On September 8th, Lionel Shriver, author of a dozen novels including 2005 Orange Prizewinner We Need to Talk About Kevin, gave a speech about identity politics at the Brisbane Writers Festival. During her talk, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an author, mechanical engineer, and the founder of Youth Without Borders, walked out. Abdel-Magied says she did so because Shriver was making light of the issues that have given rise to the frustration and ire many have around cultural appropriation.
Here’s a synopsis of both positions: Shriver (pictured left) argued that fiction is inherently about appropriating cultures and experiences of all kinds, and exploiting them to serve the story. It’s about wearing other people’s hats, she said. To drive the point home, Shriver wore a sombrero as she made her argument.
Abdel-Magied countered that Shriver’s “but it’s fiction” excuse is obtuse and insensitive. She pointed out that the peoples whose cultures and identities are routinely appropriated so rarely get a chance to tell their own stories to a mass audience because of a racist dominant culture and the enduring legacy of colonialism that shuts out or marginalizes these voices. Abdel-Magied added, this same racial prejudice and colonial history leads to many an author writing myopic and/or offensive fiction about an experience or people s/he knows nothing about.
I can identify with some of the frustrations Abdel-Magied and Shriver expressed, but, mostly, I’m frustrated by the demonstrated lack of empathy on Shriver’s part, and to a lesser extent, Abdel-Magied’s.
In her speech, Shriver claimed that a writer’s attempts to inhabit and portray the experiences of others who aren’t like them are inherently empathetic. She went on to argue that effort itself should be applauded, and that failure to get it right should be accepted as collateral.
“Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given,” she said. “But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything.”
Shriver expressed zero sensitivity to what it feels like to be the one whose life has been, and is being, entered (over and over again); and she demonstrated no curiosity or care about the stakes of failure. She did not mention the fact that the authors of color are reviewed far less by the New York Times, and other publications, than their white counterparts. Nor did she discuss the fact that far fewer writers who aren’t white even get the chance to be published.
Whether she failed to communicate this above hoped for sensitivity, or neglected to note the facts about identity disparity in publishing because she does not or cannot identify with the experience of seeing her story become more profitable when a white person’s name is on it, or because she doesn’t believe these factors are relevant to her thesis, or because she has little to no respect for those who raise objections about their cultures and identities being misrepresented is the debate.
As, Abdel-Magied aptly articulates:
It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.
I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.
But part of Abdel-Magied’s response irks me too.
Though I wish she had stayed to listen to Shriver’s whole talk so she could assess the argument in real time in its entirety and participate in a post-lecture Q&A to engage Shriver in a face to face, I respect her decision to walk out. As she explained in her essay, for her, staying implied agreement with–and legitimizing–what Shriver was saying. Leaving in the middle, Abdel-Magied wrote, was her statement of resistance. I get it. There are times when you just can’t grin and bear.
My issue with Abdel-Magied’s reaction is that, while she chose to exercise her right to exit the room mid-lecture, she made blanket assumptions about those who opted to stay and hear Shriver out. Deciding the chuckles coming from the audience amounted to “reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern,” she labeled the audience “compliant.”
It’s a seemingly small judgment, but it bears the whiff of insensitivity she ascribes to Shriver’s position. It asserts there is only one right way to react to a point of view you disagree with, and that the same reaction means the same thing for different people.
Abdel-Magied describes a packed room, and people laughing in complicity at Shriver’s obtuse remarks. We don’t know if some of the chuckles in that full house were uncomfortable, or whether there were people who were having sharply whispered conversations of dissent outside of her sightline and earshot, or if there were attendees who were quietly reserving their judgment until Shriver’s talk was over. Abdel-Magied doesn’t know either, all she can do is guess.
When it comes to discussions about representing identity, particularly in writing, merely guessing is one of the main problems.
Yes, as Shriver lectured, writing necessitates guessing at the emotions of characters in situations the writer may or may not have experienced. But good writing requires we add to guesswork research, close observation, deep contemplation, the feedback of generous souls who will read or listen to early drafts, and, eventually, professional editors and fact-checkers. And even when a writer feels s/he has done this due diligence to authentically write a story or character that is personally foreign, s/he can still get it wrong because racial and cultural biases are so deeply embedded in Western, and global, culture.
This doesn’t mean anyone should steer clear of trying to write about certain topics or people, it just means we should try harder to humbly listen to those who have had an experience we haven’t–especially when there is overwhelming consensus among said group that we have misrepresented it.
Furthermore, if we truly want to tell the stories of people and places and cultures we don’t personally know, and if we want to see them told well, we will have to make way for writers who are intimate with the experience to tell their stories themselves. And we can’t be satisfied with just one or two writers, but many. So many we can’t associate a group with a trend or type anymore and push it into a pigeonhole.
Most writers don’t have control over our publication destiny, let alone another’s, but those who have written bestsellers, or have publishing experience have some leverage. Whether it’s the relationships necessary to put in a good word with an agent/editor; or reading the work of an aspiring writer telling a story we want to try and offering feedback, there are ways to support a diversity of writers and stories if that’s what we truly want.
Conversely, those of us frustrated with seeing our stories exploited and appropriated, and tired of being dismissed by the dominant culture for expressing our pain and anger about said appropriation, should be cognizant that our fellows in the struggle have the right to express their dissatisfaction their way. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached non-violence and Malcolm X advocated a “by any means necessary” approach to combating racism in America. Both were assassinated.
It’s not about methodology. It’s about compassion, and a continual commitment to seeing past ourselves.
For example, Shriver said, “Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.”
While what she says is true on its face, I wonder if she has deeply considered why and how we got to the point where membership in an identity group means so much. Though white Americans, for example, may not think about or be aware of racism as much as a person of color might, they exist in a hyper-racialized nation along with everyone else in the country, and experience certain aspects of life in way that vastly differs from a person of color’s experience. Whether Shriver believes it or not, racial identity means as much to whites as it does to people of other races.
Membership of a larger group is not the sum of an identity, but in a world that sorts and shelves people based on identity groups–and specifically disadvantages those outside the dominant group–these memberships have shaped experiences and existences for generations. They have become culture and memory and life, providing spiritual and material refuge to those who leverage the power of their shared community. If history were different and prejudice non-existent, these identities might be treated incidentally, but they aren’t.
What if, concurrently, Abdel-Magied considered that Brisbane’s giving Shriver a speaking spot may not have been borne of an intention to personally harm her, or endorse a point of view she disagreed with? What if she moved past her assumptions of what her fellow attendees were thinking of her when she left, or why they stayed, and instead engaged a few of them after the event about how they felt about the proceeding?
Our collective lack of empathy keeps us trapped in our polemicist poles, paralyzed by the fear that if we acknowledge the merits of another’s position we will cede holy ground, unable to progress. Ironically, it also leaves us vulnerable to even more egregious appropriation, and makes for bad writing people think is good just because they tried. Perhaps most frustrating of all, it leaves us pretty much where we started: frustrated and isolated, the gap between our understanding, care, and consideration of each other only widening.
UPDATE: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout wins the 2016 Man Booker!
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, David Szalay’s All That Man Is, and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing made the cut from a longlist of 13 titles announced in July. Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings earned the 2015 Man Booker, the first time for a Jamaican novelist, and a first for indie publisher Oneworld Publications. With Paul Beatty’s novel, Oneworld is hoping for a repeat performance.
Each shortlisted author will receive £2,500 and a specially bound edition of their book. The winner will receive an additional £50,000.
Here’s a story at odds with the stereotype of the depressed, ornery writer: psychology professor James Pennebaker has done research that shows that people are less depressed after writing for just 20 minutes a day for three days.
In her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, excerpted on nymag.com, Dr. Susan David, PhD writes of Pennebaker’s work:
In each study, Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced marked improvement in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed and less anxious. In the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work.
Dr. David makes clear the results are not only tied to putting finger to keyboard or pen to paper, but about doing the work of expressing yourself. “Talking into a voice recorder, for example, can deliver the same results,” she writes. She adds:
But after showing up, there’s another critical aspect of agility: Stepping out. Deeper analysis over the years shows that unlike brooders or bottlers, or those who let it all hang out in big venting rants, the writers who thrived the most began to develop insight, using phrases such as “I have learned,” “It struck me that,” “the reason that,” “I now realize,” and “I understand.” In the process of writing, they were able to create the distance between the thinker and the thought, the feeler and the feeling, that allowed them to gain a new perspective, unhook, and move forward.
Not sure what the book has to say about how writing on deadline or writing professionally impacts mental health, but you can read the full excerpt to find out.
The movie 5 to 7 ends with this quote as a way to explain the muse behind the main character’s bestselling first novel. It got me thinking: what and who were the main catalysts for different stories I’ve written? They’ve never been the same, but they have been there. I wonder how my story/ies might be different if I changed “the reader.”
Is this quote true for you?
I’ve been following the messy Hulk-Hogan-vs-Gawker-is-really-Peter-Thiel-vs-Gawker saga since it started, my allegiances shifting like an ill-fitting toupee from moment to moment.
At times I felt infuriated and exasperated by more evidence of just how far the tentacles of “big money” stretch; how strong its chokehold on life. The idealist in me railed against the abuse of power on both sides–an uber-rich man using his financial advantage to wipe out a weaker, less moneyed adversary through Svengali machinations. And my inner Pollyanna judged an outlet that played on our collective interest in the salacious and furtive for clicks.
At other times, I felt a grudging respect for the ninja, chess move stealth of Thiel’s actions; a get-your-money happiness for Hulk Hogan’s $140 million payday settlement; and a firm head nod to a publication that seemed to say “Fuck it.” and “Fuck you.” to publishing’s status quo of massaging relationships with the powerful, either directly or through their publicists, targeting only subjects already vulnerable for their declining or compromised influence.
The jaded pragmatist that lives alongside my interior idealist sees Gawker as a participant in America’s market-demand economy and a victim of it’s mo’ money, mo’ lawyers, mo’ time to lock you up in litigation and bleed you dry set-up.
Gawker founder Nick Denton saw a hole in the market i.e. there wasn’t notable gossipy coverage of the rising class of technology elite, and he filled it. When that gossip covered Thiel, the latter used his mo’ money to fix his problem with the former. It was a risk Gawker took when it decided not to do as is done i.e. the breaks.
If Thiel’s money had not been involved, would(n’t) the Hulk have been a victim of Gawker’s advantage over him via corporate legal liability insurance—whether through an army of lawyers or rounds of appeals? Wasn’t Gawker partially banking on this advantage when they ran the story in the first place? Gawker’s Tom Socca wrote:
It is true that Gawker was always a publication that took risks. It had bad manners and sometimes bad judgment. Occasionally, it published things that it would regret—just as, for instance, the New York Times has published things that it regrets.
But every publication gives itself room to make mistakes, and is prepared to absorb the damage when it does make a mistake… Lawsuits and settlements happen to everyone, and everyone carries insurance to handle them. In Gawker’s wildest, most buccaneering years, it never came close to paying a million dollars for crossing a line.
At still other times, I thought merely about money and its influence. Isn’t that what money is for? Is that what money is for?
My inner contemplations aside, this case and its outcome has made me question what free press is, and should be, in the internet age; and it’s made me wary of how money’s impact on verdicts, and the tech sector’s increasing power will intersect with the press moving forward.
Hogan brought his case against Gawker, and won, on the grounds of invasion of privacy, infringement of personality rights, and intentional infliction of distress. The thing is, aren’t these grounds the cylinders that power the engines of tabloid and investigative journalism?
In an age when anyone can invade a person’s privacy simply by entering the right combination of search terms on Google or subscribing to services that gather public record information that, when compiled, amount to all of your business; when the right combination of exposed search results and known news can impact your ability to control the commercialization of aspects of your identity i.e. what you’re projecting on Instagram; when intentionally inflicting distress is par for the course to clicks and advertising revenue, where do we draw the legal line between a free press and an individual’s right to privacy and to control their own public narrative? Do we need to redefine what “press” is?
What laws need to be introduced and implemented to better protect against the financial bias embedded in our justice system so that a powerful publication can’t just publish anything about anyone–and a powerful individual can’t just take out an outlet because it does not like that a truth about them has been exposed? On an existential tip, why, as consumers of content, and human beings, do we desire to see what’s behind someone’s closed door, yet hide / manipulate the image of what’s behind our own?
Technology has made it easier for us to craft enviable, picture-perfect stories about our lives, just as it has enabled the exposure of the story behind the stories we post on social media. It has also empowered algorithm authors to determine what stories we even see, and enabled hackers to give stories unprecedented context. It’s also created a class with substantial coin and the abilities of algorithm authors and hackers, to influence what becomes press.
Every generation gives rise to elites that control the media or shape public discourse, joining or displacing those already doing so. What can we do to change this calculus between power and the press? How do we correct for it?
This month, Leonard Riggio, Founder and Executive Chairman on Barnes and Noble, Inc will retire, though “he has no plans to sell his stock” according to the New York Times which announced Riggio’s plans to retire in April. The onetime college bookseller, who dropped out of New York University where he worked in the book store to pay his tuition, led the nationalization of book retailers when he bought the single Barnes and Noble store left after a prior period of mismanagement in 1971.
Through the ’70s and early ’90s, Riggio oversaw the expansion of the book store’s business by, among other things, discounting New York Times bestsellers for up to 40%. And–like Amazon, the online marketplace for books that opened in 1994 and grew to challenge not only traditional book selling, but the publishing industry as well, by offering deep discounts on books–Riggio weathered fierce criticism for sucking the soul out of the bookstore experience. Also like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Riggio argues that the critiques leveled against his business were unfair and ill-informed.
“Our bookstores were designed to be welcoming as opposed to intimidating,” Riggio told the Times. “These weren’t elitist places. You could go in, get a cup of coffee, sit down and read a book for as long as you like, use the restroom. These were innovations that we had that no one thought was possible.” He added, “They would say, ‘You’re homogenizing bookselling,’ which was ridiculous because we were carrying 5,000 to 10,000 more titles than would be in a typical bookstore.”
Under Riggio’s leadership, as well as, in recent years, a revolving door cast of CEOs, Barnes and Noble has steadily lost the innovation fight with Amazon which is now the biggest online marketplace for books. But despite waves of store closings, and contentions with Amazon and battles with publishers along the way, the retailer continues to survive. While similar national chains like Borders Books have shuttered, B&N still has close to 650 stores across the U.S.
Riggio, who will retain a seat on the board, remains hopeful of his book store’s survival. And he has some right to be.
In spite of fierce competition from Amazon, independent bookstores have made a comeback with membership in the American Booksellers Association rising for the seventh consecutive year after a 10-year period of decline. Book sales are also rising, according to the AP. Perhaps, under a new Executive, Barnes and Noble will explore fresh ways to capitalize on its physicality in an increasingly isolating digital retail experience.
“We’ll continue to be the best bookseller we can be,” Riggio told the Times.
This week, 470 writers across the U.S. added their name to “An Open Letter to the American People,” a rejection of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s candidacy. In it, the undersigned, which includes Pulitzer Prizewinning poet Tracy K. Smith and Pulitzer Prizewinning novelist Junot Diaz, list their reasons for opposing Trump. Among them:
Because, as writers, we are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power;
Because we believe that any democracy worthy of the name rests on pluralism, welcomes principled disagreement, and achieves consensus through reasoned debate;
Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another
…Because neither wealth nor celebrity qualifies anyone to speak for the United States, to lead its military, to maintain its alliances, or to represent its people
It’s a to-the-point manifesto that makes a reasoned case for questioning Donald Trump’s fitness for the White House, however, I wish the writers had sacrificed the digestibility of brevity for a more in depth rallying cry written not with the choir as its intended audience, but the unbelievers that won’t go near the church. I wish too, that there had been more than clausal treatment of American history’s “periods of nativism and bigotry” and a deeper questioning of just how much celebrity and wealth have shaped America’s value system. In short, much of the writers’ missive reads as a love letter to America’s mythic origins when what we (or at least, I) need is a confession and admission.
There have not been merely “periods” of nativism and bigotry. Prejudice, racism, and nativist intolerance of some kind have been violently, legally, and/or passively upheld in America from the very beginning of its inception–often borne of a desire to pass on “drudgery, work, and slavery” to those weaker than ourselves. Whether we are talking about the early settlers’ tense relations with the Native Americans; the economy that trafficked in human lives, kidnapping and enslaving men, women, and children to build America during the transatlantic slave trade; the laws that have denied large swaths of people the right to vote or marry whom they choose; the myths and chicanery that have consigned certain people to ghettoes and incarceration; or the economic injustice that has created such disproportion that 1% of Americans control 38-43% of the nation’s wealth, the fact is America has thrived from pitting certain groups against others in a zero sum, winner take all game. Now, as demographics shift, our economy contracts, and the world globalizes, many Americans who benefited from the game as it was played, are seeing their advantage shrink. This is why Donald Trump’s “we’re gonna win again” rhetoric has captured their imaginations and their votes. When Trump says he wants to “make America great again,” his devotees understand that he aims to make America great again for them.
Likewise, the truth is, in America, celebrity and wealth have qualified people to speak for other Americans. Everyday, celebrities and rich people–basically actors, musicians, reality stars, and businesspeople–are quoted on all manner of topics unrelated to their actual expertise. They’re enlisted to speak for charitable organizations or given the spotlight when they rally around causes of concern. If not for Princess Diana touring land mine rigged areas, would the press have reported about it? Would the New York Times have reported on this open letter by writers about Trump if the signees did not include bestselling authors like Cheryl Strayed or Pulitzer Prizewinners like Tracy K. Smith and Junot Diaz? Would I?
As we enter this election cycle, it’s incumbent on all Americans to take a sober look at where we are, and why we are here, and admit that if we want to move forward, we cannot gloss over our past and/or present for fear of discomfort. We have to confess that, yes, America was built on “winners” keeping their feet on the necks of “losers,” and that we have worshiped at the altar of wealth and celebrity to our detriment. We have to acknowledge that democracy is hard, and that our (human?) impulse is to recoil from/be cautious of those we patently disagree with, and what / whom we don’t know or understand. We have to admit that we are (by instinct?) self-absorbed and self-obsessed, and that if we and those that immediately concern us are doing well, we don’t actively care what’s happening to anyone else. We have to concede that it’s easier to blame others for our challenges than point the finger at ourselves or accept that we don’t have as much control over things as we’d like.
And then, we have to repent.
I love that writers are coming together to express their thoughts about politics and the writing business. Culture looks to scribes to keep an accurate record of their times, whether that truth is expressed through non-fiction, fiction of any genre, or poetry. So let’s commit to telling the truth. It may be the only way to trump Trump.