How does a blind person experience the broadening mouth and widening eyes of someone else’s smile? How does a blind fiction writer like myself convey a blind character noticing that smile?
There is almost no mainstream fiction with blind characters written by blind authors. As far as I can tell, you won’t find any by Jorge Luis Borges or James Thurber. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is a questionable exception, while Edward Hoagland’s In the Country of the Blind (2016) is the only indisputable non–young adult example in recent decades.
Sighted authors create blind characters, but to blind readers, they are almost invariably suspect. In Anthony Doerr’s otherwise admirable All the Light We Cannot See, a 16-year-old blind girl implausibly detects the tiniest objects with touch, and yet needs her father to help her bathe, an even more implausible claim that is excruciating to read for anyone familiar with blind people. To walk around town, she counts steps, which sighted people may view as a logical strategy, but that, as a practical matter, makes no sense. Our strides change length with changing moods and energy levels, and concentrating on counting distracts from critical clues about the environment.
In my novel Caroline, I present a mainstream story whose first-person narrator is a young blind lawyer named Nick. The focus is on his relationship with charismatic but mysterious Caroline as he fitfully establishes himself in his chosen career. The novel is set in New York City, during that stimulating period when it was emerging from the financial crises of the 1970s. And yes, Nick’s disability plays a prominent role as he figures out how to get things done in a sighted world and navigates relationships with sighted friends, colleagues, and office heads.
A question that often comes up among fellow writers and editors is how a blind character can possibly know this or that. For example, when a sighted character sees another character in a novel show amusement, it’s sufficient for the author to write, “She smiled.” However, when I have a blind narrator observe a smile, critics will ask something along these lines: “How can he know? He doesn’t see.” I’m forced to reword my sentence like this: “He could tell from her tone of voice that she was smiling.”
The trouble is that emphasizing differences in manners of perceiving sets blind characters apart. In doing so, it subordinates hearing and intuition to the power of sight. Although in real life I can’t see a person smiling, I always know when they are from tone of voice, context, and other similar clues that I process without thinking. Visual observation of a smile is at least as complex as auditory recognition, but an elaborate phrase for a blind character’s recognition suggests a less natural process. Besides, while the processes might differ, the results are mostly the same.
The question becomes how do I convey a blind character’s experiences without constantly highlighting differences like these. The method I’ve adopted in the case of smiles is, the first time around, to employ the labored tone-of-voice formulation, but afterward to write simply, “She smiled.” By that point, I trust the reader has absorbed the point. Indeed, readers of Caroline have commented that although they began the novel with a heightened awareness of Nick’s blindness, it dropped partway through into the background.
I don’t wish to oversimplify. A feature that attracts me to novels is the fact that their authors can explore complexity. Tasks can be more difficult for blind people. The way sighted people react to blind people ranges from unquestioning acceptance to incurable skepticism. Loss of sight means loss of sensory experiences that mainstream society takes for granted. My ultimate answer is that we’re all in this together, whether sighted or blind, and we all lack certain experiences had by others. Most people will never know a quarterback’s joy from launching a 50-yard pass, while the beauty of mathematics will be lost to someone with a number phobia.
Still, the details are, like the devil, in the details. Although secondary to Caroline’s main story line, the depiction of Nick’s journey through a visually oriented society should be riveting in its own right.
If Caroline reaches a mainstream audience, I will be happy. I doubt I need to insert an emoji here to show what that reaction would look like.
Adrian Spratt practiced law for 20 years before returning to his first love, fiction writing. Retinal detachment led to his loss of vision when he was 13. His new novel, Caroline, was published in February.