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Writer's imagination vs. cultural appropriation: In search of common ground

The ethical imperative for writers is to imagine responsibly and with empathy, not to avoid imagining at all


Svetlana Mintcheva
September 26, 2016 5:32PM (UTC)

The controversy over Lionel Shriver’s address at the Brisbane Writers Festival draws battle lines where it is not only possible but also necessary to find common ground.

To recap: Shriver has claimed that writers have the moral and professional right — and artistic need — to imaginatively inhabit the experiential perspective of others, be those of racial or sexual minorities, ethnic groups, the underprivileged or the overly privileged. Imaginatively creating other worlds using whatever they can cull from this one is, after all, what writers do.

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Shriver’s critics, on the other hand, have questioned such license in view of a cultural and economic context in which minority writers find it much harder to get published and promoted. They insist minority writers are the ones who can best tell their own stories and are also the ones who have the moral right to do so.

There are three questions here: one socioeconomical, another artistic and the third ethical.

To start, the socialeconomic question: While there is broad agreement that we need more diversity in publishing, if white writers stopped writing about characters from minority backgrounds, would more opportunities open for those writers?

The answer is probably no. Think about Western literary history: a white dominant culture producing books for readers of similar backgrounds. The experience of minority characters and cultures is rarely featured in this history with any complexity of understanding, their role being mostly relegated to that of an exotic other. Yet that lack did nothing to enhance the participation of minority writers.

Indeed, past literary culture has been much more closed to minority writers than our present state of publishing. Arguably, however, when dominant culture writers engage with other cultures in their books, rather than steal this opportunity away from minority writers, they actually help generate interest in marginalized cultures. They may, in turn, help open up a market for writers speaking from within such cultures.

The second question is one fundamental to the practice of art: Can a writer meaningfully enter the perspective of somebody coming from a fundamentally different background and life experience?

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Whether we like it or not, this is what fiction is all about: imagining the subjective experience of imagined others. Sometimes this is done exploitatively, exoticizing and stereotyping the “other” (by far not all fiction is good fiction), but occasionally it provides profound insight.

Dostoyevsky put us in the head of an “ideologically intoxicated” killer, Nabokov invited us to enter the perspective of a pedophile, Morrison puts us in the mind of an escaped slave haunted by the ghost of her murdered child, and Ishiguro writes about a British butler to the prewar aristocracy. The imperative for writers is to tell their story well, with integrity and honesty, not to refrain from imagining the experience of the other.

Finally the ethical question: Who is entitled to use another cultural group’s painful history for the advancement of their own art? If my ancestors suffered through discrimination, genocide or ethnically motivated violence, don’t I have the right to tell that story rather than someone unaffected or worse someone who was implicated as a perpetrator of that violence?

We write and read on the assumption that we are capable of empathy or understanding what it feels to be someone else. Most writers do write about characters that they are familiar with from in the real world, but they also project their imaginations back in time, forward into the future or into characters that come from very different backgrounds. Whether they succeed in communicating empathy and in creating a character that is complex and true, depends on the capacity of the writer as a writer and his or her creative integrity, not on the person's skin color, sexuality or cultural background. The ethical imperative is thus to imagine responsibly and with empathy, not to avoid imagining at all.

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That said, the criticism of Shriver’s speech reflects a real problem: that the work of writers of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds rarely hits best-seller lists or even get published.

This problem will hardly be resolved, however, by stopping the mainstream use of characters from marginal groups. The solution has to do with diversifying the publishing industry as well as developing readership interest. Powerful stories about marginalized experiences, no matter where they come from, help create that interest and thus a potential market that can benefit minority writers.

Much of the criticism around the representation of minority groups has been directed at the publishing industry. In one example from earlier this year, in an action unprecedented throughout its 94-year history, Scholastic pulled a children’s book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” from bookstores after criticism of its representation of slavery. (The horrors of slavery were absent from the book’s rather sunny narrative.)

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So, what is the role of fiction publishers? As producers of a type of consumer content within a capitalist economy, publishers are, of course, responding to market demand and trying to maximize profits. But given the kind of content they are providing, should they also not be seen as shaping market demand and be ethically responsible to work in the public interest?

After all, historically speaking, the small publishing houses that have now become corporate behemoths fought any number of battles around government restrictions on what could go in print, foregoing any short-term interest in profit. Publishers went to jail for printing “Ulysses” and fought court battles concerning the works of Henry Miller and William Burroughs, among many more. In more repressive regimes publishers are, even today, risking government repercussion every day.

It is thus somewhat ironic that what progressive defenders of social justice are pressing publishers to do today is to display their ethical and social responsibility by censoring books, which reflect on the past or cultural minorities in ways that some find controversial. And while it is encouraging to see how social media has given voice to previously silenced groups, it is somewhat sinister to go to a bookstore, try to buy a book and be told that the store cannot do that because the publisher has recalled that book with the intention to pulp it.

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It is both in the business interest of publishers and in the interest of their mission as cultural leaders to work to diversify their editorial team so that it reflects a diverse marketplace of readers. But when it comes to selecting books, the criteria should be what they have always been, to publish books that are good, that entertain and enlighten and not shy away from those that may spark controversy. And when controversy does happen, we should be glad that we live in a society where we can vehemently disagree over books, but where the fire of our argument remains figurative.

One point that we can all agree is that we need more stories about the diverse cultural and social experiences of those with whom we share this small planet.

As philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, storytelling is vital in expanding our sense of empathy and thus crucial in keeping our increasingly diverse and multicultural societies healthy and just. We need to have more insightful writing about those whose experience is different from ours, not less.


Svetlana Mintcheva

Svetlana Mintcheva is the Director of Programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Banned Books Week, of which NCAC is a sponsor, runs September 25-October 1, and this year the theme is diversity. The theme was chosen based on the disproportionate number of books covering diverse themes that face censorship.

MORE FROM Svetlana Mintcheva

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Cultural Appropriation Diversity Lionel Shriver Publishing Writers

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