When you hear the word “bias,” it immediately conjures negative associations. The truth is that we are all inherently biased, colored by our own experiences and the limitations of our own consciousness. There’s no way to get around it. I often hear those with the best of intentions proclaim that they are unbiased, but anyone using a realistic lens on the world around them knows that such a perspective is patently impossible. Human beings are destined to be biased, and writers are certainly no different, nor should they be.
Great writers have an uncanny ability to hold up a mirror to the world around them and reflect it in a way that makes everyone take notice. When I think about the many great novels I have read, I see the bias that makes them great. The writer’s slanted point of view may make readers uncomfortable, but at the same time, it affords them the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. Take To Kill a Mockingbird or The Bell Jar, both great novels steeped in bias. In many ways, Harper Lee took the stereotypical Southern view of the world in the 1930s and put it on display in the most unflattering light for everyone to see. Her bias exposed injustice with a bent toward righting a wrong. Likewise, Plath’s only novel aimed a bright light on the sexist attitudes of the 1950s with caricatures straight out of the decade before Mad Men.
Certainly, no one would argue that these novels are biased and unfair, especially given the critical and commercial success they have achieved, but the kernel of that success lies in the writers’ bias. Their views of the world around them shaped their novels and produced great work in the process. As a writer, it’s important to understand your own biases and leverage them to create great work. The difference between a good writer’s bias and a poor one’s is that the perspective is subtle, like slowly boiling water – the reader doesn’t realize what’s happening until she’s thrust into the middle of the plot mesmerized by interesting characters. She may not even understand the bias until she’s finished reading if it’s really good.
As a literary writer, I often create characters who are greatly flawed and struggling with the world around them. These characters and their struggles reflect my own biases, but I hope these perspectives have an impact on my readers and make them think about a point of view that is different than their own. I don’t seek to convince or convert but to shine a light on other possibilities. My first novel, The Vanishing, tackles the uncomfortable topic of the right to die as the main character grapples with losing her husband to early-onset dementia. As someone who is firmly in the camp of a person’s right to die, I wrote the novel with that bias in mind. I don’t make any apologies or excuses even if the novel ends in an unexpected way, nor do I get preachy. I let the novel unfold as it does naturally, but my bias is always there.
I don’t see it as a bad thing, something to be fixed or corrected. I see it as my opportunity to leave an indelible mark on the history of the written word. Great novels are biased in one way or another. It’s impossible to avoid, but sometimes, the very nature of the writer’s bias shines a light on the world in a way that transcends a simple written passage resulting in work that truly has an impact on millions of readers much like Mockingbird and The Bell Jar did on generations of readers. In that way, the writer’s bias is truly remarkable and effective in creating a unique work for the world to enjoy, and that is not something we want to tamp down or sweep under the rug of political correctness.