Writing about autism can be controversial. But imagine, imagine that the process around Mark Haddon’s “A Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime” had happened with some other condition than autism. I’m going to use an example of a physical illness which was freighted with controversy and wrapped up in competing agendas. This is not intended to be a metaphor of equivalence. But one that allows us to look at a situation from a different angle.
So, imagine a writer wanted to avoid all the associations and controversies around HIV but just write about an individual’s experience of it rather than making them a symbol.
(A laudable aim)
So they don’t say their fictional protagonist has got HIV. Maybe they call it an “Auto immune condition” although the book jacket DOES refer to it as HIV.
(confusing, but okay…I suppose writers don’t always have confidence to have control of things like marketing and publishers would want to cash in).
The novelist reads some articles about people with HIV but doesn’t do any specific research, or talk to people with HIV because “imagination is better than research”
(Hang on, some alarm bells are jangling now)
They therefore write about some aspects of HIV which are not actually a feature of the condition. They also focus on the group most associated with HIV in the West- gay men, and for good measure, end up reinforcing some of the caricatures from the most stigmatising fictional narratives about the Aids epidemic.
But a good thing is that this main character is actually likeable and relatable and is therefore taken up (except by people with HIV) as a positive representation of the illness. It does engage some hearts and minds and make people recognise that they weren’t as aware of the condition as they could have been. The protagonist’s point of view makes people realise that “normality” is a relative concept and cuts through some of their judgments and prejudices.
(Nothing’s ever simple is it?)
The book becomes a bestseller and a classic, and it turns out some counsellors and patients are basing their conception of HIV on the symptoms of the character in the book
(Thaaat’s not good)
The author of the novel disavows this use of his book, and points out that he never speaks at events on HIV because he isn’t an expert on it.
(But his book has become inextricably associated with it. Is that his fault?)
In a Twitter debate about whether it’s okay for novelists to write from the point of view of minority characters, he said this week:
“But when an entitled writer borrows the voice of someone who’s been denied that voice in real life, and clearly has no understanding of this injustice, the writing clangs like a cracked bell.”
(Hang on, that’s a bit ironic)
Yes, that’s what I thought when I read it. Let us kill the metaphor and return to reality. Mark Haddon wrote an immensely popular book about an engaging Aspergers character, Christopher Boone. He did not engage with autistic people to do this. Autistic people are still massively under represented and under voiced in employment, in the media, in the arts and in the telly programmes (and plays- the first autistic actor to play the character in the play of the book was engaged last year after the play had been running since 2012 ) churned out about them in which they still, mostly, do not star. They are spoken about not to, or with. Haddon passionately believes that “Labels say nothing about a person, they say only how the rest of us categorise that person”; His Blog). The irony is, that his attempt to avoid tokenism and labels has led him to derive a character from caricatures, archetypes and stereotypes of Aspergers, rather than from the complicated, multiple, layered realities of it. It is true that the labels do not currently do justice to autism. But what we need is more writers who are willing to listen to the voices of actually autistic people. And more actually autistic writers.
This blog by Greg Olear is good on what it is about Christopher Boone that “clangs like a cracked bell” for some autistic people – but mainly the damaging thing is the continuing reiteration of Aspergers people as being solitary savants who are cold and literal. Here
New, powerful writing is coming through and I can recommend, for example, this piece by Joanne Limburg who wrote the poetry collection “The Autistic Alice” and is now working on a piece for a new anthology for Unbound about Otherness. In which Othered voices ring out for themselves. Excerpt
I engaged in some Twitter back and forth with Mark Haddon after that Tweet and I’m not sure we got anywhere really. In my “Not out” life as a writer we’ve done some work for the same organisation and it would be good to talk further about this. It doesn’t seem very productive to retrospectively criticise the decisions he made around the writing of what has become a very well loved and influential book. I just wish he would show some awareness of how very silenced autistic people still are.
Of course, these things are never, ever black and white:
Him- “I’m genuinely sorry you feel the novel is unhelpful. but I have many letters from readers for whom it has proved profoundly helpful. i can only hope that the latter outweighs the former”.