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Who Are You Reading Now?

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You read that right. Not what are you reading, but who. To me, that subtle change reveals an ongoing seismic shift in reading and, by extension, in writing.

Who an author is has come to matter intensely in what readers choose to read (or not to read). To be clear, this is not about a reader choosing a specific author’s books because of what they write—a preferred genre; a favorite topic or theme; a beloved story-telling style; the characters; the voice; the beauty of the writing. This is about a reader choosing a specific author’s books because of who that author is—their lived experiences, their personal characteristics, their opinions. Book selection based on an author’s identity has been the mainstay of non-fiction (particularly celebrity memoirs) for a long time, but it has been less of an influence in fiction. Until now. Readers now intentionally expand (or limit) their reading selections based on the perceived diversity or conformity of an author or on the perceived legitimacy of an author to write a specific story. In many cases, choosing who to read pulls readers out of their usual reading habits and boundaries. By altering reading patterns, this shift alters writing and publication patterns. It also alters the job of being a writer.

It means that who the writer is, as a person, determines what stories that specific writer can credibly tell. A writer with a good story and a compelling life story can be vaulted into the limelight. On the other hand, social media responses to any perceived mismatch between author identity and story can be (and have been) astonishingly cruel. But if who an author is limits the stories they are allowed to tell, however they choose to tell it, then the line between fiction and reality has been sundered. If the work of art—the story–is no longer seen as separate from the creator of the art, writing becomes a matter of self-presentation and self-awareness as much as putting words on the page.

This shift is not a bad thing. It is also not an unequivocally good thing.

  • It can make new, once-silenced voices audible; but it can also limit what any one voice can say.
  • It can break down barriers, encouraging readers to expand their author list, adding more diversity and variety. It also has the capacity to harden existing boundaries.

What is less obvious is exactly what this shift will mean for writers. Writing is no longer just a job, not what you do; it’s who you are. The emphasis on author identity makes writing, all writing, inherently political and inherently personal. And in this age of polarization, there is no middle ground. No anonymous author. Pen names are no protection in this world of outing and social media policing. Writers become public figures. Unable to hide behind the scenes.

I believe writers are aware of this shift, down to their very bones, and that it influences daily decisions about what to write, how to write it, and (consciously or subconsciously) how to defend it. Writing, while simultaneously trying to assess how your ‘authority’ to write any particular line, character decision, or story arc might be interpreted or misinterpreted by any number of interested social groups, is debilitating. Being proactive—writing intentionally to generate or provoke reactions—highlights the power of writing, but rarely plays out according to plan.

The consequence: writers either become self-aware and intentional about who they are in public and private and how that matches what they write or risk dismissal or misinterpretation. One clear example of how this works is the ongoing public push-pull debate over whether ‘un-diverse’ authors can write about ‘diverse’ characters or the reverse. Google the phrases ‘white authors writing black characters’ and ‘black authors writing white characters’ and thousands of pages of discussion and advice on how it should or shouldn’t be done are overwhelming.

If a writer is only able to write about personal experience, grounded in lived actuality, then are we left only with memoir? Or are all writers required to become scholars, exhaustively researching the ‘reality’ underlying their ability to tell a story? Is fiction dead?

I am writing this piece because I think writers need to acknowledge this shift is happening, face it head on, and chart a course through it with intentionality. I have no absolute answers, but I am deeply aware how powerfully it has influenced my writing. It has made me want to be more sensitive and inclusive in how and what I write. It has made me fearful to do so. I have a blog for my nonfiction work that is about old hospitals, but I haven’t posted anything new in years. Partly because, well, life. But also partly because in writing about hospitals, I have to write about diversity – how persons of color were housed and treated differently. How doctors and nurses interacted with each other in sexist ways. And putting that out there, at this point in time, as a writer not representative of the groups under study, is intimidating. How much research do I need to support my ability to tell someone else’s story? Did I get it right? Is there a way I could get it right?

But the bottom line remains: if I don’t tell the story, regardless of who says I can or can’t tell it, then it will remain untold. And that silence, that untelling, is not a writer’s choice.

I’m not here to say whether this shift is going to make writing (and reading) more or less equitable, inclusive, influential, or transformative. I simply want to start a conversation (or at least spark some awareness) about what it means to be a writer in this day and age. Can a writer be someone who sends their work out into the world while remaining safely behind the scenes? Or is a writer out there in the world, waving their ‘freak flag’ or ‘normal flag’ high, standing next to their works and ready for all the public scrutiny and debate?

And yes, that is a provocative and polarized contrast.

Who do you want to be as a writer? And who will be your readers? How do you handle the issue of writing about characters that do not share your personal characteristics or backgrounds or experiences?


About Jeanne Kisacky

Jeanne Kisacky trained to be an architect before going back to her first love--writing. She studied the history of architecture, has written and published nonfiction, and has taught college courses. She is the author of the recently published book, Rise of the Modern Hospital: An Architectural History of Health and Healing, 1870-1940. She currently fights valiantly to keep her writing time despite the demands of a day-job, a family, and a very particular cat.

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