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Why white writers just can’t win

The BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People

Sally Rooney is a literary sensation – but is her writing too safe? Recently the Irish author’s novels have been criticised for being narrow-minded: they are all set in white, middle-class, Irish society. White authors like Rooney can’t win, says the writer Tomiwa Owolade on the Radio 4 podcast Pride or Prejudice: How we Read Now. If you write about non-white people in a way that’s not entirely “perfect”, you risk offending a great deal of people and torpedoing your career. But if you only write about white people, everyone tells you you’re too conventional. “Whatever you do you’re always in the wrong.” 

It’s tough, says the author Nadifa Mohamed. Many writers don’t “see the pleasure” in writing about their own life, but also don’t want to depict minority characters in a clumsy way either. That’s why so many are rushing to hire “sensitivity readers” – editors who comb through manuscripts and root out any poorly written stereotypes. Personally “I’ve never used one”, but I can understand why people do. 

There’s another side to this debate, says the Oxford English professor Abigail Wiliams. The more that writers fear getting things wrong, the more they are pushed into narrow boxes of what they can and can’t write about. And “if you have a nervousness around representing particular identities, they could be cut out altogether”.  

Listen to the episode here.

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