share the same identity. Publishing houses now employ “sensitivity readers.” Google Docs offers a feature that assists users in making their work more “inclusive.”

Follow Kathleen Parker's opinions

Most writers and agents agree that America’s new literary Dark Age began with Jeanine Cummins’s “American Dirt.” This 2020 novel, about an undocumented immigrant to the United States who was forced to flee Mexico with her son after her journalist husband exposed a local drug kingpin, was an Oprah’s Book Club selection and a New York Times bestseller that sold 3 million copies worldwide in 37 languages. What could go wrong?

Everything. Some Mexican Americans panned the book for containing stereotypes. The heroine, critics said, seemed like a “pearl-clutching American tourist,” and the Spanish seemed generated by Google Translate. Perhaps most egregious, Cummins wasn’t Latina enough. She’s from New Jersey, and her only connection to her protagonist is a Puerto Rican grandmother. Her book tour was canceled.

Such developments might be well-intentioned, but you know what they say about the road to hell. When Alberto Gullaba Jr. turned in his first novel, “University Thugs,” about a young Black man with a criminal record trying to navigate an elite university struggling with race issues, his agent was excited. That is, until Gullaba told him, “Hey, no, man, I’m not Black, I’m Filipino.”


A British sensitivity reader with the correct pigmentation was brought in to read Gullaba’s manuscript, whereupon his agency asked, “By the way, can you make the main character Filipino?” Gullaba elected to adopt the pen name Free Chef and self-published on Amazon.

Yes, of course, I considered not writing this column. Why invite the wrath of the overly sensitive? Because truth demands it. Civilization requires a forceful response to the growing imperative to mitigate negative feelings by shielding people from unpleasant truths with wiggle words that cloud rather than reveal. The books I’ve read (and reread) that hold a place in my heart hurt me, made me cry, made me laugh and kept me awake long past the last page. “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner” clobbered me. Could William Styron be published today? He wrote in the voices of women, Jews, African Americans and plantation owners. How could he know their hearts and minds? The way writers always have: by employing their fertile imaginations, mining their own experiences and applying their craft to find a deeper way of seeing things so that readers might also see them (and ourselves) better.

Publishing-world paranoia isn’t restricted to race or ethnicity. Authors who venture into gender apocalypse fiction get into trouble in transgender circles. When Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series featured a female protagonist, he was asked how he could write as a woman. His response during a 2020 Q&A was a bracing blast of oxygen:

“I never try to write from the perspective of a woman or of an African American man. I think that would be fatal,” he said. “I write from the perspective of human beings who have been injured in their path and are just trying to forge forward with a life for themselves and those they love. They want to be respected in their jobs and respected at home. I think those are universal truths that transcend race and gender.”

Most people reading this understand why certain words are hurtful. The n-word is so universally despised that it has no place in civilized society. I don’t want to hear it; I don’t want to read it. But should this repulsion extend to the banning of books such as Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”? This is a rhetorical question. Both books already are banned from many school libraries.

What are we losing when we curtsy to identity demands? Where does it stop? Literary criticism requires, among other things, consideration of an author’s historical time and cultural context. Instead of protecting young people, why aren’t we teaching them to think? This seems to me the more damaging effect of preemptive strikes against emotional triggers. Psychology informs us that emotions are information. They’re our invisible guides in the human quest for meaning. We must learn to navigate life’s lessons without imagined or self-imposed trauma or we may eventually lose our ability to communicate.

It is surely a net positive when authors from diverse backgrounds tell their own stories. But their contributions shouldn’t interfere with writers who dare to imagine a fictional character’s experiences. As for “sensitivity readers,” to each their own. At The Post, we call them editors. Many writers voluntarily seek appropriate readers to check for verisimilitude. If I created a fictional character who was a plastic surgeon, I’d want a plastic surgeon to read my manuscript for accuracy. The same might be true of a White woman writing about a Black man. But watch out.

When Rebecca Bruff, a Methodist minister, wrote a historical novel about South Carolina’s Civil War hero and U.S. congressman Robert Smalls in “Trouble the Water,” the big publishing houses passed on it for fear of repercussions. Who was she to tell a Black man’s story?

“Who was I to withhold the story?” she said to me in a phone interview.

Smalls was a slave in Beaufort, S.C., Conroy’s hometown, when he commandeered a Confederate arms ship from the Charleston harbor and, with his wife and a few other enslaved people, delivered it to the Union Navy. He was also a delegate to the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention and worked to make free, compulsory education available to all children in the state. Some credit him with creating public education in the South.

Bruff was so enthralled when she heard snippets of his story during a visit to Beaufort, she turned her life inside out to write the book she couldn’t find in libraries or bookstores, leaving her job and home in Dallas and moving to Beaufort. She ultimately went with a smaller press, and the book has been well-received, especially by Smalls’s great-great-grandson Michael Moore, a founding leader of the new International African American Museum in Charleston (opening June 27), whom Bruff asked to read the manuscript.

“I wanted to make sure I honored his character,” she said.

Coincidentally the U.S. Navy just changed the name of the USS Chancellorsville, named for the site of a Confederate victory during the Civil War, to the USS Robert Smalls.

Some novelists hoping to avoid the problems Bruff faced are co-authoring with someone whose DNA squares with important characters. One writer who spoke on condition of anonymity told me she wanted to write a book about a tree where lynchings most likely took place. “But I can’t write it as a White woman,” she said. “I told a friend I need a great Black voice and he said, ‘I love it, I want to write it with you.’”

Similarly, best-selling White author Marie Benedict co-wrote “The Personal Librarian” with Black author Victoria Christopher Murray. The historical novel tells the story of the real-life Belle da Costa Greene, a Black woman who developed and managed the personal library of J.P. Morgan and his family for 43 years. Greene passed as White and claimed to be of Portuguese descent, and the story is partly about Greene’s struggles to become proud of her Black heritage while pretending to be White in a segregated, racist society.

Based on reviews of the book, the authors managed to tell a seamless story.

Where these trends lead is a worthy concern. In my little dystopic corner of the reading universe, I envision a novel with six authors of diverse backgrounds and a book cover bearing a seal of approval from an artificial-intelligence sensitivity reader. Who knows — maybe an algorithm will tap into all the DNA files we’ve helped create with our saliva and select donors as authors. They won’t even need to write well. AI can write the book for them.

Some of the authors I interviewed for this column were more optimistic. The pendulum has swung too far, said one fiction veteran who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We just have to wait for it to swing back closer to the center.” Tell that to another best-selling author who recently had to ditch a third of her novel because it concerned the Civil War and she dared to write from the perspective of an enslaved person.

We’ll see, but it seems to me that all readers lose something when life’s realities can be told only by select voices. Conroy used fiction to tell the truth. The question is, who can do the same now?