A few years ago, the editor behind one of Australia’s most lucrative non-fiction writing prizes changed its rules. The Saturday Paper’s Erik Jensen decided the Horne prize would no longer consider any essay purporting to ‘represent the experiences of those in any minority community of which the writer is not a member’.
The new rule specifically prohibited essays about the experience of First Nations Australians from non-indigenous entrants, and essays about the LGBTQI community from entrants without ‘direct experience of this community’.
I can understand the urge to protect and support minority groups, particularly those with a long history of being mistreated, misrepresented and misunderstood. Many editors work hard to give such writers a voice.
But I was surprised by the underlying assumption that entrants shouldn’t be writing about groups they didn’t belong to, as if this couldn’t be done with honesty and insight, respect and restraint. Difficult, yes, but impossible?
In an essay on Catholicism and the art instinct, Australian author Charlotte Wood writes about another identity marker — religion. The author talks about how artists often find creative enrichment from a religious sensibility, and about her own Catholic upbringing.
She’s writing as a sceptic, not a believer, and she doesn’t pretend otherwise. She’s not seeking to represent ‘those in any minority community of which [she’s] not a member’; even if she were, the Catholic community is not exactly marginalised.
‘It’s evidence of how wildly inconsistent we are when it comes to pursuing an authentic voice. We nurture and embrace some identities, we distrust and deride others. Sometimes, those from within a community are the preferred authority, at other times, the opposite is so.’
But what if she were writing as a believer? Would that be viewed as more authentic, more desirable, more print-worthy? Or less? Wood doesn’t ask the question, but she comes close to answering it. ‘As a species, writers are quick to show respect for Indigenous spiritual beliefs, for Islam or Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism, but Christianity is a no-go zone,’ she says.
Some of her ‘atheist writer friends’ are ‘compelled by the complexity of theology, or irresistibly drawn to the machinations of church power, or fascinated by the high camp of Catholic spectacle’.
’But few writers are publicly candid about their faith in any kind of God — and those few must surely know it makes people suspicious.’
Wood recalls attending a writing retreat where a participant ‘broke into tears of genuine terror’ before ‘confessing’ she was a Christian. This surprised me, but not as much as what Wood said next: ‘she was right to be afraid.’
The Christian religion has deep roots in the West — Christians will not be considered underrepresented any time soon. But in Australian literary and artistic circles, they already are.
Times have changed and are changing, rapidly. Wood says the courage it now takes a writer to openly admit to spiritual belief should not be underestimated. I haven’t seen tears of ‘genuine terror’, but I know many Christians who brace themselves when mentioning their faith.
If, as Wood asserts, being candid about belief in God makes people ‘suspicious’, it could jeopardise a writer’s chance of publication, even if belief had no bearing on their work.
But what if their beliefs were relevant to their writing? What if their religion were a theme? I wager that Wood’s claim still stands; that Australia’s largely secular readers prefer to have outsiders talk about Christianity than to hear from Christians themselves.
It’s evidence of how wildly inconsistent we are when it comes to pursuing an authentic voice. We nurture and embrace some identities, we distrust and deride others. Sometimes, those from within a community are the preferred authority, at other times, the opposite is so.
A determinative factor is of course whether the group in question is considered a ‘minority community’, but when it comes to Christianity, the answer could be yes … or no. It can be perceived and portrayed as mighty or marginalised; powerful or perishing. Individual Christians are often treated as an irrelevant minority, while their religion is still framed as a formidable threat.
I can see why. It carries significant negative baggage. Too many individuals who call themselves Christians have failed to live up to its ideals, and compounded their failure with denial. Too many institutions have done the same. Meanwhile those who do live in line with their convictions also spark discomfort — not because they’re hypocrites, because they are sincere.
Representations of Christianity from orthodox believers might be unwelcome in today’s literary and artistic circles, but representations of Christianity from non-believers seem entirely acceptable.
Last year two of the literary scene’s biggest stars — Sally Rooney and Jonathan Franzen — published bestsellers where the Christian faith is a major theme. Their religious characters are far from pious: the minister who features in Franzen’s Crossroads is a proud hypocrite who shows more interest in a female parishioner than his wife and is appallingly envious of his younger, more popular assistant minister; the Catholic who features in Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You is a serial womaniser. This might form part of their appeal: the more flawed the character, the better we can feel about ourselves.
Neither author identifies as religious, yet neither has received serious flak for depicting a community they don’t belong to in a less than favourable light. Nor should they be. Their depictions are skilful, nuanced, insightful and, importantly, fictional. But had these books been written by heterosexuals about a sexual minority, or by non-indigenous Australians about First Nations Australians, I can imagine their authors would be judged way out of line.
Journalist and commentator Ezra Klein recently wrote about Christianity and liberalism in a non-fiction essay comparing the two. The article, published by the The New York Times, depicts the Christian faith with generosity and sensitivity.
It ‘gleams with a light it often lacks in today’s politics, and even in its pews’, Klein writes. ‘Here is a religion that insists on the dignity of all people and centers the poor and the marginalized.’
If it’s a little surprising to read such a warm take on religious faith in a mainstream publication, it would be more surprising still if Klein were a believer as opposed to an observer.
‘But just as writing from the inside is no guarantee of sensitivity, insight, and authenticity, writing from the outside is no guarantee of the opposite.’
Jensen said he updated the Horne prize rules — a move later scrapped, after two judges resigned in protest — in an attempt to filter out ‘chauvinistic or condescending accounts of particular groups of Australians’. But just as writing from the inside is no guarantee of sensitivity, insight, and authenticity, writing from the outside is no guarantee of the opposite.
Would-be judges David Marr and Anna Funder recognised this, rejecting the implication that only members of a group should write about that group, even if it’s a minority.
‘You can’t say only Indigenous people can write about Indigenous Australians. It’s contrary to my whole notion of how journalists operate. We are not disqualified because we don’t have direct personal experience on what we report on,’ Marr said.
‘Indigenous writers bring a very, very valuable point of view and authority to reporting Indigenous affairs, but it can’t be a rule preventing anyone else from doing it.’
Another of Wood’s books, The Writer’s Room, contains an interview with author Lloyd Jones that discusses representation in literature. Jones says the notion men shouldn’t write female characters is ‘completely anti-literate’ and absurd.
He questions why it’s ‘thought perfectly normal for a man to be able to get into the skin of an axe murderer, but not the skin of a woman’ and suggests we get ‘caught up’ in generalities.
‘But literature pulls us back from those group positions, tribal positions, to the perspective of the individual, which should be the most representative of humanity. Not groups and affiliations, and particularly not those who want to put fences around themselves and say, “Do not come in here. You don’t understand this.”’
Whether in fiction or non-fiction, outsiders might misunderstand and misrepresent the people they depict, but sometimes, insiders will too. Sometimes, outsiders will lack insight, but sometimes, when they’re curious, attentive, when they do not overreach, they’ll capture truth.
As a believer, I couldn’t fault Klein’s depiction of the Christian faith.
‘What I, as an outsider to Christianity, have always found most beautiful about it is how strange it is,’ he writes. ‘Here is a worldview built on a foundation of universal sin and insufficiency, an equality that bleeds out of the recognition that we are all broken, rather than that we must all be great. I’ve always envied the practice of confession, not least for its recognition that there will always be more to confess and so there must always be more opportunities to be forgiven.’
Insiders and outsiders could learn from Klein’s perspective. I only wish I could be sure that if he were a believer, not an observer, he could still write along such lines so openly; that Wood, in saying Christian writers are ‘right to be afraid’, was wrong.
Emma Wilkins is a Tasmanian journalist and freelance writer, and an Associate of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared at Eureka Street.