How To: Write Difference

February 1, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 7

“Writing difference is a challenge, particularly in fiction. How do men write women and vice versa? How do writers of one race or ethnicity write about people of another race or ethnicity? More important, how do writers tackle difference without reducing their characters to caricatures or stereotypes?” Roxane Gay reviews Joyce Carol Oates‘s The Sacrifice and simultaneously explains how to write difference well. Hint: it “demands empathy, an ability to respect the humanity of those you mean to represent.”

is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York and every so often writes things at


  1. Lest the hasty reader think this is article is about how to actually write about people different from oneself, the link is to a review of a book that stupendously fails to do it.

  2. Or rather Joe, the link is to a review by Roxane Gay, who calls Joyce Carol Oates “deeply offensive” for not writing about black people in the right way (a way in which, apparently, only Roxane Gay is privileged to).

  3. @Mygod

    Considering she provides some examples of books that write across the racial divide, I’m not sure your parenthetical is charitable.

    Although you could maybe take issue with the examples she provided. Southern Cross the Dog is a Southern Gothic novel about a black man written by an Asian American who has never even visited Mississippi. Considering the many imaginative leaps Cheng was already making, Gay may have been more generous with her assessment than she would have been in a strictly realist approach, such as Oates’. Round House is written by Erdrich, a native American, but almost all the characters are Native American except a handful of secondary characters (including the villain) are white. So that strikes me as an odd example for Gay to pick.

    I don’t think Gay’s position is indefensible at all, just that her examples are somewhat strange. I wonder what she thinks of Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner.

    It’ll be interesting to see if other authors or critics, particularly black writers/critics, will respond to Gay’s review.

  4. @Ross – thanks for the detailed reply. To be a little clearer about it – while Roxane Gay does indicate that there writers who can write across “the racial divide,” I was implying that I don’t see how Gay has more claim to being an arbiter than Oates.

    In other words, there’s a bad faith at work here – wherein Gay assumes she knows “the correct racial fiction” and Oates has clearly failed whatever definitional line Gay thinks is clear, I strongly doubt that the definition holds up under any scrutiny. This is unfortunate, because if it’s this easy for a good author like Oates to be accused of racism (which is the underlying message here, or at least, an accusation of drastic racial insensitivity) the less people will write novels with a diverse cast.

  5. @Robin Thanks, that was a welcome counterpart.

    I myself think that Oates can be critiqued as much as one likes from a literary standpoint but accusing her of a lack of empathy and then saying she writes “deeply offensive” works about race is pretty much the definition of insanity, or rather, the definition of the “if you’re not on my side in my exact way you’re expressing ancient evils” mode of argument that people like Gay fall into at the drop of a hat.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.