There’s a good chance that most of the books you have read are written in Standard Writing English (SWE).
What is SWE?
Basically, SWE is a form of English that is uniform in spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. It includes the established formal and informal regional differences used in the writing and speech of educated people, and it is accepted wherever English is understood.
You’ll note that one of the key attributes of SWE is that it’s the language of the educated. For this reason, SWE is often referred to as Standard White English, and the biggest criticism of SWE is its contribution to the ongoing oppression of marginal voices.
So, why am I talking about SWE and why should you care?
Because the publishing world is overwhelmingly white. Because the vast majority of books published are written in SWE. Because maybe you’re unknowingly contributing to the problem by only writing white characters and/or only reading books written by white authors. Because it takes an intelligent and contentious writer to create a riveting story that not only reflects our present moment, but also interrogates it.
One of the core questions (there are many more*) that bubbles to the surface whenever discussing SWE is: What is good writing?
The short answer: White.
The long answer: this sh*t is complicated.
The pragmatic answer: clear, concise, emotive, propelling, compelling, invisible.
Good writing feels like a universal standard. We just know it when we see it.
People in positions of power who uses subjectivity as their defence for saying “no” — it’s just not my style — fail to witness their own biases. They do not realise that their judgement is steeped in cultural and social beliefs; a lens that shapes their perspective on what quantifies as “good art”.
Personal “taste” is biases in wolf’s clothing. The publishing (and reading) world’s definition of what is literary, worthy, high-brow, intellectual come from somewhere for all beliefs have a history.
The reason why we assume that good writing is white writing is because most of the books we have read, studied, and see on listicles and shortlists are written in SWE. Now of course, there are exceptions, how could there not be when, according to Google, there is nearly 130 million books in print.
The preference for and publication of SWE is a perpetual cycle.
People in power (white) published stories by people who used the same language as them; writers kept writing in said style so they would get published; writing teachers trained their students how to write in order to meet industry standards (ie: get publish); and teachers across disciplines trained their student how to write in order to meet their industry standards (ie: get a job).
Now, SWE isn’t evil, after all, there are benefits to having a wildly accepted and understood form of writing. Being able to write a book in a language that is comprehendible to a wide audience is an efficient way to share a story.
While a standardised form of writing allows for mass communication, it is not fully inclusive.
However, writers, readers and publishers are more aware than ever about the faults of standardised writing. Debates about appropriation and the demand for greater diversity in fiction continue to appear on the bill of literary festivals, book events, and conferences. Not to mention the volumes of opinion pieces and articles that have been penned on the matter.
The issue here is that appropriation bumps heads with diversity.
White writers continue to write white characters because they fear the criticism that could follow if they wrote non-white character – even though that is what readers want. This fear is not without warrant; many white writers are accused of appropriation. However, this usually only happens if the non-white characters are depicted stereotypically or if the story is somehow exploitive.
This then raises a whole slew of questions, such as: who are books for? What is a universal language? What are writers for? What are novels for? How can you judge the quality of prose without standardisation? How do we want the system to change? How are we asking writers to change?
And again, what is good writing?
A basic answer: you know it when you see it.
But this defence of subjectivity is no good to us other, for how can we trust that our biases will not affect our judgement?
The only conclusion I can arrive to is this: writing is not writing, it is revision.
Writer, readers, and publishers are aware of the limitations of standardised writing and they want to do better. In the same way that a work of fiction can be tweaked, rework, and improved with time and effort; our desire to do better and to expect more of ourselves and the books that line the hallways of our homes will begin the dismantling of an industry that favours the voices of some while silencing others.
What do you think? What are the pros and cons of a standardised writing system? Have you read many novels that would not be considered SWE? I’d love to know, please leave your comments or reflects below.
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