Monday, October 17, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  


A short while ago on this blog, I used the term “cultural appropriation” in a footnote to my comments on the novel Porgy, which concerns black people but which was written (in the 1920s) by a white man. As I noted in some detail, the novel has some merits but its view of black people tends to be patronising and sometimes leans on stereotypes.

A week or so after I scheduled that particular post (you see ‘em weeks after I write and schedule ‘em), a dispute blew up about the whole “cultural appropriation” thing.

In early September, at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the American (woman) novelist Lionel Shriver gave a keynote address condemning the whole concept of “cultural appropriation” as it is currently too often applied to literature. Her argument was that it is the business of novelists and other fiction-writers to pretend to be people other than themselves; and that therefore there should be no cultural censors to say that novelists cannot write from the viewpoint of people of different races or in different cultures from their own. Shriver contended that to censure any such representations would be to lock novelists into the very limited world of their own direct experience. And after all, all characters created by novelists are fictions. Novelists should be free to adopt any mask they will. If, in depicting races and cultures other than their own, they are wilfully demeaning or insulting, that can be picked up and, if necessary, rebuked by critics and others. But there should be no straightjackets limiting what authors write.

An angry response came from the Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the daughter of African Muslim immigrants. Not only did Abdel-Magied walk out of Shriver’s address in protest, but she penned a long article condemning Shriver for smelling of white privilege. According to Abdel-Magied, it is very easy for white authors to write about the experiences of other – often minority – cultures; but it is very hard for books coming out of those cultures to be as widely distributed as those by white authors. There is, she claimed, a disproportion of power between cultures. So it would be proper for white authors to let other cultures express themselves rather than pretending to express them in their fictional characters.

I have read both arguments in toto (they were both published on-line…. and I sedulously ignored the more hysterical comments that they both copped from some readers). I can see some merit in both viewpoints, although I have to admit I would be more on Shriver’s side that Abdel-Magied’s in this particular stoush. To tell authors to keep off any subject or form of representation will always be a form of censorship. If Abdel-Magied’s principle became universal, then we would have in novels no depiction of any characters other than those belonging to the author’s own culture and ethnicity and we would have no gay characters in novels by straight people (and vice versa) and we would have no historical novels (they always represent a culture the author hasn’t experienced) and so on. Abdel-Magied might make a good case for seeing more novels written by people of other cultures, but that is not the same as a case for limiting what authors are allowed to write.

It isn’t as if this particular argument is entirely new. I was a teenager when William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner was published in 1967. As a rather patrician white man, Styron was rebuked in many quarters for presuming to write from the viewpoint of an African slave who led a rebellion in the early nineteenth century. I read the novel and thought it was pretty good, but I later learned that a group of black critics produced a volume of essays condemning Styron’s presumption. I couldn’t help wondering if the black academics would themselves be any more equipped to take on the persona of a slave rebel from an earlier century. It would be like me pretending to write in the persona of a Scots peasant.

In the 49 years since The Confessions of Nat Turner was published, however, complaints about “cultural appropriation” in fiction have become very commonplace. It usually has virtually nothing to do with the quality of the books in contention, and that is part of my difficulty with the concept of “cultural appropriation”.

Isn’t it demonstrable that capable novelists can writer meaningfully about people who lead very different lives and inhabit very different cultures from the author? I remember once reading with disgust one idiot’s comment that Joseph Conrad was a racist and that’s all there is to it.” Apparently we were meant to ignore all the novels by a great master of English prose because he lived in an imperialist age and sometimes made the same assumptions about other peoples that imperialists did. Surely the right procedure would be to read his novels for all the great things that are in them while noting how attitudes in some areas have moved on. But then that’s true of nearly all the great literature you could name.

Again, I remember thirty years ago teaching Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to a very small class of senior high school girls. Half this very small class were Samoan. Like the whole class (and much to my delight) they enjoyed Vanity Fair, which is a great credit to both them and the author, given that it is a Victorian novel of such formidable length that most modern teenagers would be put off it. But the Samoan girls also pointed out the racism of some conversations in the novel, where English suitors are ridiculed for being interested in West Indian heiresses of mixed blood. This didn’t impair their enjoyment or appreciation of the novel, but it did make them acutely aware that not all the author’s values were their own.

The response to “cultural appropriation” lies somewhere in that area. By all means protest about stereotypes and gross misrepresentations of a culture – but don’t set out rules for authors to follow. And don’t blanket-judge much good literature, which occasionally expresses values with which you disagree.

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