How Best to Tell a Story: Through Fiction or Non-Fiction? And in Whose Voice?
Aug 25, 2009
A few years ago there was a great deal oif discussion among book lovers, writers, and those concerned about race relations about “appropriation of voice.” The practice of a writer putting him- or herself in the skin of a person of different sex, religion or ethnic or racial group was a hot button topic. How could a man understand what a woman felt? some particularly enraged feminists argued. How could a white person understand the feelings of a person of colour? some advocates for minority group asked just as loudly.
The debate seems to have died down, not the least because excellent writers have proved that imagining the ideas and emotions of others is what literature is all about. Bad writers can’t do it, and so their stories may often be insulting, intentionally or unintentionally. Certainly two of the books I read and discussed with book groups last year —Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill (called The Book of Negroes in Canada and the UK) as well as Lewis DeSoto’s Blade of Grass—give us sensitive and moving portraits of women told from the point of view of women although the authors are men.
By coincidence, though, I was gobbling up Samaritan by Richard Price at the same time that I was preparing for the book discussions. A friend suggested it because I am very interested in the motivation of people who try to help others, and the enormous question of how to help in a way that works. The book opens with a conversation between a white man in his 40s and his 13 year old daughter as they visit the housing project in New Jersey where he grew up. The story he tells about his youth and the verve of their dialogue were so captivating that I rode past my stop on the Metro reading it. The fact that the other main character is an African-American woman police officer, who grew up in the project too, also was interesting, and for a good part of the book, I was ready to give Price full marks for doing a brilliant job of appropriating voices.
But having finished the book, I’m not so sure. The man, who is something of an innocent despite having passed a good five years as a coke addict, tries very hard to do the right thing, yet the woman appears to be a much more admirable character. The book, however, is padded with long descriptions and dialogues thrown in to “authenticate” the book, to show that Price has spent time around people like his characters. In short, the voice appropriated doesn't ring true even though it is well-intentioned.
I’d like to know what Ophrah Winfrey thought of it. The Yale Review of Books says: "as a piece of inner-city atmospherics, it falls far short of good journalism — like William Finnegan's blemished, brilliant portrait of New Haven in Cold New World."
Now, that raises another perennial question: which is the better form for telling a story and/or telling the truth, fiction or non-fiction.