Was Aesop a Tortoise?
There is a certain type of reader who assumes that every novel they read is auto-biographical, that all authors can only draw on personal experience to construct the characters if they are to write good fiction. It’s a horrible inversion of ‘write about what you know’. It makes people distrust work written by someone who doesn’t resemble the protagonist – it implies that men can’t write about women, women can’t write about men, that different races and cultures can never understand each other enough to write about each other.
That’s not to say that life expereince doesn’t affect and form a writer. But one of the greatest pleasures and challenges in writing fiction is to use empathy to enter other people’s lives and attempt to feel what they experienced. Too often, we are encouraged to distrust authors if their names and cultural backgrounds don’t mesh with our idea of who should write about certain subjects. It’s an idea that fosters fake memoirs and encourages people to lie about their past in an attempt to persuade readers they have some sort of authority to tell a story. But story telling isn’t about ownership. It’s about sharing.
The process of entering the lives of others is the whole point of both writing and reading. In one life, we can only do so much. Through fiction, we can live other lives, and for a moment, understand what it is to be in someone else’s shoes. It’s a gift and a birth right that we should use our imaginations to live beyond the limitations of our own, singular existence.
Is Harry Potter less of a boy because the author of his story was a woman? Are Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary unbelievable female characters because they were both created by men? Did Aesop need to be a wolf, a hare or a tortoise in order to tell his tales?