"A poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance"
September 13, 2016 6:22 AM   Subscribe

Lionel Shriver delivered the keynote address for the 54th edition of the Brisbane Writers Festival titled Fiction and Identity Politics addressing cultural appropriation in fiction writing.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out after 20 minutes describing the address as "A poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension."
posted by SpacemanRed (97 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Whenever I read an essay by Lionel Shriver I'm instantly reminded that she used to write for The Economist.
posted by Kattullus at 6:32 AM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Good lord at that speech. Is there a browser extension I can get where closing tabs can get an extra flourish, like the tab gets incinerated or broken over the Incredible Hulk's knee?

It's okay to get pushback on writing. It's okay to learn from it, even if you are a brilliant writer or whatever. It's okay to not react like someone mugged you on the street every time you get negative feedback. You may not like what someone is asking for but when you are at the apex of the privilege pyramid you need to allow them the space to speak.

Graceful maturity among creative white people is like beautiful sweet rain in the desert.
posted by selfnoise at 6:36 AM on September 13, 2016 [10 favorites]


Somewhere in Shriver's essay, but not well made, seems to be a point about making the distinction of critiquing a work as a work, rather than making an ad hominem attack on the position from which the work is produced.

From Yassmin Abdel-Magied's response: "It’s not always okay for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man,..."

But is the problem the act of writing? Or the veracity / believability of the account?

Should we really criticize the author for the attempt or should we actually feel more free to criticize the work when it fails? In an era of PC and Smarm, criticism itself has been defanged. Which means the only attack on a work is that one should not have dared to even produce it in the first place.
posted by mary8nne at 6:48 AM on September 13, 2016 [24 favorites]


Maybe the reason no one liked your book Big Brother is because it was a very bad book on many levels, not merely because you are a thin person writing about weight loss? (It wasn't a book about how unfairly fat people are judged, it was a book about dieting, with a particularly stupid gotcha ending.)
I maintained that fiction writers have a vested interest in protecting everyone’s right to offend others
Sure, you have that right. But that doesn't mean people don't have the right to criticize you, or even to offend you right back.
posted by jeather at 6:49 AM on September 13, 2016 [10 favorites]


But that doesn't mean people don't have the right to criticize you, or even to offend you right back.

But should the criticism be against the quality of the work itself or against one having the audacity to write a work on that topic?
posted by mary8nne at 6:55 AM on September 13, 2016 [10 favorites]


I am hopeful that the concept of “writers believing they have a unique and unimpeachable insight into human nature” is a passing fad.
posted by belarius at 6:59 AM on September 13, 2016 [13 favorites]


against one having the audacity to write a work on that topic?

But if you're a white writer working in the West there's nothing audacious about telling a story from the perspective of someone you don't understand. It's assumed that you can just do a couple of months of research (which the jacket blurb will call "exhaustive"), appoint yourself an expert on someone else's culture, and write their story. And how is credibility and authenticity established in such a case? By the approval of white readers and white critics. That's not audacious, it's presumptuous.

The criticism isn't limited to the individual, either. It's about people telling stories that don't belong to them while the people whose stories are being told are systematically denied access to the publishing world.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:00 AM on September 13, 2016 [44 favorites]


I am hopeful that the concept of “writers believing they have a unique and unimpeachable insight into human nature” is a passing fad.

I feel the same way about straw men.
posted by gwint at 7:02 AM on September 13, 2016 [22 favorites]


But should the criticism be against the quality of the work itself or against one having the audacity to write a work on that topic?

If you believe in this right to say whatever you want, however offensive, then either.

But so far we have someone who is sad because Shriver wrote a book about being an Armenian distant mother to a spree killing kid; someone who didn't read a book she wrote about fat people (possibly she had read reviews, or someone told her enough about it); wrote a book where the only black woman in it ends up being kept on a leash and people think it's racist (I can't imagine why).
posted by jeather at 7:04 AM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


There may be some good points buried in this speech, but then I came to this part:

In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.


If you are a white author who has the one black character in your book being led around on a leash by white people, you better expect some pretty harsh criticism. If you can't handle it, perhaps you might consider revising that particular plot point.
posted by TedW at 7:06 AM on September 13, 2016 [69 favorites]


But that doesn't mean people don't have the right to criticize you, or even to offend you right back.

But should the criticism be against the quality of the work itself or against one having the audacity to write a work on that topic?


Guess what? You don't get to tell minorities you're writing a book about whether their criticism is the right kind or not. Sorry!
posted by selfnoise at 7:06 AM on September 13, 2016 [9 favorites]


Graceful maturity

If only these women writers would be a bit more graceful in their public pronouncements eh?
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:10 AM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's about people telling stories that don't belong to them ...

But isn't this whole concept of intellectual property, that one can "own" a story, an idea, a character, a wholly modern western concept that only arose after the advent of printing presses?
posted by mary8nne at 7:13 AM on September 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research.

I wish I were a better writer so I could come up with a way to describe how incredibly gross it is that the person who wrote this sentence can have her opinion taken seriously about basically anything.
posted by Etrigan at 7:13 AM on September 13, 2016 [24 favorites]


But isn't this whole concept of intellectual property, that one can "own" a story, an idea, a character, a wholly modern western concept that only arose after the advent of printing presses?

It's "telling stories" as in identity and representation, not owning the rights to a specific story to tell.
posted by Think_Long at 7:14 AM on September 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


I took a course of poetry in university. A guest reading by Sharon Olds had me picking words out of my chest for a week. But I'm posting to relate Garret Hongo's story he told our class. Another writer was visiting Hongo in his native Hawaii and they were walking about an edge of the island that served as a village's graveyard and Hongo explained bodies were periodically washed out to sea. The guest writer, visibly moved, walked a small distance away from Hongo, took out a pen and paper, and began frantically scribbling. Hongo walked to him to ask what he was doing and the guest explained he was so inspired by the story of the graveyard he had to write about it. Hongo took the notes from the guest's hands, ripped them into pieces and threw them in the air. When the guest asked Why? Hongo said, "Only now do you know what it means to lose something from here."

It wasn't related as a joke.
I'm happy I live in a world where really terrible people write really terrible things and lots of people can say how really terrible it is.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 7:16 AM on September 13, 2016 [28 favorites]


You know, I actually have a family member who suffers from an early-onset dementing condition. "Lol, the joke is on you, you are afflicted with a wife with dementia while your first, virtuous wife is still of sound mind" is...I don't even know where to start. And then there's the racism.
posted by Frowner at 7:17 AM on September 13, 2016 [41 favorites]


But what does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.

I realize that this is not the most important thing that's wrong with Shriver's essay, but a professional writer shouldn't blithely equate the actual wearing of a hat, in this case a sombrero, with the metaphor of putting someone else's hat on, i.e. see the world from someone else's point of view.

Putting on a sombrero is not an act of imaginative empathy.
posted by Kattullus at 7:18 AM on September 13, 2016 [16 favorites]


This speech that Shriver wrote is frustrating and disappointing not simply because she's implacably hostile to the idea of cultural appropriation itself, but because she seems unable to understand it. At no point does she evince the sympathy or empathy (if you believe in those things) that is supposed to be a part of "trying on other people's hats," as she puts it. She chooses some slightly gratuitous instances (e.g., college students protesting the serving of inauthentic sushi) and then presents them as qualitatively indistinguishable from acts of cultural production that mirror and reproduce unjust historical-racial power dynamics, which seems to indicate that she's either hostile to the idea of social justice or isn't a sufficiently careful thinker to make much sense of the complexities of rhetoric and society. In any case, this reflects very poorly on her as a writer, to say nothing of how it makes her come across as a person.
posted by clockzero at 7:26 AM on September 13, 2016 [17 favorites]


Although I don't necessarily agree with every word, Shriver's speech is pretty obviously, from beginning to end, an objection to being told what she can write about by other people. It is not (except perhaps ambiguously in one or two places) an objection to other people disliking the writing that results. There's a big difference!

The only non-obnoxious reason I can think of for going around telling Shriver she shouldn't even try to perform acts of imaginative empathy is the idea that she is taking book sales and profile away from writers to whom those particular stories are first-hand experience. But this implies a fixed market appetite for a certain kind of story. I don't think that's how publishing works and I've never seen a shred of data to support it. It's far more likely she'd just continue to do well with books that lack those stories.

The way to amplify the voices of writers from marginalized groups is to amplify the voices of writers from marginalized groups, with economic subsidies where appropriate. Even if you succeeded in pressuring Shriver to shut up, it wouldn't aid this goal.
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:26 AM on September 13, 2016 [37 favorites]


This speech that Shriver wrote is [frustrating and disappointing] extremely illuminating.... because she seems unable to understand [the idea of cultural appropriation].

She doesn't understand it. Lots of people don't understand it. Somehow it needs to be made clearer. These people aren't misunderstanding because they are an evil conquering alien race who must be driven out.

If they were young enough, you'd probably ask how to explain this complex concept to them.

They're adults, though, which makes our reaction to them different (and them less receptive, but not totally unable to listen). They also seem extra scary and upsetting because they communicate well and to have positions of some power.

How do we meet misunderstanding, even hostile misunderstanding? How do we make this problem smaller? With hostility? With turning away?
posted by amtho at 7:35 AM on September 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


What I mean is, the reason these people are misunderstanding isn't because they are an evil conquering alien race who must be driven out. They are misunderstanding because they are our fellow humans who haven't got the same backgrounds and contexts as some others have.

Cultural appropriation is actually quite an advanced concept. You need all kinds of background information to be ready to have it explained. The short definition of it with no larger context doesn't make sense to a lot of people.
posted by amtho at 7:45 AM on September 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


I've watched in silent sadness as one of my favourite transgender authors has also, in her turn, railed against "PC culture/SJW/trigger warnings etc." Reading this address by Shriver has reminded me of that.
posted by Kitteh at 7:46 AM on September 13, 2016


Amtho, you're quite right. Minorities should patiently and calmly explain this concept to this speaker, an extremely educated and incredibly condescending and dismissive person. We should expect that of them, just as we expect posters to explain these concepts to people in every single cultural appropriation thread, over and over and over and over again.
posted by selfnoise at 7:48 AM on September 13, 2016 [22 favorites]


We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent

what
posted by kmz at 7:52 AM on September 13, 2016


Is it something about being a writer that cultivates this flavor of narcissistic pseudo-empathy, or does this vampiric empathy come with skill as a writer? I can't be the only one reminded of writers I've known intimately, who simultaneously see so much of you and craft a beautiful story about it, but at the same time get it fundamentally wrong, and do a sort of violence in their partial insight. It's a curiosity mixed with a cruel carelessness, a keen eye for beauty that always objectifies. It's bad enough when it's your lover, but in the world of politics it reaches a new level of irresponsibility (and, thanks to the existing structures of power, relative lack of accountability).
posted by idiopath at 7:53 AM on September 13, 2016 [23 favorites]


Yen-Rong Wong, who wrote her own response as a member of Shriver's audience in Brisbane, also writes about a panel discussion that the Writers Festival, to their credit, held discussing the speech. This quote for me sums up perfectly what Shriver got wrong:
You should be able to write whatever character you want, goes the argument. Sure, is the reply. But you must do so with empathy, respect, humility, decency, and an intent to do the character(s) justice. You must listen to those you are writing about. You must acknowledge your responsibility as a writer, as an artist. Rajith and Suki both spoke of this responsibility, and emphasised its importance. “We should expect more of our artists,” Rajith said. We should, and it is disappointing that as it stands, we currently do not.
posted by Kattullus at 7:56 AM on September 13, 2016 [19 favorites]


From Yassmin Abdel-Magied's response: "It’s not always okay for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man,..."

But is the problem the act of writing? Or the veracity / believability of the account?


It's right there in the part you quoted: It's not ALWAYS okay. The problem is NOT the act of writing (otherwise it would be "always not okay"), and it's not the believability of the account, either (oh, the tyranny of "authenticity!"), it's the empathy, the ability to breathe life into that character as fully and completely as you do your white characters, and the grace to realize, as a white writer, that you are taking on a lot of responsibility in your attempt to tell the story of a marginalized people, and to conduct yourself accordingly.

If only these women writers would be a bit more graceful in their public pronouncements eh?

Do you think that's clever? Lord knows people of color have never been asked to show grace, restraint, and unending sympathy when they call out white bullshit. (I'm a woman, by the way, and quick to call out sexism, and yes, I think this white woman should be more graceful when talking about things that matter deeply to POC.)

The only non-obnoxious reason I can think of for going around telling Shriver she shouldn't even try to perform acts of imaginative empathy is the idea that she is taking book sales and profile away from writers to whom those particular stories are first-hand experience. But this implies a fixed market appetite for a certain kind of story. I don't think that's how publishing works and I've never seen a shred of data to support it.

Do you work in publishing? I do, and just about every week we question whether to pass on a manuscript because we already have the space book, or the mermaid book, on our upcoming list. It's rare that we consider two titles from, say, Chinese American authors at once, but if we did there would definitely be a discussion about whether the list had room for two Chinese culture books. Oh: And with the gatekeepers being largely white, a story written by a white person about what they think POC lives are like will have a much greater chance of resonating than a story written by a POC about a life that's unfamiliar to the gatekeepers. (Here's a great essay by Calvin Baker on the blue about this phenomenon as it relates to black writers.) Oh! And I can't tell if you meant to imply this, but it definitely matters to more than just the writers. The highest duty of publishing is to the readers, and right now readers who want diversity are, IMO, not being served.
posted by sunset in snow country at 8:04 AM on September 13, 2016 [59 favorites]


To both amtho and selfnoise: there are no shortcuts to this. People won't suddenly wake up one morning feeling differently about cultural appropriation. It should not have to be repeatedly explained to otherwise intelligent people, but that's what it takes. That's what any cultural change takes: repeated exposure to information and, frankly, lots and lots of instances of outrage over a LONG time. It's an obvious injustice to the silenced, the disenfranchised and the marginalized. They should not have to carry that burden, but there's no way to quickly lift it off their shoulders. All anybody can do is try their best to accelerate the process even a tiny bit.
posted by jklaiho at 8:08 AM on September 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


This speech that Shriver wrote is frustrating and disappointing not simply because she's implacably hostile to the idea of cultural appropriation itself, but because she seems unable to understand it.

What was most surprising to me is that her failure to understand cultural appropriation isn't limited to an ability to sympathize with people who feel their heritage as been cynically exploited by others for amusement or profit. She doesn't seem to understand it at the most literal level.

She tells the story about students at Bowdoin being criticized for cultural appropriation when they used sombrero's at a Mexican-themed birthday party. Then she argues this can't be considered cultural appropriation because Mexican restaurants, owned by Mexican people, also use sombreros as decoration.
posted by layceepee at 8:10 AM on September 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


She doesn't understand it. Lots of people don't understand it. Somehow it needs to be made clearer. These people aren't misunderstanding because they are an evil conquering alien race who must be driven out.

No, if we must speak in generalities, they're misunderstanding it because their ability to do what they want, make a good living off it, and still feel good about themselves depends on their misunderstanding it.

These are not ninth-graders, these are not your grandmother who has lived in a tiny all-white small town her whole life, these are not your blue-collar cousin who only barely finished high school and only watches Fox News. These are grown-up, highly educated people, not struggling with the difficult issues of how exactly to deal with these problems justly (I would be the last to deny that the concept of cultural appropriation is thorny to apply), but denying that the problems exist at all.
posted by praemunire at 8:12 AM on September 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


Then she argues this can't be considered cultural appropriation because Mexican restaurants, owned by Mexican people, also use sombreros as decoration.

And a not-insignificant number of those sombreros are there because those Mexican people thought it was what their non-Mexican clientele wanted to see in a Mexican restaurant.
posted by Etrigan at 8:17 AM on September 13, 2016 [9 favorites]


amtho >

She doesn't understand it.

She seems not to, yeah.

Lots of people don't understand it.

True, though writers of fiction are people you might expect to be an exception to that generic pattern.

Somehow it needs to be made clearer.

I don't think the problem is that the meaning of cultural appropriation is unclear. People who are hostile to the negotiation of social power that underlies this discourse will always seem to not get it.

These people aren't misunderstanding because they are an evil conquering alien race who must be driven out.

This seems like a peculiar straw-man kind of argument. Sure, they're not an "evil conquering alien race." Noting that they are not evil aliens brings no clarity or perspective to the situation, as far as I can see.

If they were young enough, you'd probably ask how to explain this complex concept to them.

It's not really all that complex, to be honest. I think people act like it's more complex than it really is because they find it burdensome to "have to" think about social justice and then let their actions and speech be guided by that consideration.

They're adults, though, which makes our reaction to them different (and them less receptive, but not totally unable to listen). They also seem extra scary and upsetting because they communicate well and to have positions of some power.

Between the evil aliens remark and this off-hand reference to these types as scary and upsetting, I'm beginning to seriously wonder where this analysis is coming from. It seems idiosyncratic.

How do we meet misunderstanding, even hostile misunderstanding?

I think hostile misunderstanding doesn't really deserve a compassionate response; someone who is trying to understand is a different story.

How do we make this problem smaller? With hostility? With turning away?

Who is "we" in this scenario?
posted by clockzero at 8:20 AM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


This speech had me so frustrated that I wrote an entire blog post about it. I don't think people talking about cultural appropriation are saying you *can't* write about what you don't know, or even that you shouldn't. But yes, authenticity plays a part for sure in any criticism that may be levelled at an author for trying. Trying on a hat is not the same as wearing the hat for a lifetime.

And maybe "cultural appropriation" has been ok in writing for so long is because writing and publishing have historically been a rich white man's game.
posted by aclevername at 8:41 AM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Controversy as a sub-domain of marketing?

Its not really my world but I'm trying to imagine the world of 'Writers Festivals' and the people that organise them, and at the end of the festival how they judge the success of the festival. Lots of people nodding as they listen to the speeches? Or walk outs, headlines? When a big name turns up at the festival, what are they expected to do, etc. When Writers talk to other Writers, what are they aiming for? When anyone can publish their words online, what does being a Writer mean? Is it more like being a WordSeller?
posted by memebake at 8:42 AM on September 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?

As much as it pains me to spend any of my precious time reading this hot garbage, I'm glad the writer invokes this strawman because I think it touches on something important. The truth is that you can't get permission from every single person who might read and be affected by our portrayal of a character of color. (So stop asking. Seriously. No one person can give you permission to do something that will affect a large group of people, and it's a burden to be asked.) You just can't. If you're going to do this you have to proceed without getting permission, there's no other way. So, knowing that, how do you proceed? With care and humility, and a respect for the responsibility you've willingly taken on. That's it. That's the big secret.
posted by sunset in snow country at 8:46 AM on September 13, 2016 [39 favorites]


Should we really criticize the author for the attempt or should we actually feel more free to criticize the work when it fails? In an era of PC and Smarm, criticism itself has been defanged. Which means the only attack on a work is that one should not have dared to even produce it in the first place.
Exactly. It's the movement away from critiquing on the basis of content to dismissing someone out of hand on the basis of their occupying a particular subject position. It's a tactic shared by hard identitarian positions on both the left and the right.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:48 AM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


I may be sticking my neck out here, but aren't we talking about fiction? Made up stories about non-existent people? I can understand how a biographer can be accused of misrepresenting a real person. An author can create characters, places, and events as they please. All made up. Make believe. As readers we can judge these things as we see fit. Does it work? Do I believe it? Though characters may be portrayed as real people, they aren't real. Though an author can say that so and so is a such and such, they may or may not do an adequate job of pulling it off and a such and such reader may find the protrayal to be bad, off, wrong, whatever but it seems to me that said reader should know the author isn't talking about them. The author is talking about themselves, their knowledge, their ideas, prejudices, etc. They chose to open their mouth and all we can learn from that is what's inside them.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:48 AM on September 13, 2016 [9 favorites]


Foz Meadows wrote about some of the problems with the speech here:
When Shriver decries identity, she applies the concept only to those identities she doesn’t share, or which she views facetiously, the better to paint it as an arbitrary barrier between her artistic license and the great, heaving soup of Other People’s Stories to which she, by virtue of her personal rejection of the concept of identity, feels entitled. But ask why her writing focuses predominantly on a particular type of person, and suddenly identity is a rigid defence: the characters had to be this way, could never have had some other, more distracting type of identity, because the story was about this experience in particular. Which is to say, about a fucking identity.
posted by jeather at 8:50 AM on September 13, 2016 [15 favorites]


These things always sound the same and come from the same kinds of people and feature the same strawmen and assortment of supercilious anecdotes about campus brouhahas.

"Is it something about being a writer that cultivates this flavor of narcissistic pseudo-empathy, or does this vampiric empathy come with skill as a writer? I can't be the only one reminded of writers I've known intimately, who simultaneously see so much of you and craft a beautiful story about it, but at the same time get it fundamentally wrong, and do a sort of violence in their partial insight."

Well said. Narrative fiction is itself a great hubris, but so is all narrative. I understand everything -- everything -- as a story. Whether it's other people, or history, or a scientific theory, to me it has narrative structure. I remember the exact moment when I was challenged on this and consequently had the epiphany that in its essence, this imposed structure is false, it's a conceit. Yet as you see, I tell a story about learning that stories are false.

Writerly empathy, or perhaps intellectual empathy in general, comes from a position of doubt -- which is to say, an awareness of one's subjectivity. But this can lead to merely a partial awakening, one that builds the confident certainty of a more broad and complex solipsism. Radical doubt, however, is a barb, a goad, and a knife that cuts away the hubris -- it demands, for example, that if I think I now know something of that life, maybe I ought to use what I've learned to become more aware of the limits of my knowledge, that I now know this which makes it obvious how difficult it would be for me to know that.

I both deeply trust and mistrust my stories of other people. I feel the same way of my stories about myself, and I have more access to my own experience than anyone else ever will.

"I don't think the problem is that the meaning of cultural appropriation is unclear. People who are hostile to the negotiation of social power that underlies this discourse will always seem to not get it."

I think this is true. Speaking for myself, I was intuitively aware of cultural appropriation and articulated it more deliberately to myself entirely on my own, when I was young, and long before and with much greater ease than is the case with many related ideas. I am suspicious of the claim that this is a particularly challenging concept as an intellectual matter. Challenging in other respects for some, perhaps. But not esoteric.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:51 AM on September 13, 2016 [18 favorites]


But what does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.

It's amazingly tone deaf to some basic facts. Including that there's a long history of the broad-brimmed sombrero in pejorative and stereotypical mass-media in the United States, and promotion of a themed event using those stereotypes is a bit questionable. Especially in an environment of increasing political hostility regarding Hispanic culture and people.

Not to mention that putting on tourist trophies isn't a good metaphor for research and empathy.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:55 AM on September 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


My rule for writing is: Don't write about what you know. Know about what you write.
If you want to write about antebellum slavery in the South, know what the fuck you are talking about. (Spoiler: it takes a lot of work.)

Writing is a presumptive act. One of my two most recent novels was set in 1890s New York City and the other had a black female protagonist. For the record, I am neither a 19th century Gothamite nor black nor female.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:56 AM on September 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


Mod note: One comment deleted. We've really been around this rodeo before and getting into "but someone should make educational resources available" isn't going to take us anywhere helpful.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:20 AM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


In fact, on the sombrero issue, I feel as if a lot of "representation" often feels like throwing a bunch of pop-cultural signifiers together to create a character and say, "hey we're diverse." It's been on my mind this week since the weekend was free Overwatch and that's almost entirely an exercise in marketing triangulation using semiotics.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:21 AM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


The only non-obnoxious reason I can think of for going around telling Shriver she shouldn't even try to perform acts of imaginative empathy is the idea that she is taking book sales and profile away from writers to whom those particular stories are first-hand experience.

I just regard it as a more wordy equivalent of DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT.

Seriously, if you have someone whose demonstrated a complete failure of empathy or ability to do research, whose writing screams contempt for the people they're writing about, then AFAIC, "Just don't write about us" seems a very appropriate response. At a certain point, the willingness to educate has to take a back seat to "Just fucking stop, man."

(This is completely spate from how a lot of people I know are really, really tired of it being their responsibility to educate.)
posted by happyroach at 9:39 AM on September 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


If people are seriously interested in resources on this topic, I will say that a major turning point for me personally in understanding this topic was RaceFail '09, and there are people who compiled long lists of links to the essays and discussions that took place then.

There is a Tumblr, writingwithcolor.tumblr.com, that deals pretty much exclusively with this topic. They also have links to other tumblrs that are related.
posted by Cozybee at 9:42 AM on September 13, 2016 [9 favorites]


Hmmm. I don't know enough about Shriver's work to defend or attack her. But, as a white, male, Jewish author, which characters am I allowed to write about? Should I not attempt to write black characters? Am I allowed to write about WASP characters, or only New York Jews? Am I allowed to write from the perspective of a woman? Should I not make a playable, POV character of a woman of half-Indian half-English descent in this video game I'm writing about a drug-addled alternate history Britain in 1964? Is Ang Lee entitled to make a movie about gay cowboys?

It strikes me that you can't simultaneously say, "We want more diversity in characters," and then attack white writers for writing from the perspective of diverse characters. All dramatic, fictional writing is an appropriation of some sort. Every character I write is a combination of my own personal experience, research, and guesswork about what it would be like to be that person.

Should we not hire women to write male characters? Because that is exactly one of the excuses for not hiring women -- how could a woman possibly write an Iron Man movie for 18 year old dudes? Because she has an imagination, is the answer. Also, she probably knows some dudes.

I suspect that the answer is something along the lines of "when privileged people do it, it's appropriation, but when non-privileged people do it, it's okay." It's the same logic as "only white people can be racist." If that's an article of faith for you, then we're not going to have a fruitful conversation.

Of course, if my interpretation of my character is condescending, or bullshit, then anybody's entitled to attack the writing. And you're welcome to question my motives. But you're entitled to attack my badly written characters whether they're my gender, or my ethnicity, or not.
posted by musofire at 10:00 AM on September 13, 2016 [16 favorites]



If people are seriously interested in resources on this topic, I will say that a major turning point for me personally in understanding this topic was RaceFail '09, and there are people who compiled long lists of links to the essays and discussions that took place then.


Exactly. How, when and why to write characters who are marginalized-in-relation-to-you is a hot topic in fantasy and SF. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward produced a short book, Writing The Other: A Practical Approach, which deals with this from their authorial standpoint. Justine L'Arbalestiere, a white YA/fantasy writer (and feminist SF historian), wrote a good bit on her blog about writing protagonists of color and sometimes messing it up.

I feel like the general SFnal consensus right now seems to be that while it's important that white and/or male and/or straight and/or cis and/or otherwise centered-identity authors write worlds with people of color, queer people, trans people, women and various marginalized identities, what is ultimately most important is to boost the number of authors from those groups. There's an emphasis on the idea that there isn't just one "Nigerian story" or "gay story", etc, and that writers actually from communities in question are often best equipped to write the complexity and diversity of their own communities.

As a side note, my majority-queer book group recently had a huge eyeroll moment when we realized that the charming but unrealistic gay male main character was in fact going to have an Ice Your Gays ending in order to motivate the straight heroine.

Our eyeballs were practically on the floor when we discovered through online research that he'd never even heard of the Ice Your Gays trope and was apparently totally unfamiliar with other fantasy novels with gay main characters.

It was disappointing to find this in a well-regarded and well-awarded recent fantasy novel widely recommended by left-leaning reviewers. Basically, that plot arc lowered the book in our estimation quite a lot.

Know, O Very Serious Writers, that we lol when you make really obvious, avoidable mistakes.

(In fairness - in case you deduce the book in question - the book does a lot of things very well and the sequel is really good.)
posted by Frowner at 10:03 AM on September 13, 2016 [9 favorites]


"Which characters am I allowed to write about?" is a bad question in the context of this discussion. The answer is any of them if you approach the subject with empathy and humility.

Brokeback Mountain strikes me as a good example of some of the potential perils, because its reputation as the gay male cowboy story has overshadowed a number of other stories that could be told about rural LGBTQ people. The central problem raised by Abdel-Magied is that the white male writer is routinely credited with universal insight into the lives of minorities that have traditionally be underrepresented in publishing.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:18 AM on September 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


Is it something about being a writer that cultivates this flavor of narcissistic pseudo-empathy, or does this vampiric empathy come with skill as a writer?

Yes.

More specifically -- I think this set of characteristics makes it easier to write about your own life and then publicize that writing with the sort of flinty-eyed determination it often takes to be successful, be it fictionalized or not, and IME is therefore most prevalent in litfic communities. It often seems to be a pre-existing condition.

I find pen names and genre work makes it much easier to mine life for material without becoming a huge screaming asshole.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:22 AM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Hmmm. I don't know enough about Shriver's work to defend or attack her. But, as a white, male, Jewish author, which characters am I allowed to write about? Should I not attempt to write black characters? Am I allowed to write about WASP characters, or only New York Jews? Am I allowed to write from the perspective of a woman? Should I not make a playable, POV character of a woman of half-Indian half-English descent in this video game I'm writing about a drug-addled alternate history Britain in 1964? Is Ang Lee entitled to make a movie about gay cowboys?

It strikes me that you can't simultaneously say, "We want more diversity in characters," and then attack white writers for writing from the perspective of diverse characters. All dramatic, fictional writing is an appropriation of some sort. Every character I write is a combination of my own personal experience, research, and guesswork about what it would be like to be that person.


This is a straw man. As much as Shriver rails against it, the closest she comes to describing an actual incident where this happens (as opposed to her idea of what "identity politics/PC culture" is like) is when she talks about Chris Cleave's novel about a Nigerian girl, quoting selectively from a review of his work:

But in principle, I admire his courage – if only because he invited this kind of ethical forensics in a review out of San Francisco: “When a white male author writes as a young Nigerian girl, is it an act of empathy, or identity theft?” the reviewer asked. “When an author pretends to be someone he is not, he does it to tell a story outside of his own experiential range. But he has to in turn be careful that he is representing his characters, not using them for his plot.”

She hasn't even read his book - she admires his writing about POC in principle. Who's guilty here, again, of generalizing and ignoring the nuances of good writing?

Here is the review. What Shriver leaves out are the parts where the reviewer critiques the writing and characterization as support for her assertion that Cleave has been lazy in his portrayal of his Nigerian character. This being San Francisco, yes, it's couched in the language of social justice, but her point isn't that writers are not allowed to write about characters who do not share their exact backgrounds. It's that this writer has done that, and done it poorly, and part of the reason for that poorness is that he has not taken seriously his responsibility to represent a character who he shares little in common with. Here's the full quote, emphasis mine: "This is not to say that such lines of identity should never be crossed; authors have been doing it for centuries, often to great effect. It's just that special care should be taken with a story that's not implicitly yours to tell. In the case of Little Bee, Cleave may not have been careful enough. Sometimes she's not convincing, and sometimes she tries too hard to convince. It's too often apparent that Little Bee is not real."

I actually just finished reading Honolulu by Alan Brennert, which is about a Korean picture bride in Honolulu and covers the years from around 1915 to 1935. Not only is Brennert a white man, he's not even from Hawaii. The book is incredible. He nails everything about the Asian American experience, he writes about a proto-Black Lives Matter movement (the reaction to the murder of Joe Kahahawai) with empathy and grace, and (most impressively to me) he makes prostitutes a major part of the story without sensationalizing or oversexualizing them, which I have never seen another male writer manage to do. I bring this up just to make it 100 percent clear that my problem is not with privileged people writing about those without privilege, but with them doing it poorly and arrogantly and then pretending that the people criticizing them are doing it because of "PC culture" or "oversensitivity" and not because they have failed in their portrayals.
posted by sunset in snow country at 10:26 AM on September 13, 2016 [41 favorites]


Shriver really doesn't help herself by throwing stupid things like the sombreros or Katy Perry wearing a geisha outfit into a discussion of something completely different. Applying the idea of cultural appropriation to writing which depicts people different from the writer is not at all the same as applying it to people who personally adopt the symbols of another culture; all good literature does the former to some extent, and if it's done well it's fine.

I think that's why I found Yassmin Abdel-Magied's piece unconvincing; she gives a list of things that are not always okay but there's no hint of what would make it okay for a writer to write about people from another culture, other than an offhand remark about permission and a bit of dancing around the implication that actually they shouldn't, at all. The "What Is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong?" page she links to is about borrowing in music and dance, not writing. Other people talk about respect and humility, but that could mean anything - should Shriver only write good things about people who she has no claim to represent? Or does she just have to write them accurately and without cliche? Is it okay if she writes what she was going to write anyway, but in an internal state of humble respect? Or is she only allowed to write about people like her? This isn't rules lawyering; it's what happens when you try to bring a concept like cultural appropriation (which is already understood to mean countless different things) somewhere where it's just not coherent.

Not that I'm defending Shriver's speech (which was awful) or things like the Mandibles story she talks about. I just don't think cultural appropriation is a very good way of describing the problem.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 10:30 AM on September 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


But, as a white, male, Jewish author, which characters am I allowed to write about?

Oh God fucking DAMNIT. It IS just like Racefail. Including the same lines about "what am I allowed to write?"

It's not about being "allowed", and trying to frame it as such is extremely disingenuous at best. Seriously, why is it whenever this topic comes up, white writers always start whining about being "allowed" to write, like someone's going to arrest them?

I mean what is actually being argued for here? "I have the right to write without doing proper research about other peoples"? "I have the right to be as [ ]-ist as I wanna be?" "I demand the right to be immune from criticism?"

Well sure, you can write down whatever dribbles out of your brain. But seriously, dont fucking whine about how people are being mean to you when they call you on your writing.

Damnit. I just know coming up will be someone posting "Well if I can't write [fill-in-the-blank] without being criticized, I won't include them in my stories at all!" *flounce*
posted by happyroach at 10:33 AM on September 13, 2016 [40 favorites]


This isn't rules lawyering

It really is (at best). You're asking for concrete, verifiable, testable answers to hypothetical conceptual questions. There's never going to be a color wheel that you can hold up a book next to and say "Yep, that's cultural appropriation."

So be thoughtful. Be respectful. And when you fuck it up, don't take a stage and complain "How dare people accuse me, a Serious Writer Of Renown, of the positively ghastly crime of appropriation when I was just trying to be inclusive!" Just take the hit and re-examine whether you care enough about the complaint to do better next time.
posted by Etrigan at 10:36 AM on September 13, 2016 [20 favorites]


Hmmm. I don't know enough about Shriver's work to defend or attack her. But, as a white, male, Jewish author, which characters am I allowed to write about?

I think this is a profoundly unhelpful way to think about and rhetorically frame it. You're "allowed" to do whatever you want, obviously.

Should I not attempt to write black characters? Am I allowed to write about WASP characters, or only New York Jews? Am I allowed to write from the perspective of a woman?

Surely you realize nobody can guarantee that someone else won't find such efforts problematic in some way? I mean, you should write fiction that is good. There aren't special rules for different ethnic groups or gender or religion. That being said, "write what you know" is good advice because it forces you to confront the fact that there's a lot you almost certainly don't know about other people's social reality.

Should I not make a playable, POV character of a woman of half-Indian half-English descent in this video game I'm writing about a drug-addled alternate history Britain in 1964? Is Ang Lee entitled to make a movie about gay cowboys?

Yes, you should (though some people might not like it), and that's an incoherent question, respectively.

It strikes me that you can't simultaneously say, "We want more diversity in characters," and then attack white writers for writing from the perspective of diverse characters.

Well, sure you can. There's no contradiction in saying that you want more diversity and then critiquing writing that doesn't evince the actual diversity of people's experiences.

All dramatic, fictional writing is an appropriation of some sort.

That doesn't seem correct to me; this stretches the meaning of appropriation past the point of utility.

Every character I write is a combination of my own personal experience, research, and guesswork about what it would be like to be that person.

There's nothing inherently appropriative about that.

Should we not hire women to write male characters? Because that is exactly one of the excuses for not hiring women -- how could a woman possibly write an Iron Man movie for 18 year old dudes? Because she has an imagination, is the answer. Also, she probably knows some dudes.

That's a pretty awful example -- women are often excluded from things like screenwriting for entirely unprincipled and indefensible reasons, not because studio execs have to spend hours fixing their ignorance-derived mistakes about men.

I think you're missing one of the most important things about cultural appropriation, social positions, and authorship: these all play out in socio-historical context. Historical power differentials and enforced social roles are extremely important to understand if you want to have any real perspective on all of this.
posted by clockzero at 10:42 AM on September 13, 2016 [18 favorites]


Including the same lines about "what am I allowed to write?"

The writer is allowed to write it. If the piece finds a reader, the reader is allowed to read it critically and criticize it, even in public.
posted by puddledork at 10:43 AM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


There's a pretty narrow range of the meaning and consequences of cultural appropriation being hashed out in these comments. That's understandable. Scafidi's definition of the term, quoted in the Guardian article, isn't definitive. It doesn't represent itself as definitive in the book it comes from. Nor does it represent the concept definitively. And so on.

The Metafilter standard response is an artificially world weary one, an eye-roll in text. It's not constructive to say, ugh, why don't these people just get it. Scafidi points out that there's no deep legal understanding or treatment of cultural appropriation, so there will be differences of opinion until a consensus is developed, standardized, and put into practice.

Until then, we get back-and-forth rants of "you do NOT get to tell me what to write" and "you do NOT get to write like that." I imagine at some point larger groups will organize those tensions and voices into coherent, wide-input concepts, definitions, and forward looking actions. In my field this is happening in ethnobotany, but not yet in commercial pharmaceutical and supplement contracts. I think the writing field's approach is even farther behind than us, but we're both spinning wheels in the mud. Comment sections like this remind me of that.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:43 AM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


It really is (at best). You're asking for concrete, verifiable, testable answers to hypothetical conceptual questions.

No, it really isn't. I'm not asking for answers; I'm saying that wherever the answers are, you won't get there by thinking in terms of cultural appropriation.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 10:47 AM on September 13, 2016


"Which characters am I allowed to write about?" is a bad question in the context of this discussion. The answer is any of them if you approach the subject with empathy and humility.

While this would be nice to have as true in practice, and as much as I stand up for the theory, it seems relatively clear that things don't quite work out that way since those reading and criticizing authors don't agree on where those boundaries lie, so no matter how any one of us may feel over the clarity of appropriation, I'm not seeing clarity in the breadth of responses to works and the topic here or anywhere else. I understand the frustration of authors who aren't sure how to proceed without risking offense and the pushback that comes from that even though I certainly don't agree with their takes on all instances of alleged policing.

I strongly sympathize with the claims of appropriation when speaking of voices not heard and money lost to writers and artists from outside the culture as well as in the loss of contextual understanding which might be found within group practice or tradition.

In the largest sense of "borrowing", however, I think cultural appropriation can be a vital part of making for a stronger overall culture as actions and ideas from all parts of the spectrum are taken up expanding our shared lexicon of ideas, but this only works if it is indeed coming from the entire spectrum of participants in the culture and done with respect and awareness, not just being defined primarily by the most dominant members and done with impunity.

For me then the problem actually has little to do with the actual writers and artists, who all should just be putting out the best work they can, and more to do with the gatekeepers/ the publishers, studios, and critics who determine which works will see the light of day, get publicity and find audiences most easily. Opening those doors more widely for all would go a good ways towards solving some of the problems. But, I also put a lot of blame on audiences, people who buy the books, listen to the music, watch the movies, you can only go so far using gatekeepers and publicity as an excuse for what you consume, responsibility for seeking out diversity of voices falls on all of us, not just the artists.

There are a lot of more specific issues I have with each piece linked, but I felt this more general statement was better since aggressive argument over complex issues can often worsen problems rather than bridge divides.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:51 AM on September 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


I do think that we need to tease out the difference between bad (or weak) writing about minorities and "appropriation," although there's often a bit of overlap. The Indiana Jones movies in my mind are pretty clearly appropriation, since they just grab symbols and icons as set dressing for Jones to have an adventure. In contrast, even well-intentioned ethnographers can get it entirely wrong accidentally.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:59 AM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


when a non-privileged person does it, privileged people complain about possible misrepresentation.

I think the gender dynamics here are worth noting, though -- even in the case of backlash. Most of the time, the writers I've seen attacked for appropriation have been female. Men are given very much of a pass for these things, both coming and going. (Remember when that Jamacian writer railed against catering to "middle aged white women" and the internet didn't fall on his head?)

I think it's worth remembering gender when it comes to appropriation. I feel like it's a charge that's more likely to be wielded against women than men, and that women are not in a position of privilege.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 11:07 AM on September 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


Should we not hire women to write male characters? Because that is exactly one of the excuses for not hiring women -- how could a woman possibly write an Iron Man movie for 18 year old dudes? Because she has an imagination, is the answer. Also, she probably knows some dudes.

(emphasis added)

That's kind of key here, isn't it.

The minority culture person writing a majority culture character will know far more about the majority culture than the majority culture person will about a minority culture. That's... Mathematically, that's how "minority"/" majority" work.

But beyond the math, there is the issue of volume of the voices. Because the minority person gets a deluge of stories from the majority perspective. They live in a culture built around the majority perspective. By definition they are exposed to and immersed in it.

The majority person is not immersed in the minority culture. What they know of it, they know from a handful of individuals, if they've even had meaningful interactions with any of that minority at all (and frequently, they haven't), and from the skewed, stereotypical portrayals that minority is reduced to in media.

So yes, they need to make an actual effort to not just reproduce all those stereotypes once more, never having the awareness to realize that's what they're doing.
posted by Cozybee at 11:13 AM on September 13, 2016 [22 favorites]


Also I would just like to point out that there are authors who do a decent job of putting in effort to get this right, and then there are authors who say "no matter what I do I'll get attacked anyway by these whiny thin-skinned crybabies who have no appreciation for True Art", and it's not really that hard to tell the difference, because one of those groups actively tries to listen and be humble and assume they don't know best, and the other aggressively lashes out at anyone who dares to criticize them for...

Oh, I don't know...

Using a black woman as a morality prop who gets literally led away by leash?!?!?

(just writing that sentence made me gag)
posted by Cozybee at 11:17 AM on September 13, 2016 [15 favorites]


I'm just a reader, a reader and a consumer who buys books. I first began to learn about this subject when i read a particularly bad novel by a prominent white jewish male author appropriating urban african american culture. Since then i've tried to choose more carefully when i buy books in order to make a small contribution in favor of underrepresented voices in literature.
It doesn't matter to me as much these days how well an ivy educated white guy can tell a story because that story has been told and told again.
I think it's up to those of us who care about how marginalized cultures have their stories told to seek out writers who most authentically know and tell those stories. It is only in this way that the scales get tipped a bit in favor of these voices.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:25 AM on September 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


You can have incidental characters that are not props.
You can write a character from a completely different ethnic and cultural background -- but at some point you should determine whether it's an accurate portrayal or one that is a broad sketch of your impressions and biases. If it's a broad sketch, then let it be one put forth by a character you do understand, with the narrative background and framing that establishes this is how your character views the world. If the character is you, then you will be judged accordingly.
If writing from history, know the history. Be able to put yourself in that character's shoes -- not to take steps, but to understand where he or she stands. Not to understand what actions they would take, but why they would take them and how they feel about it.
Most of all, understand the broader cultural context of your characters. If you have a black person on a leash (jesus christ I can't believe I typed that and that someone wrote it) then it sure as hell better not be a narrative conceit that's not backed up by the heavy symbolism that entails. And they shouldn't be in that situation just so you can inject that symbolism into your story because that's lazy writing.
posted by mikeh at 11:47 AM on September 13, 2016 [6 favorites]


It strikes me that you can't simultaneously say, "We want more diversity in characters," and then attack white writers for writing from the perspective of diverse characters.

This suggests you overlooked the possibility that the best way to get more diversity in characters is to get more diversity in published authors.
posted by layceepee at 11:56 AM on September 13, 2016 [15 favorites]


Hire a sensitivity reader! I love that this term exists. Otherwise I'd be flailing around trying to ask for "An editor but not really an editor? Like for people stuff, not for grammar or spelling?"

I don't understand the people who flip out and claim that they're not "allowed" to write about certain other kinds of people. To me, it's just a matter of admitting and accepting that there are limits to my knowledge, plus acknowledging that other people may have a better handle on those areas.

I don't know what it's like to go to Catholic school. So, I'm not going to write a novel set in a Catholic school. Or I'm going to do a truckload of research, and then when I write the novel, I'll ask someone who did go to Catholic school to check it. Or I'll accept that there are other people in the world more qualified to write that novel, and I'll rework it or turn my attention to something else. Even if I'm super jazzed about the idea, or even if Catholic school novels are the big trendy moneymakers.

When I write, I want to do a good job. If I want to write about something or someone I don't know that well, then I need to do the extra work or I need to accept that I'm not a good fit for it.
posted by cadge at 12:26 PM on September 13, 2016 [22 favorites]


cadge, thank you for sharing that sensitivity reader link. What a cool idea!
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:38 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


What's frustrating is to see her say "For my part, as a German-American on both sides" without considering for a single damn second that her heritage had something to teach her about not listening to the concerns of people traditionally labeled the Other. There is a productive conversation to be had about this subject, but not adversarially, and in no event from someone who proudly calls herself an "iconoclast." That's one of the kind of things that, if you say it's what you are, it's probably not true.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:47 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think there needs to be a way to say "I would love to listen to the bones of this speech, given by someone other than you."
posted by corb at 12:49 PM on September 13, 2016 [7 favorites]


I think it's interesting that Justine Larbalestier has actually changed her mind and has sworn off of writing PoC main characters (she says she'll still write side characters of color), specifically because she says it was hurting PoC for her to try to do this.

As was mentioned above, the idea is that white people cannot possibly "get it right" because they're not immersed in minority culture to understand it, and thus they hurt PoC, both on a "getting it wrong" level and on a "you're taking the place of a PoC who could be getting published writing about that instead" level. Which according to this thread, is definitely a problem too.

"I feel like the general SFnal consensus right now seems to be that while it's important that white and/or male and/or straight and/or cis and/or otherwise centered-identity authors write worlds with people of color, queer people, trans people, women and various marginalized identities, what is ultimately most important is to boost the number of authors from those groups."

I guess that's the best compromise we're gonna get on this topic.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:55 PM on September 13, 2016 [9 favorites]


God, I LOVE Justine Larbalestier. And Reading While White is a great blog. jenfullmoon's link is worth a read.
posted by sunset in snow country at 1:01 PM on September 13, 2016


Minorities should patiently and calmly explain this concept to this speaker, an extremely educated and incredibly condescending and dismissive person.

I absolutely do not hold this view. When people are offended, they probably shouldn't try to speak to the agent of the offense.

I was trying to frame this as a very difficult but potentially addressable problem. Probably not one that would be solved by insisting that the injured parties address it with people who have offended them. Framing it a little more clearly, though, might help other people have constructive ideas.

It's an incredibly important issue, and one that deserves both a sympathetic hearing and all the creative, informed, out-of-the-box problem solving that usually gets thrown at less important problems. It hasn't been solved yet, to my knowledge, but there are a lot of new tools from science, technology, and the humanities that could potentially be applied.
posted by amtho at 1:26 PM on September 13, 2016


I've read one of Shriver's novels. I was shocked by how unsympathetic and downright cruel she was towards her characters. She is one of the authors I would trust least when it comes to an empathetic portrayal of someone very different from her. This isn't to say that a cruel or unsympathetic author is always bad--Flannery O'Connor is very hard on her characters--just that maybe she's the worst person to engage in this topic.
posted by zeusianfog at 2:10 PM on September 13, 2016 [5 favorites]


Writing is both an act of hubris and a humbling one. As authors we try to create life through artifice, truth through lies, or as Ezra Pound put it: news that stays news.
It is humbling because our readers are always 100% right (even when they are wrong). They judge fairly and unfairly as to whether we have written with fire or merely burned a page: or whether we have written pages that deserve to be burned.
Culture and race are only two elements where we stumble. We must create an emotional attachment to events which we can only imagine.
Failing at this comes easy. Worthwhile writing is hard.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:10 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've read many of Shriver's novels. When she's on, she's brilliant. When she's off (and oh my word, is Big Brother off), she's horrible. Her ability to observe without empathy is definitely a major skill as a writer of some stories, and an enormous failure as a writer in many other ways. It doesn't surprise me to read this coming from her, but it disappoints me. I suspect her own work would be better if she worked her way toward greater empathy and understanding on the issue.
posted by lazuli at 2:22 PM on September 13, 2016 [4 favorites]


"The Indiana Jones movies in my mind are pretty clearly appropriation, since they just grab symbols and icons as set dressing..."

Well, you mentioned the sombrero upthread. Not sure about Jones but the character of Jose Jimenez is right along your thesis. It also contains an early acknowledgement of appropriation and insensitivity and beautifully addressed in The Right Stuff.
posted by clavdivs at 2:26 PM on September 13, 2016


I don't know that it is fixable, at least not without a fundamental social revolution and a utopia.

But I wonder if fiction writers need to take a lesson from poets, who have realized that they're only writing for a minority of readers anyway, and even then only a handful of poems are going to hit the sweet spot for a reader to be fully appreciated. There's a remarkable thin skin regarding the fact that literary separatism is a thing that minorities sometimes do, and that fiction is problematic because the foundations of our culture are problematic. That's something that fiction might be able to acknowledge but it's not something it can fix.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:31 PM on September 13, 2016


Shriver wrote my least favorite essay in the book Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, for what it's worth.
posted by wondermouse at 4:29 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]


Hire a sensitivity reader! I love that this term exists. Otherwise I'd be flailing around trying to ask for "An editor but not really an editor? Like for people stuff, not for grammar or spelling?"

This needs more than a favorite. I enlisted volunteers for that when I first started tackling full length drafts of novels. It was hard to hear all the stuff I was doing wrong, but at the same time, I loved it. I mean... one thing that happens in our culture is that we hear that mistakes are bad. They don't have to be - when the stakes are low, (such as 'within my unpublished novel'), they're an opportunity to learn stuff.

I am very happy that there were women willing to patiently discuss with me what I do not know about womanhood, and it's comforting to think that while I will never fully understand it, people will help me try.

It's not necessary to have an adversarial relationship with people critiquing your work - it can be collaborative and rewarding, if embraced and engaged with.

Of course, if my interpretation of my character is condescending, or bullshit, then anybody's entitled to attack the writing.

Got some bad news about your post in this thread, then.
posted by mordax at 4:38 PM on September 13, 2016 [8 favorites]


I've read one of Shriver's novels. I was shocked by how unsympathetic and downright cruel she was towards her characters.

I have struggled to explain to people why it bothers me so much when writers are like this. I guess I should thank Shriver for helping to clarify things.
posted by clockzero at 8:40 PM on September 13, 2016


Oh god, this summary of Shriver's book is even WORSE. They actually shoot the poor woman with dementia.

Was there nobody at all at her publisher or in the publishing process to say, "Look, this doesn't sound like a good idea?!"
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:38 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]


I confess I read Big Brother and then I was horrified that I did when I read her article about why she wrote it. Essentially, she based it on her brother who was "morbidly obese" and then goes on to fat-shame anyone overweight. (She also drags up how much she runs as well as how much she doesn't eat.)

Tbh, the only book I've ever liked by her is The Post-Birthday World, which might be the least jerky book she's ever written.
posted by Kitteh at 6:43 AM on September 14, 2016


The Post-Birthday World's protagonist was a barely-veiled author-insert. Shriver left her husband for a drummer; Irina in the book left her husband for a snooker player. It is not surprising that she is kind to herself.
posted by jeather at 7:45 AM on September 14, 2016


Huh. I did not know that.
posted by Kitteh at 7:51 AM on September 14, 2016


I've been thinking a bit about why my first reaction was to immediately link Shriver with The Economist.

And it's because her speech might as well be a manifesto of laissez-faire literature (or neoliberal literature). She wants to be able to privatize the experience of the public, but when she messes up she wants the public to bail her out with their emotional labor.
posted by Kattullus at 11:10 AM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've read one of Shriver's novels. I was shocked by how unsympathetic and downright cruel she was towards her characters.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is the only book that I ever finished and immediately got in the car to return to the library because I did not want it in my house a second longer than necessary. It is a nasty piece of work.
posted by Flannery Culp at 4:02 PM on September 14, 2016


Imagining the Lived Experience of Lionel Shiver

I am going to say some things about Lionel Shiver that might seem kind of nice, and some things that might seem not so nice.

A lot of commenters seem to be saying something like, the good people who are against cultural appropriation are really just meaning to ask for something pretty reasonable and good. And these commenters surely have a good point in saying that.

Let's try to imagine the lived experience of Lionel Shiver. She's a widely published novelist who is relatively well-known among people who want to be writers. Well enough known among them that she was invited to speak at this big writer's conference halfway around the Earth from her home.

My guess is, being a widely published novelist can make a writer the target of a wide variety of criticism and complaints, some reasonable and well-meant, some much less so.

My guess is that hundreds of the people with the less reasonable or more nastily phrased complaints about Lionel Shiver or about like her don't send copies of their unreasonable, nasty complaints to all the commenters of MetaFilter. They send some of those complaints to Lionel Shiver. Other such complaints get published in various other places.

Various people might have various ideas about the appropriate strategies for fighting against this world's injustices, real and imagined. They probably don't all agree on what they want and what they think should be done about it.

If Lionel Shiver feels any concern about these more nasty complainers, whether her hypothetical concerns are that these complainers might be right or that these complainers might launch a political campaign against her, well, there is probably no way that Shiver can hope to satisfy all of these complainers with their various tactics and goals.

I would also like to consider the question, from Shiver's point of view, what are her novels really about?

In the linked Guardian article, Shiver says, "In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off."

It sounds to me like the story that includes this black character is not intended to be so much about black people in general.

Instead it sounds more like an aging woman's fantasy about how if her husband divorces her to take up with a younger, prettier woman, then the story gives the aging woman and other women like her a karmic revenge, in which the spurned aging wife makes a successful life for herself, while the people who offended her suffer a horrible, humiliating fate.

The "beautiful, stately African American" woman is not being led about on a leash in a state of dementia because she's *just any* black woman; she's being led about on a leash and treated as less than human because she mistreated another character who is a stand-in for the author and for many readers!

If the 'other woman' had been of German-American descent on both sides, maybe she would instead be falsely blamed for Nazi atrocities (as for all I know might have happened to Shiver as a child 'just jokingly.' A great way to teach tolerance and sensitivity, I'm sure!)

One might also ask, when an author writes stories that seem to exist largely to satisfy spite and revenge fantasies, might those books attract some readers and hangers-on whose ideas of justice are perhaps not very nice? What fraction of 'literary' novels are like that, anyway? Maybe more than some people would expect?

I hope that I have done a decent job of imagining parts of the hypothetical lived experience of being Lionel Shiver.

No, actually I hope that she lives a wonderful life in which mostly she cures dementia, sick hatred, and disproportionate spite when she isn't writing, but I doubt that we're that lucky.
posted by cattypist at 1:01 AM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]


We Need to Talk About Kevin is the only book that I ever finished and immediately got in the car to return to the library because I did not want it in my house a second longer than necessary. It is a nasty piece of work.

I think it's works because it's nasty and unsympathetic; the lack of empathy between the mother and child sets up an interesting ambiguity on nature-versus-nurture. But it is, I think, the single book that had an enormous impact on me that I don't think I want to re-read (and I re-read almost everything that I even slightly like).

Post-Birthday World is another one I like, as is Double Fault, though again, that one is basically what happens when two ultra-competitive not-very-empathetic characters start competing with each other.

I think Shriver has interesting things to say when she's writing, maybe unintentionally, about the expectations on women to be empathetic. Seems like she gets much less interesting when she's trying to be empathetic herself. Which makes sense, I guess, and like I said earlier, means that one part of her writing is brilliant and another part of it seems seriously skewed, cliche, and superficial.
posted by lazuli at 5:35 AM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


The "beautiful, stately African American" woman is not being led about on a leash in a state of dementia because she's *just any* black woman; she's being led about on a leash and treated as less than human because she mistreated another character who is a stand-in for the author and for many readers!


But we have here a single WOC in the book, according to Shriver, and her plot arc -- which ends with her being taken around on a leash, then killed -- is all about punishing a white man and perhaps showing how wonderful a white woman is.

This part of her novel is really about racism, and as much as she thinks it's clever to wear a sombrero and talk about how it's okay to write about non-white people as a white author, it requires some pretty strident effort to miss the point.

(Also, frankly, having people blame you for the Nazis because your family was German is not on the same level as racism against black people.)
posted by jeather at 9:16 AM on September 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think this is honestly why I wish we had a different word for racism that stood for "unintentionally reproducing racism" and was more neutral. Because I think cattypist is probably right - Shriver wrote, at least in part, a revenge fantasy which included a woman she felt threatened by in some way. I don't think she necessarily was trying to say "black people are lesser and should be treated like pets". But there's no way to put a black woman on the leash of a white family without it being flaming oh hell no. Even if in her heart she didn't mean to be racist, it still replicated something pretty flamingly offensive.

But when the charge becomes "that's racist", it allows Shriver to say "I didn't mean to be racist, and racism is about feelings, and thus these people are calling me names that don't apply" rather than "oh shit I didn't see that, my bad."

Like if you get pulled over for a broken taillight, the cop doesn't say "I see you're a taillight breaker", he just gives you a ticket and tells you to fix your goddamn taillight.

Lionel Shriver needs like whoa to fix her goddamn race taillight and stop making speeches about how great it is to drive with a smashed one.
posted by corb at 1:14 PM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]


Guys I'm REALLY excited about sensitivity readers so I'm going to talk about them some more okay? Okay.

So upon seeing that link I immediately began trying to figure out if I could A) quit my job and hang my shingle out as a sensitivity reader (not likely at only $250 a pop, but I can dream) or B) somehow use them at my workplace, but we do mostly picture books (a few YA novels but rarely with more than minor POC characters), and I didn't really know what kinds of comments could be useful for a picture book, and plus it seems like the people who would engage such services would be the least likely to need them anyway. BUT! I just got out of a meeting where it came up that we actually already did this! We sent a picture book about a black character, illustrated by a white illustrator, out to a black librarian friend of the editor's to make sure there was nothing potentially offensive in the depictions. This particular book is an example of what we call "casual diversity" where the race of the character is not essential to the plot (it could just as easily have been a white or Asian character), which was exactly where I thought a sensitivity read wouldn't be particularly useful. The reader actually didn't have much feedback for us in the end. We asked specifically if the character's hair looked OK and she said it looked fine but that in one scene where she's sleeping she would be likely to wear a head wrap of some sort and we might want to consider adding one. It came up because we're doing another picture book now with a very young POC illustrator who is feeling some anxiety about being a representative for her ethnicity (HMM INTERESTING HOW THAT HAPPENS) and we want another pair of eyes on it to reassure her. So basically publishing as an industry has a ways to go here but I work with awesome people.

If any of you in this thread who have experience with sensitivity readers are willing to share, I would love to hear what sorts of comments you got back. Basically I'm really jazzed about this
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:41 PM on September 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


I don't think she necessarily was trying to say "black people are lesser and should be treated like pets".

I'm sick of people confusing the discussion of being racist for an imaginary one of being a racist
posted by beerperson at 4:40 PM on September 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


I am so very, very tired of people getting into high dudgeon about "how dare you say that what I've said or done is racist" when they've done things like write the only black character in a book as demented, incontinent, and eventually good for nothing but "mercy killing".

Without presuming to speak for people from other nations, if you grew up in America that means you grew up in a fundamentally, structurally racist society. Yes, you did, and while growing up you absorbed ideas, metaphors, and mental frameworks that were and are racist. That's a problem, but a bigger problem is digging in and claiming that one's hurt feelings over having one's structural racism called out are a greater harm than the harm caused by the racism so many of us have lived and breathed and reinforced without realizing it.
posted by Lexica at 9:07 PM on September 15, 2016 [7 favorites]


I mean, there's justice and then there's practicality. If you can get people to admitting that they need to write differently, as long as you don't say the "r word" to them, isn't that still a win? If you can get people to stop putting horrible shit in their books, do you really need them to say "mea maxima culpa" first? I just don't get what the practical value of rubbing someone's nose in it and risking they double down - like Shriver clearly did - when there's another path that would let them just stop creating caricatures like this, admittedly while ducking responsibility?
posted by corb at 2:40 PM on September 16, 2016


This is a classic debate in most threads about racism and I can see both sides, but in this case, Shriver doesn't sound like someone who was ever going to be reasonable. I don't think it is the R word that she objects to; she's offended by the very idea that not all stories belong to her as a writer. (Which, when contrasted with our illustrator I mentioned who is nervous about the pressure of representing her OWN people, in a "casual diversity" picture book, just seems absolutely insane.) On the other hand, I think there's value to the people of color affected by these portrayals in being able to call bullshit out harshly. Shriver isn't going to change, but at least we don't have to pretend she's being anything less than a spoiled jerk.
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:08 PM on September 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


Who Gets to Write What? Really, really great response to all this by Kaitlyn Greenidge writing for the New York Times, if anyone is still following the thread.
posted by sunset in snow country at 4:25 PM on October 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


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