This week, I want to look at how representation and reality clash in the literary world. To do that, I will use as a springboard the following quote:
There is a lot to this quote, so let’s unpack it. First, I’ll provide context, a definition, and an assumption.
This quote comes from the collection of essays, Bodies in Commotion, in which Disabilities Studies and Performance Studies professors Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander explore disability in dramatic literature, dramatic performance (acting), and the “performance” of disabled peoples in an abled society. In the essay, “The Tyranny of Neutral: Disability & Actor Training”, Sandahl breaks down the genealogy of theatre training and how the curriculum thrust upon all acting students is ultimately ableist. This quote criticizes the “neutral stance” that is taught to all actors at one point in their education.
What is the “neutral metaphor” or “neutral stance”? It varies depending on theorist, but to oversimplify, “neutral” is a metaphorical stance that all actors must employ physically and psychologically before internalizing the character they are playing. The actor must be a blank canvas so the character can be fully formed, rather than having a character plunked on top of the actor’s established quirks. Therefore, as the quote says, if an actor has a physical condition that they cannot control—for example, a tick, a limp, or nystagmus (involuntary eye movement)—they are unable to adopt neutrality. The same applies to neurodivergence.
It is my belief that the art of writing a primary character as a fiction writer and playing a character as an actor spring from the same creative fountain. Uta Hagen, in her method, has actors seek out their characters’ wants and needs (both on a macro scale and from their scene partner in any given scene). Uncovering a character’s wants and needs throughout a story and within any given beat is also the foundation for any good character creation in writing.
Therefore, though Sandahl writes about the hidden ablism in the world of acting, I want to tease out the same metaphor in the world of creative writing.
What does the quote mean in the world of creative writing?
If Sandhal is criticizing the teaching that only abled people can be a true actor (according to the classical theories), then only an abled writer can create truly imaginative characters separate from their identity. A disabled writer will only be able to write disabled characters, just as a disabled actor can only play a character that has said disability.
This is a false assumption made true by those running the show.
My Mythical Company
The idea of a disabled actor is relatively recent. And even now, it is still newsworthy. A disabled actor will often have to work harder than the average abled actor to carve out spaces for themselves. Canada in particular has been notoriously bad for offering space for disabled actors (“the funding just wasn’t there for the support,” they say). Even with the accessibility doors opening over the past few years, it is an uphill battle.
I have pursued several opportunities in the world of amateur theatre and I know first-hand that the audition process is a sighted-person’s game. I can memorize text faster than the average person, but that doesn’t help much when tossed a script and asked to cold read.
But I digress.
The point is that the literary world is very different—particularly when it comes to blindness.
For in the mythical literary world, unlike other disabilities, blindness is sometimes seen as a divine gift. I blame Milton.
John Milton’s early career was that of a political man of letters. He wrote in favour of free speech and against the king. Then he went blind. His sonnet “On His Blindness” reveals his frustration, wrestling with God, and eventual understanding that resulted from this significant change.
Now blind, Milton wrote Paradise Lost, which is arguably the best English poem. And critics conflated his skills as a poet with his blindness, resulting in the thought that when he lost his eyesight, Milton gained access to the mysteries of the universe and was able to perceive God in a way that poor sighted mortals cannot. Milton was the progenitor of the “Man in the Dungeon” theory, which posits that to create truly sublime works, you need to shut yourself off from the distractions of sight.
Or maybe it was Homer’s fault.
There are plenty of details of the ancient Greek poet who wrote the Iliad and Odyssey, but very few of them are grounded in demonstrable fact. There are theories and myths that have swirled together to create a man. One such myth is that he was blind. Blindness in Ancient Greece carried its own mythic connotations. Blindness was connected to seers: those that have the power to (as in the myth of Milton) see beyond the mortal world into the future or some hidden truth.
Other notable, celebrated blind authors include Joyce and Borges (although Borges didn’t lose his sight until late in life).
And here I am, without a Paradise Lost or Ulysses, in a constant state of inferiority as I place myself in their company.
In mythologizing disability, you remove the realities of experience. A mythologized writer is not a real person. A mythologized character cannot be a fully-developed character any more than a stereotype can be. Therefore, part of the assumption that a disabled writer cannot attain the neutral stance needed to write well-crafted (abled) protagonists lies in society’s perspective of what the disability is. There are plenty of examples, but here’s one that hits close to home.
A brief tangent in which I burn a bridge
I don’t like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. There are a few reasons for this, but one reason is that one of the two protagonists, Marie-Laure, is not a character, but a plot and symbolic device. Marie-Laure is blind. If Doerr were an actor acting his character, he would be a cartoonish manifestation complete with dark sunglasses and outstretched arms waving. Too bad Dooer didn’t embrace acting theory—he may have recognized that characters are comprised of emotion and body. Marie-Laure is blind—I’m repeating that because that is all there is to her. She has no agency in her own story, she has no body, and, no, blind people don’t travel by counting their steps. Close your eyes and try it—it doesn’t work. I could go on, but this 2016 article by Sheri Wells-Jensen does a great job.
How could a blind writer begin to adopt a neutral stance if their existence is tied up in the belief that characters like Marie Laure represent how blind people operate?
The other question that I think is worth considering is “am I being hypocritical?” I am criticizing Doerr for failing to write a blind character. Can I, a visually impaired person, write a sighted character?
Donning the mask
In a sense, this is the same question as “can you write from the perspective of a different ethnicity?” And, to add to the protean nature of the conversation, it is a different story when talking about a main character and side character. You can (and should) populate your stories with diverse characters, stretching beyond your identities. But a protagonist requires an actor’s touch. The writer must embody the protagonist’s body and mind for the reader to truly connect. It is often frowned upon for a white writer to explore the authentic experiences of a black protagonist, or a straight writer to delve into the emotions of a gay protagonist. The result has too often been Marie-Laure.
Does it go both ways?
In writing this post, I am obviously coming at it through my perspective. But I have been thinking of autistic representation in literature. My familiarity with (what I believed to be) autistic characters in novels include Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The reception of these two neurodivergent characters written by neurotypical writers has been mixed. Some praise these characters for the representation that is greatly needed, while others criticize them for being stereotypes. I don’t want to speak over autistic voices, so I will leave this particular conversation here,
Whatever the nuances, Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was seen as appropriating another culture (the caveat being that it is only recently that autism is getting recognition as a culture and not a disease—there is much work still to be done). He has tried to sidestep the issue by claiming that he dos not see Christopher as autistic—you could be the judge as to whether this is sincere or a PR move. I want to focus on when a neurodivergent writer writes a neurotypical protagonist. Does this happen?
I am woefully unfamiliar with autistic writers. A quick search through Goodreads confirmed a suspicion I had (though as it was not exhaustive it is not definitive). Protagonists in novels written by autistic authors tend to be autistic.
Is this a bad thing? Not inherently, but it brings me back to the quote that started it all and begs the question—am I unable to find examples of neurodivergent writers writing neurotypical characters because of an author’s choice or expectation.
I cannot answer this, but if anyone has insight they would like to share, that would be wonderful.
In the meantime, I close with the only perspective I can speak on with any authority—my own.
Those Darn Automobiles
It was sometime in the 2000–01 school year. I was sitting in my elementary school’s library. The rest of this story may be subject to my internalized revisionist history. I remember sitting at a round table, facing a tall stack of indistinguishable books. I don’t remember how the conversation shifted but it was mentioned to me that I would never be able to drive. I have been visually impaired my entire life: this wasn’t a surprise to my twelve-year-old self. But it hurt. Hard. I distinctly remember the tightening sensation. I am sure I cried. But only for a few moments. Life went on.
But my writing didn’t.
My protagonists don’t drive. I don’t think this was a conscious choice at first. In one instance, I brushed it off by setting the story in downtown Toronto (where there is no reason to drive). In another, I associated driving with a traumatic experience that kept my protagonist from getting his licence. Is there a reason why my protagonists can’t drive? Not really. Except—I don’t know what it’s like. I cannot conjure the sensation of driving a car. I could make it up. I could do enough research to be able to approximate it. After all, fantasy writers have their characters ride dragons. Sure, dragon-riding may be a confluence of horse-riding and skydiving, but there are probably some good fantasy authors who have not ridden a horse or gone skydiving. Besides, you may say, you can have your protagonist drive somewhere without writing out the act of driving. This is also true, and it is true that I have characters do things I have not personally experienced, but somehow, this is different. Driving is such an ingrained part of human existence that I am shut out from so it seems far too disingenuous to write.
This is just one example. The truth is that I don’t know what it is like to see the nuances of expression. I don’t know what it is like to recognize something or someone from afar. I don’t know what it is like to be in a panic and run through the streets confident that I won’t bash into something. I am a visually impaired writer who writes abled protagonists and am therefore engaging in constant appropriation.
It's not that I am worried about being called out for appropriation. My fear is that my protagonists will always be weak because they automatically inherit my “flaws” without the justification for these flaws.
I am not the first to make this complaint. I may be echoing the likes of WEB Du Bois and Thomas King who wrote against their work being pigeonholed by their race in one form other another. I want to write stories, not disabled stories—and yet…
In my writing, I have gravitated towards magical realism in part because I love the genre, but if I’m being honest, I lean that way because its conventions allow you to distort the visual world. In a sense, it is a convention that can compensate for my lacking vision.
For anyone who may read this and be struggling with the same question, wondering if they are confined as a writer to the cage of your identity, I guess my answer has to be “I don’t know.” There are pros and cons to staying within your lane, and if your personal experience is a story you feel needs to be told then by all means tell it. But if, as a disabled or neurodivergent writer, you want to imagine characters beyond your perception despite the fact that you may have to explain away some quirks—that’s fine too. The neutral metaphor is as mythical as the perception of Homer and Milton and whether in acting or writing, it should be considered with a 12lbs bag of salt.
Or if you read this to gain a different perspective, as always,
Thanks for reading.