The Woman who Walked into Doors, written by Booker Award-winning Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, is a novel from 1996 with a strange pedigree. Its narrative began life as part of an award-winning 1994 television miniseries called Family, also written by Doyle. It was then partially ‘novelized’ to produce the work in question.
Despite being a novelization of a multimedia production—a strategy most well known for its overabundance of slapdash cash grabs—The Woman who Walked into Doors is an excellent novel. But its origin is not the subject of this article, and its quality is secondary to that subject; the subject of this article is the book’s representation of its narrator and protagonist, a working class woman who is abused by her husband, who cares deeply for her child, and who develops a drinking problem.
In particular, this article intends to consider a point of view which I have encountered over and over again in academic, professional, and casual discussions of different works of art. It is a point of view to which I am sympathetic, but with some serious reservations, and it is something that I can not help but think about when working on my own creative writing. It can be summed up relatively well as follows: ‘It is disingenuous or morally questionable for an artist to assume the perspective of a person with an identity the artist does not personally possess, especially when that identity is underprivileged, disadvantaged, or underrepresented in the artist’s culture.’ This is a delicate topic, and one I intend to give a fair consideration.
The Woman who Walked into Doors intends to be the story of Paula Spencer, as told by Paula Spencer. The character describes, nonchronologically, the progression of her courtship and ensuing marriage with Charlo, as well as some sequences from her childhood. She is a troubled character who tries and doesn’t always succeed to do the right thing in a bad (and progressively worse) situation. She is the victim of an emotionally and physically abusive spouse. She is impoverished, hungry, and intermittently dependent on alcohol. The man who invented her, Roddy Doyle, is a successful male novelist who has never disclosed having experienced any abuse.
The Woman who Walked into Doors is Flawed:
Now, if you’ve never looked too closely at representation in the abstract, then you might be tempted to say, ‘So what? What’s the big deal? The writer isn’t the character. You’re just describing how fiction works.’ Well, as I said above, I am sympathetic to the presented point of view with some reservations, and to some extent I agree that this is a fundamental aspect of writing. But before touching on the ways in which I agree with that response, I would like to defend the point of view saying that there is some issue here.
Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote an essay several decades ago entitled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In it, she argues that cultural criticism (and in particular, postcolonial criticism) has to deal with having an inherent flaw. The people practicing postcolonialism are almost all academics, and are almost necessarily external to (and privileged by comparison to) the classes and groups whose situations and histories they hope to spread and reclaim.
Spivak’s overarching concern is that postcolonial practices are sometimes (if not always) doing some of the same political, representational, and presumptuous things as are found among the colonial practices they so despise. The big question, then, is, ‘How and under what circumstances can such a class or group speak for itself?’ Perhaps any representational effort (i.e. any well-intentioned act of ‘speaking on behalf of’) is always doing some harm.
(I should clarify here that Spivak is careful to say that the groups to which she is referring—and identifying with subalternity—are truly voiceless. As such, no one in Doyle’s novel is subaltern; Doyle’s characters do have voices and representation, however limited or repressed. It is Spivak’s general observation regarding external perspectives that carries over, but not her specific insight into irreconcilable discursive imbalances.)
Consider another recent popular work: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Skloot’s 2010 book was the subject of an article I wrote last month. But, rather than representation, I decided to use that earlier article to discuss tone and the presentation of the scientific community in creative non-fiction. Still, both Roddy Doyle and Rebecca Skloot provide voices for communities that they are not a part of, and both writers benefitted immensely by providing those voices (however much relevant charity and fund allocation they also facilitated).
In fact, while it was an obvious possible topic with Rebecca Skloot and Roddy Doyle, the ethics of representation is a topic which is relevant to every work of narrative art. If a work has characters, then it necessarily engages with the ethics of representation, either directly or indirectly. The Woman who Walked into Doors foregrounds this topic, but it lurks in my mind every time I find myself struggling to know exactly what one of my characters would say at a particular time. And when I make a decision, is my guess at the reaction of a person with all of that character’s attributes even remotely correct? I have no way of knowing for sure.
The Woman who Walked into Doors is Not Flawed:
This is the part where I get to those serious reservations I mentioned near the beginning of the article. Here’s the biggest one: the strict, unwavering, and rigid adherence to the point-of-view that says it is wrong to represent identities that one has not personally experienced is actually demanding a pretty strange sort of art. Taking that line of thinking to its logical conclusion would destroy writing as we know it, as writers would be forced to write only characters that were literally themselves.
In order to have no issues of representation whatsoever, Roddy Doyle would have had to write the story of Roddy Doyle’s abusive marriage to Roddy Doyle, and their interactions with their child, who is a young Roddy Doyle. When the character Roddy Doyle interacts with the police, the entire police force would have to be a number of uniformed Roddy Doyles. And certainly this seems like an interesting postmodern idea (for some reason it reminds me of the name ‘Malkovich’ . . .), but I have no interest in seeing all art reduced to this sort of strange exercise in ego.
The only alternative I can conceive is a situation where no individual can write a work of fiction (every work would have to be a communal exercise, with each character being written by someone sharing their own identity with the character in question). A landscape of fiction wherein any given author could only people their works with copies of themselves, or else not express an individual voice, is a barren landscape full of exclusively boring or cacophonous literature.
Another concern is that ethically minded commentators may be unthinkingly promoting social complacency, against their own best intentions. After all, if one seeks to remedy the lack of diverse voices in a given cultural practice, then squashing the tentative efforts to call attention to such social issues by those already controlling that practice seems like a bad move. It implies that changes in the diversity and representation within a field must happen all at once, or not at all. And given the relative unlikelihood of a large group of people spontaneously changing their minds without having their viewpoints first expanded or challenged, it just seems like a recipe for stagnation.
Compromise and Irony:
Alright, so I argued for the position and I argued against it. Where does that leave us? Well, if you’re anything like me, that leaves you with a sense of the need for compromise. Grant me a tangent, and I’ll provide that compromise: philosopher Thomas Nagel contends that an individual’s experience of absurdity is insurmountable because people will always be simultaneously taking their lives seriously at the same time as being aware of the insignificance of their lives and actions; in response to this, he contends that one must maintain a sense of irony in approaching all aspects of life.
Similarly, I feel that one must approach this particular artistic problem by maintaining an awareness of the issues at play, yet without letting that awareness destroy the art. Accept the value and gauge the aesthetic merit of The Woman who Walked into Doors, but remain aware of the fact that the author is not a poor battered wife. Let that be part of the conversation and advocate for giving voices to every facet and subset of the community; but also don’t call for the silencing or devaluing of a voice simply because it is a member of the majority.
Enjoy art as you always have, but maintain your sense of irony. In many ways, this is similar to the conclusion of my article on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from back in October, which also related to ethics in art.
Consider again the case of Rebecca Skloot. I see her cause (spreading awareness of the medical and scientific communities’ exploitation and mistreatment of African Americans—and of Henrietta Lacks in particular) as a noble one, and I perceive Rebecca Skloot to be sincere in her pursuit of that cause. But this does not mean that I am precluded from observing that she is also the latest in a very long line of people that have found financial success by gathering information and materials from the Lacks family.
So, finally, that is my position on Doyle’s novel. It is vitally important that fiction and non-fiction as well-written as The Woman who Walked into Doors continue to cover such unfavorable aspects of the human experience as poverty and domestic abuse. Roddy Doyle wrote a great novel with important themes, and his own identities should most assuredly never prevent him from writing about whatever topic he wants to cover.
But saying all of that (and so thoroughly praising Doyle’s novel) does not mean that I am prevented from observing that the whole scenario in The Woman who Walked into Doors is a fictionalized amalgamation of Doyle’s research, experiences, and imagination. As such, it remains fraught with potential (as well as likely) misrepresentations of the psychology, actions, and attributes of impoverished people and victims of abuse. After all, it is the case—very broadly paraphrasing Spivak—that Doyle is not capable of fully being in the community under study and simultaneously commenting upon the community from outside.
I know that the above three-paragraph middle-of-the-road assessment doesn’t fit cleanly on a bumper sticker, but stubborn, divisive statements may just naturally be more catchy than compromise. Regardless, I will continue to advocate for reasonable compromise solutions to difficult philosophical and cultural problems, even if they’re more difficult to market.