Genuine Fake: questions of authenticity

by Kim Kelly

If novelists and all other types of fictioneers are mimics, armchair actors and intrepid travellers through time and space, what does authenticity mean when we’re always at some level dealing with the imagined?

Does fiction ever give us a free pass to write about whatever and whomever we want? No, it does not, in my emphatic opinion, after a few decades of thinking about authorial voices both as an editor and a writer myself. Can we ever truly portray the experiences of others? No, we can’t, I don’t reckon, either. It’s difficult enough to faithfully portray our own, if you think about it – there’s nothing like attempting to write an autobiographical piece to put you on a collision course with your own bs.

So, perhaps the more important authenticity wonder here is: how can we try to ensure our fictions are steeped in useful, meaningful truths?

There is a solid school of opinion that says authors, for the sake of truth, should write only from within the realms of their personal experience, that all attempts to write outside the parameters of your own identity will be irretrievably fake and possibly even harmful to others. It can be a harsh position to take, especially given that most authors are compelled in some way by curiosity about the unknown, but it’s one that provides an important first check on the road to answering the question of whether or not the tale you’re writing, and its inherent truths, are somehow yours to tell.

That question is, more succinctly, how fake will your fiction be? If you’ve embarked on a story, say, about a young Jewish woman who survives the Holocaust through prostitution, there is an obvious set of questions to ask yourself straight off in trying to get close to her experience. Am I Jewish? Am I a woman? Have I experienced terrifying, life-threatening oppression? Am I a sex worker? It’s unlikely that any author can answer them all with a yes, and not being able to do so is to admit that this story is not yours.

Coming to this realisation doesn’t mean you have to throw out the idea, but it is a cue for humility and honesty. Admitting that your work will be essentially inauthentic is necessary mental preparation for the very long road of research you’ll need to undertake in order to try to turn the tale into something that will hold some useful and meaningful truths.  

Before you hit the books, though, the first homework assignment should probably be an essay to yourself on why you want to tell this particular tale. If your answer includes statements like, ‘because Holocaust stories sell’ or ‘because the scenario is rich in drama’, then your work will be exploitative – even if you’re a passionate anti-fascist who has a PhD in the sex industry and old Yiddish folksongs – and whether or not you should still write that book will be a matter for your own conscience.

There’s no law against cultural or experiential exploitation, just like there’s no law against the tuneless singing of arias in the street, and no one can show you where the lines of harm or offence will be drawn – because those lines will be different for every reader. Arguably, if you have something important or complex to say, you’re going to upset someone. But who you’re going to upset is another important question.

In the storyline example above, a poorly researched, inaccurate portrayal of Jewishness is going to cause offence to some Jewish readers, cause them to roll their eyes and sigh, ‘There’s no business like Shoah business.’ Are the feelings of Jewish people important to you in this work? If not, why not? Same goes for the feelings of sex workers. Have you considered the agency and dignity of this character and avoided stereotyping? If not, why not?

If your portrayal of any character is stereotypical, it’s fundamentally unlikely to carry any enlightening truths simply because we’ve seen it all a million times before. Even if the stereotype is benign, it’ll be banal. If the stereotype perpetuates bigotry and prejudice – for example, your character is a weak victim of her oppressors, or her only redemption lies in becoming a ‘good girl’ – then it’s probably time to think about what part your contribution  might play in bringing and keeping others down.     

Yes, it’s a minefield, and it should be. Why would you not want to consider the diverse responses of your audience?

Questions of authenticity are as knotty and complicated as your own sense of personal identity. Think about who you are and where you’ve come from. Very few Australians have a neat, straightforward sense of identity or family history. Many of us are mixtures of various inheritances and influences, our hearts pulled in different directions and holding all kinds of sensitivities, some of them traumatic, some of them intergenerational.

I have my own set of sore points, from tiny irks likes poor-taste Irish jokes and Jewish jokes, to more serious concerns, such as storylines that blame women for violence against them. One of the stereotypes that pushes my buttons like no other is the portrayal by middle-class writers of working-class characters as ugly, ignorant or morally depraved. Very few errors of judgement can make me throw an otherwise good book across a room like this one can, and the reason it can is deeply personal.

At the same time, I’m sure that my portrayal of certain characters and the narrative decisions I have made have raised some eyebrows in some shape or form over the ten novels I’ve written. I haven’t yet received any direct criticism for it, but I imagine some readers might have decided that my work is not authentic enough – and they’ll get no argument from me, precisely because this is a very personal issue. Another person’s sense of themselves and their heritage is not up for debate – ever. My authorial intentions are irrelevant and indefensible if I have hurt someone – for any reason.

Some readers will only ever want to read Own Stories novels – fiction written by authors who have personally trodden the road of the narrative, or have profound cultural connections to it. This is the choice of those readers, and likewise should not be up for debate.

Hopefully, in my own writing (very little of which is obviously autobiographical), I’ve done the work to at least avoid reinforcing unjust and factually wrong tropes and types, but one thing research and moral diligence can never do is make you love your own characters. No matter who my characters are, their spirits and quests spring from people I know in real life, they are parts of my heart and history. I care deeply about what happens to them, and where they’re coming from. I love them as friends and family; I respect them as fellow, equal humans. Even the characters whose experiences are vastly different from my own come from lines of love for people whose lives have been inextricably entwined with mine. For me, it’s not enough to respect or admire a character, or like the idea of them; they must be sitting right next to me, whispering into my ear, sometimes telling me things I don’t want to hear.

If you can’t naturally hear your character’s voice, why are you writing that character? Mimicry without connection and understanding is hard to sustain for the length of a novel. If I can’t hear, see and feel the energy and thoughts of a character off the bat, I can’t write the story at all – it drifts away into the land of Great Ideas That Went Nowhere.

Of course, every writer has a different approach to working their way into a story, and there are always a hell of a lot of trees in that forest, but perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is, fake as all our tales will inevitably be, why do you need to tell this one? Why do you need to make it yours? What in your heart is binding you to it? What burning desire for truth is driving you? An authenticity reader can’t correct superficiality or do the work of immersive, emotional research and deep, lifelong thought for you.

There are so very many stories in the world, and I’m of the view that the greater majority of them do need to be told, but what is the point of telling a tale that’s not somehow of your own soul? Can the truths you want to tell be told from a distance, or should you bring them closer to home?

In the end, like all the best, perplexing conundrums, these questions of authenticity are ones that only you, the author, can answer.

Photo: Arunachal Art