John Boyne has defended his YA novel about a transgender teen and responded to “arrogant” critics who tell authors to only write about their own experiences.
Boyne faced a fierce backlash on Twitter over My Brother’s Name is Jessica (Puffin), about a boy called Sam trying to understand and accept his transgender sister. Some branded the novel transphobic while others claimed he misgendered and dead-named the character Jessica.
Puffin has stood by its writer, while Boyne told The Bookseller Sam and Jessica’s story was “a deliberately imperfect one in order for me to highlight the mistakes people make and how important empathy is”.
He stuck to his guns during an appearance at the Hay Festival, The Guardian reported, criticising “terrible” advice to authors they should only write about what they know.
The writer told the audience: “If we only write about what we know, it’s all biography.”
Boyne said he had written about everything from the Holocaust to the Russian revolution and had never been criticised for it.
He went on: “If we say we can only write about our own experiences, the corollary of that, for example, is that a transgender writer can only write about transgender characters. I don’t feel it’s my job as a reader or a writer to tell anyone what they can or can’t write. We are supposed to use our imaginations, to put ourselves into the minds and the bodies of others.”
The author also criticised statements like “stay in your lane” as "arrogant", saying: “A lot of the time it’s about people trying to tell you they are morally superior to you; they know how these things should be written.”
Boyne's experience helped open a debate about the use of sensitivity readers in UK publishing. Although Boyne did not use one himself, his publisher revealed the author had help from an an Inclusive Minds ambassador for the book.