Ahhhh Lionel Shriver. The single most polarising name in literary circuits right now. I am sure she is darn right proud of herself – how she managed to infinitely amplify her notoriety on people’s lips and coming out of people’s keyboards over the past couple of weeks. Do we think she has Google Alerts coming into her inbox every time a new article crops up?
Sigh okay. I have had so so many conversations, discussions and debates about this topic now. I’m not really one to add more fuel to the fire, but just in case someone asks me again, I just thought I would write it down in one spot – so here we go.
My thoughts on this whole Shriver-gate
- Regardless if you agree with her argument or not, Lionel Shriver was out of line to bring this up at a festival where the theme she was supposed to speak on was ‘Connecting and Belonging’ (I equate it to going to someone’s funeral and serving a notice to the deceased’s family – time and place people). I don’t care if you’re a known iconoclast – you’re a high profile human being and are expected to abide by standard social decorum. (Read it as you’re paid to do your job)
- Writers can 100% write whatever they want, whoever they want, however they want to. There’s never going to be some industry body out there policing what writers can and can’t write – outside of the usual publishers and gatekeepers that we already are well familiar with. No one is trying to say you’re not ‘allowed’ to do something – or maybe they are, but so what? Seriously, we’re all adults here and you think we would have evolved and matured beyond ‘Bobby says I can’t play in the sandbox’ schoolyard dynamics. It’s absurd to think that there’s going to be any actual ‘policing’ of cultural appropriation in a literary sense, UNLESS publishers decide that they’re going to lose money on this because the public has universally decided that they’re not going to read culturally appropriated writing – which would be more surprising than the unicorn that farts rainbows.
Note my comment on the policing of cultural appropriation is only in relation to literature. Meanwhile, I’m not going to touch on the university parties and sombreros that Shriver brings up because those are ENTIRELY separate issues – no matter how she tries to stand in solidarity with her sombrero wearing ‘frat brothers’. (Please let me know if you want to know why I insist it is a separate issue)
- Writers can write whatever they want – while readers and other writers can and SHOULD respond emotionally and angrily if they feel that they being misrepresented. They can and should clamour for greater diversity in literature and media – for their own voices to be heard. No one should feel threatened by this. Good writers should always be looking to improve and if they have written a character or experience that is not their own and readers feel misrepresented and angry, then they ought to cop it on the chin, examine the process and then aim to do better next time. Like with any criticism – you don’t respond.
- What angers and frustrates me about the Shriver supporters is that they don’t seem to be willing to acknowledge or understand that the emotional response that the critics have to ‘cultural appropriation’ is not about them! It is about the system, about social history that has kept minority voices marginalised for too long. It is about systemic frustration and a need to express their opinions, to make their voices heard and own their stories because they haven’t been able to. It’s a sense of empowerment – and the heart of the conversation is very rarely about the induvidual ‘writer’. So white writers feeling all exposed and worried about their craft, relax – it’s really not about YOU.
- Furthermore, in not realising that the heart of the conversation is not about them, I’m sensing that the supporters of her argument are trying to double down and justify how they are entitled/allowed to appropriate with all of these examples of literature and writers who have done it well in the past. (I swear, to me, the only purpose of some of these defenses seems to be to demonstrate how well-read they are). But the problem is, and Shriver herself is the worst offender, in doing so they are not acknowledging the validity of the emotional response and suffering because to them the emotion ‘shouldn’t be happening.’ It’s the lack of any emotional empathy, a collective sociopathy – like questioning why anyone would bother to cry when their grandparents die, since they lived a long life. People are genuinely hurt by cultural appropriation – for good reason. Even if it doesn’t make ‘sense’ to you – by not acknowledging the emotional response you’re rejecting their humanity – and we’re back to why people get upset about the whole issue in the first place.
- Finally, I’ve heard a lot of people say that ultimately, it should be about the quality of the writing and it doesn’t matter who writes the characters as long as the writing is good. There are a couple of issues here. One, no one is saying we promote BAD writing for the sake of diversity. That’s just stupid and so not the point. Secondly, while the writing as a whole may be solid, the representation can still be wrong and needs to be addressed. I can be a fantastic French chef and do a pretty good job at say making a Vietnamese pho on my first go because I understand the basics of taste combinations and cooking times, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. So we point out the flaws – and good chefs, like good writers, will listen, learn and aim to do better next time. Or even better, they will promote and champion and maybe even ‘mentor’ the promising and talented Vietnamese chef who may just be unsure abou how to navigate the nuances of the professional world! I often find what trips up minority writers trying to break into the market is some of the cultural nuances that come with growing up in a ‘white western world’. On the simplest level, I for one had to learn and adjust some of my American ‘training’ on how I ought to approach situations to work more effectively in the Australian market.
- The other thing about good and bad writing is – maybe we need to challenge our understanding of good and bad as well. I know our Western idea of story/structure buildup and plot is very different to some East Asian concepts of writing and story telling. Not saying we promote bad writing – but maybe we ought to extend our concepts a bit, say what we teach about structure and story template and climax etc in schools.
So what can you do?
If you’re white, if you’re not, if you’re trying to write – what are you going to do? Do whatever you want that makes you feel like a solid human being. It’s going to be personal and different for everyone. But know that this is a hot button topic and if you do culturally appropriate – be prepared for criticism. Heck, be prepared for criticism even if you write about your OWN culture. There’s always room to learn and grow.