Consider this an extended addendum to yesterday’s post about cultural appropriationism. You recall that novelist Lionel Shriver raised the issue at a festival in Brisbane, Australia. And that a member of the audience was so horrified to hear Shriver’s thoughts that she got up, walked out and threw a tantrum.
Yesterday, Time Magazine interviewed Shriver. The boldface questions were asked by Time editor Nate Hopper. The italicized remarks are Shriver's:
Have you read any of the criticism that’s been published elsewhere online?
Not much of it. I’ve seen bits and pieces of that blog that have been quoted back to me.
By the woman who walked out of your speech. Were there any parts of her criticism that you found valid?
Did her criticism vindicate your point?
I think this entire hoo-ha is an exercise in illustrating my point. If to disagree with someone is to personally injure them in a grievous and unpardonable way, then intellectual discourse is dead. That speech didn’t attack anyone in particular. It attacks an idea. And we have to be able to attack ideas.
Shriver also notes the following:
The whole notion of re-enfencing ourselves into little groups, first off, encourages pigeonholing. It means that we don’t read books about people who are different; we just read books about people who are just like us. And we don’t experience the empathy that you’re recommending to me. And we all the more think of each other in terms of membership of a collective. And I don’t think that’s in the interest of any minority group. Why would they want that? And why do they want us to keep our hands off their culture and therefore ignore them? The exchange of cultural practices and ideas—even costume—is fruitful! It’s in the interest of those groups—for us to be able to exchange our experience.
Among the more absurd notions introduced by Shriver’s critics was this: when a white person writes about a non-white person the white person is silencing the non-white person. I addressed the point in yesterday’s post:
The thought is: By majority members being able to write about these other cultures, the space for minority members writing about their own experiences in fiction are being [pushed out]—
Well that’s just not the nature of publishing. There’s nothing stopping people from telling their own stories. And that’s switching the issue around. First of all: It’s not a zero-sum game. There’s not a law that says, There are only a hundred books a year that are going to be published, and we’re going to publish white people first, and—oops!—we ran out of slots, we’re not going to publish you because you’re from the wrong group. It doesn’t work that way. There are all kinds of publishers.
The issue is not whether people from minority groups should be able to tell their own stories. That’s great. If people are inclined toward writing literature and happen to be coming from a group whose experience seems to be underrepresented in literature, go to town. Hit the word processor. But that’s not really up for grabs. What’s up for grabs is whether I am allowed to have black characters in my fiction. Would Johnny Got His Gun be acceptable today because the author was not actually disabled? That’s the question. And do we really want writers to constrain the cast of their characters to all white, when that’s not representative of the real world? And yet if you do that, you get criticized for it. So you can’t win. So which is going to be?
Can I just say: I am dumbfounded at the reaction to that speech, the point of which I found self-evident and downright anodyne. And I find the aftermath very discouraging. The upside, however, has been that I’ve had an outpouring of solidarity from other writers. And that affirms my view that this is an important right to continue to carve out for fictions writers. But I find the concept of cultural appropriation so dubious that I am distressed that we have had such an extensive conversation about it.