BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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On Writing, Imagination, and Empathy

A few days ago, Shirl Sazynski (author of the awesome One-Eyed Cat blog here at PS) recommended a new science fiction novel that she was enjoying: Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach. While I read a lot of sf, I don't read much military sf, but this sounded interesting. So, I clicked over to B&N and scrolled through the customer reviews.

Most of the reviews were quite positive. One negative review caught my eye, though -- not because it was negative, but because of the anonymous reviewer's reason for giving Fortune's Pawn a single star: 

"The author writes about combat and has never been in it." 

From a writer's point of view, this is a highly problematic criticism.

Fiction, to quote the Encyclopedia Britannica, is "created from the imagination, not presented as fact, though it may be based on a true story or situation. [...] The word is from the Latin fictiō, 'the act of making, fashioning, or molding.'" It is an art limited only by the author's imagination, skill, and discipline.    

Writers write about things we have never experienced, worlds we have never walked, people we have never known all the time. It's what writers do. I have never transformed into a mermaid, piloted a faster-than-light ship, run naked with wolves, raised a ghost at the scene of a murder, or worked as a sex wizard for hire.

But I have written and published stories about all of those things. That is why I write: because I can see all of these characters and all of these worlds and adventures in my head, and I need to share them with anyone; heck, with everyone. I can feel the medium's exhaustion and terror when she channels the spirits of the dead at the scene of their violent deaths. I can feel the witch's exhilaration when she runs with the wolves, and see the forest through her eyes. I can feel the sea and taste it on my tongue when I sing to my sister sirens.

Does living a particular experience make the writing better, more "real"? In some cases, yes. But not in all. Is it necessary to have lived those experiences to write about them? No. Mark Twain never visited King Arthur's court and Apuleius never turned into an ass. That is where imagination and empathy and -- yes -- research come in.

To argue that writers can only write about what they have experienced is to ignore the very nature of literature, and the gifts of awe and beauty and terror and understanding that the best of that art can bring to the world. To argue that one or another particular experience or category -- combat, poverty, gender, race -- is off-limits to those who have not lived it is self-aggrandizing. If Alice Walker opted to pen a tale about a middle-aged white male Wall Street investment banker, would you tell her, "No, sorry, you can't do that"? Would you tell John Steinbeck that he couldn't write a novel about, say, a native Hawaiian girl coming of age in the days before contact with Europeans? Would you tell Paulo Coelho that he can't write a book about a young Irish woman learning magic? Oh, wait .... Tell Ray Bradbury that he couldn't write about ... well ... basically everything in his bibliography.

Personally, I prefer a world filled with stories.


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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


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