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  • 27 September 2022
A few years ago, the editor behind one of Australia’s most lucrative non-fiction writing prizes changed its rules. The Saturday Paper’s Erik Jensen decided the Horne prize would no longer consider any essay purporting to ‘represent the experiences of those in any minority community of which the writer is not a member’.

The new rule specifically prohibited essays about the experience of First Nations Australians from non-indigenous entrants, and essays about the LGBTQI community from entrants without ‘direct experience of this community’.

I can understand the urge to protect and support minority groups, particularly those with a long history of being mistreated, misrepresented and misunderstood. Many editors work hard to give such writers a voice.

But I was surprised by the underlying assumption that entrants shouldn’t be writing about groups they didn’t belong to, as if this couldn’t be done with honesty and insight, respect and restraint. Difficult, yes, but impossible?

In an essay on Catholicism and the art instinct, Australian author Charlotte Wood writes about another identity marker — religion. The author talks about how artists often find creative enrichment from a religious sensibility, and about her own Catholic upbringing.

She’s writing as a sceptic, not a believer, and she doesn’t pretend otherwise. She’s not seeking to represent ‘those in any minority community of which [she’s] not a member’; even if she were, the Catholic community is not exactly marginalised.

'It’s evidence of how wildly inconsistent we are when it comes to pursuing an authentic voice. We nurture and embrace some identities, we distrust and deride others. Sometimes, those from within a community are the preferred authority, at other times, the opposite is so.'

But what if she were writing as a believer? Would that be viewed as more authentic, more desirable, more print-worthy? Or less? Wood doesn’t ask the question, but she comes close to answering it. ‘As a species, writers are quick to show respect for Indigenous spiritual beliefs, for Islam or Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism, but Christianity is a no-go zone,’ she says.

Some of her ‘atheist writer friends’ are ‘compelled by the complexity of theology, or irresistibly drawn to the machinations of church power, or fascinated by the high camp of Catholic spectacle’.

’But few writers are publicly candid about their faith in any kind of God — and those few must surely know it makes people suspicious.’

Wood recalls attending a writing retreat where a participant ‘broke into tears of genuine terror’ before ‘confessing’