Writing Ethics - voice and appropriation of voice

Voice is what all writers of literary fiction are supposed to strive for: that distinctive, 'hooky' element of writing that gives personality to the prose, rather than the protagonist.

Appropriation of voice is a politically correct term that says certain people aren't allowed to write in the voice of certain other people. Like, for example, white people writing as black people, or healthy, well-educated men writing as drug addicts. The point should be about truth - that we shouldn't pretend a thing is true when it isn't: clearly that's lying whether it's done face to face or on a page and it fails a whole number of tests from honesty to the Trade Descriptions Act. If I buy a memoir by a teenage prostitute who sells his body for crack cocaine, I have every right to be refunded if it turns out the 'true history' was written by a middle aged woman from Milton Keynes.

Sadly, this silly pronouncement about appropriation of voice extends to fiction too. I am not the only writer who's had nasty emails or letters about fiction that extended beyond my own white female persona, but others are not as able to talk about it. A church congregation in South London wrote to me complaining that one of my stories portrayed black male youth in a bad light and that - anyway- I had no 'right' to present my fiction in the voice of a black male because I'd 'stolen' an identity.

Excuse me?

This is a downright silly idea. The list of great books that would never have been published on this basis includes Madame Bovary (a man writing as a woman) , The White Hotel (a man writing as a woman who experienced the Holocaust) and The Sound and The Fury (a white man writing as three other white men, one of them a mentally handicapped boy, and a black man), and of course we couldn't have Robinson Crusoe becuase Daniel Defoe was not actually himself shipwrecked, or Moll Flanders, because he wasn't a female prostitute either.

The ultimate absurdity of this 'appropriation of voice' edict is that nobody could write science fiction unless they were aliens, or ghost stories unless they were dead.

A writer of fiction should stand or fall by the quality of their fiction. If I can convince you I'm a young black man, then that's all that matters. I'm not claiming to be a reporter - fiction isn't about 'telling it like it is' regardless of all the people who claim exactly that. Fiction is about telling a good story - if that happens to illuminate truth along the way it's a bonus, but it's not the purpose of the art.