Anthony Horowitz told: ‘no black characters’

Spy kid: Alex Pettyfer stars as the teenage spy Alex Rider, a character created by Horowitz.

The celebrated author of the Alex Rider series, says he was warned it would be “patronising” to put a black person into his stories. Is it wrong for white writers to invent black characters?

“There aren’t enough books around for every ethnicity,” the author Anthony Horowitz told the Mail on Sunday this weekend. He himself has written dozens of novels for adults and children over the last four decades. But when he was considering writing a black character for his next book, he claims he was “warned off” the idea by an editor.

There is a “chain of thought,” he explained, that it would be “inappropriate” for white authors to do so because it is “not our experience”. He said he found the idea “disturbing and upsetting”.

He is not the first author to hit back against the idea that white authors should not write non-white characters. Last year, the writer Lionel Shriver made a speech in which she criticised “ideologies” which “challenge our right to write fiction at all”. Horowitz seems to agree: “my characters will from now be 62-year-old white Jewish men like me,” he joked.

In the past, books by white authors about black characters have been incredibly successful. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold over a million copies when it was published in 1852, and helped to promote the anti-slavery movement. Mark Twain’s 1885 Huckleberry Finn is an American classic, as is Harper Lee’s 1960 To Kill A Mockingbird.

But when The Confessions of Nat Turner was published in 1967 — written by the white author William Styron — it faced a huge backlash from many members of the civil rights movement. It won a Pulitzer Prize, but the black author John Oliver Killens wrote that it was a “monumental failure” when it came to “getting into the slave’s psyche”.

Today, publishers are often encouraged to promote non-white authors who write about their own experiences. This movement is known online as #ownvoices.

But does it mean, as Horowitz fears, that white people should not write about black characters?

Write what you know

Of course not, cry some. A good writer can imagine what it is like to be anyone, at any time, in any place. For example, Saul Bellow’s 1959 masterpiece, Henderson the Rain King, is set in Africa despite the author never having travelled there. When it comes to fiction, a writer’s imagination should have no limits — least of all the colour of their characters’ skins.

Fine, say others, but this cannot be done without huge amounts of research and care. White authors should talk to people from their character’s background, and try to understand how they might see the world differently. What’s more, they should not expect “to do so without criticism,” as the writer Kaitlyn Greenidge expressed it last year. And if this criticism is bad, they should try to learn how to do better next time.

You Decide

  1. Do you think there should be more books about characters who look like you?
  2. Can a white author write convincingly about someone with a different skin colour?

Activities

  1. List your three favourite books or TV shows which feature non-white main characters. Discuss them with a partner.
  2. Write the opening chapter of a novel about someone who is very different to you.

Some People Say...

“Trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.”

Lionel Shriver

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Anthony Horowitz says that he was “warned” by a book editor that including a black character might be seen as “patronising”. There has been a growing conversation about “cultural appropriation” — using bits from someone else’s culture disrespectfully — in recent years. This does not just include books, but also things like fashion, music and food.
What do we not know?
Exactly how the conversation with Horowitz’s editor went down; we do not know whether they were simply warning him of the potential for criticism, or actively trying to stop him from writing his book the way he originally intended. We also do not know which side will eventually “win” this debate — will a white author writing about a black character one day be seen as racist as “blackface” is today?

Word Watch

Enough
According to The Bookseller, there were fewer than 100 books published by non-white British authors in the UK last year.
Dozens
This includes ten books about the teenage spy Alex Rider.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Stowe’s novel tells the story of an enslaved family attempting to escape to freedom. Stowe was hoping to show “what an accursed thing slavery is” by revealing its brutalities. The book was originally immensely popular, but has since been criticised for its portrayal of black people.
Huckleberry Finn
Twain’s book tells of a young white boy, Huck, who goes on an adventure down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave, Jim. Over the course of the novel, Huck’s attitude towards Jim changes.
To Kill A Mockingbird
Lee’s novel is told through the eyes of a young white girl, Scout. Her father is a lawyer who defends a local black man in court when he is falsely accused of raping a white woman.
The Confessions of Nat Turner
Nat Turner was a slave who led a rebellion in 1831. Styron’s novel is based on a first-hand account of his confession to the lawyer Thomas Gray.

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