Traveling in Books: Appropriation in Literature: Who are you to write about that?

Free Speech versus censorship

Literature is an important reflection of how we value free speech. Censorship leads to human suffering. Yet words can cause pain. Which do we choose — free speech or censorship — when there is so much to be outraged about?

William Styron’s daughter Alexandra Styron recently wrote in The Atlantic ( ) about the negative reactions to the book, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Alexandra admits that her father was the first person to be accused of cultural appropriation for his Novels Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. She points out that his novel was dubbed “the worst thing that’s happened to Nat Turner since he was hanged,” by the writer William Strickland. His was not the only complaint.

William Styron was accused of racism, and he was devastated. “For someone like my father, really for all white people who believe deeply in a just moral order, there is perhaps no more punishing sword. Eventually, when his defenses appeared bootless, he went back to his desk and left the book to speak for itself. Ten years later, he emerged with Sophie’s Choice.”

The right to write

Alexandra Styron wonders in her article about the kind of reception The Confessions of Nat Turner would receive today. ” I suspect that whatever battering Jeanine Cummins has taken for American Dirt, my father would be in for double.”

And what of that other masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird? Did Harper Lee have the right to write it? Does anyone outside an experience or culture have sanction to look in and tell others what they see? Why? Why not?

“Regardless of gender or race,” Alexandra asserts, “serious artists labor beyond the call of the censor because they know their work is valuable and humane, and because they must.”

No matter who you are or what you believe in, we live in a culture of complaint. Anger towards injustice is valid, and yet being stuck in complaining-mode is a form of in-active perfectionism. Energy that is used for complaining could better be used in action toward change. Action like writing, for example. Because regardless of how well-reasoned your outrage and indignation is, it is impractical as a solution to problems, and quite self-indulgent.

Consider why we protect freedom of speech

You might be offended by words that delight me, and vice versa. So who is to decide on what is offensive — you or me? Do the words create a dangerous situation, or are they simply perceived as insulting?

“Two fundamental principles come into play whenever a court must decide a case involving freedom of expression. The first is “content neutrality”– the government cannot limit expression just because any listener, or even the majority of a community, is offended by its content. In the context of art and entertainment, this means tolerating some works that we might find offensive, insulting, outrageous — or just plain bad.

The second principle is that expression may be restricted only if it will clearly cause direct and imminent harm to an important societal interest. The classic example is falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a stampede. Even then, the speech may be silenced or punished only if there is no other way to avert the harm.”

Rather than complaining about an author’s words we find offensive, we could take practical action ourselves to move towards our ideals and values (those things that when violated trigger outrage in us.) There is almost always a better way of working for change besides indulging in criticism or “moral outrage”.

One way of working for change is to voice your perspective, to write about it. It is true that the voices heard most loudly are those of people in power, and they may use their loud voices to convince others of the perspective that benefits them, and might even convince others to act against their own self-interest. But sometimes writers who write outside of their personal experience expose the wrong-doings of people in power.

Exposés like A Woman of No Importance by Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, or The Jungle by Upton Sinclair are examples of works by authors who could be accused of appropriation.  Wilde wasn’t a woman, Sinclair wasn’t a laborer, and Sinclair Lewis wasn’t a scientist, but still wrote Arrowsmith. Should they have been shamed into silence? Or did their work help to educate society about important issues?

What’s the lesson in all this? If you’re a woman is it OK to write from a man’s perspective? If you’re straight is it OK to write from an LGBTQ perspective? Alexandra advises to keep writing but develop sensitivity and avoid stereotypes or presumptions.  “In other words: Don’t be an asshole, but do it anyway.”

If you are offended by the perspective of a writer, or if you’re a writer concerned that your writing might be misconstrued as appropriation, instead of indulging in complaints, here are some other suggestions:

Try listening — attempt to understand the other’s perspective when you feel indignation.
Try turning your criticism inwards – see how it feels.
Try forgiveness.
Try to embody your ideals.
Recognize that’s everyone’s perspective is valid because we are all witnesses of this world.

Please read: Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story? in E POLITICS OF FICTION OCT. 30, 2019. “Ten authors on the most divisive question in fiction, and the times they wrote outside their own identities.”

Keep scratchin’!

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Pablo Picasso

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