Still More Thoughts on Depiction and Appropriation.

Yeah, dull. I know. But this is tricky stuff. Publishing being what it is, a new or low-profile writer who wants a useful relationship with the small presses (which are a great place to kickstart a career!) needs to be aware that unlike the big publishing houses, small presses are likely to get benefit from a risky, challenging work. Big publishers want, and aim for, best-sellers. That’s where the profit is. Arty, thoughtful, provocative projects have only limited interest in that sense. But for a small press, publishing a thought-provoking, confronting narrative which challenges the status quo can lead to a very useful lift in profile: awards, reviews, and discussions in public spaces. I’m thinking here of two publishers with whom I’ve worked: Twelfth Planet Press and FableCroft Publishing. Both have done excellent work in controversial areas, and both have acquired a strong reputation as a result.

If you’re planning to work with such people, it pays to think carefully about your project. Like it or not, there’s an ongoing swirl of debate which surrounds the publication of works from such thoughtful and engaged publishers. There’s considerable pressure on them to Get It Right — to provide stories which support a progressive narrative, both reflecting and inviting a readership which incorporates many cultures, races, genders and sexual identities. As a writer, you’re not going to get away with ticking off the boxes: strong female character? Check! Token black character? Check. Token gay character? Check!  Yes, these publishers want diversity and will even prioritise it to a degree, but they still want strong and effective writing — and they also want that diversity to be as critically bulletproof as possible, because their readership will certainly examine the stories with critical eyes, and will bring all those cultural, racial and sexual narratives to bear in the process.

All of which means: you’ll benefit by depicting diversity in your stories, but the diversity must arise organically from the needs of the story itself (your characters can’t be gay or black or white or Asian purely to fill the bill)  and you’re going to have to depict your diverse characters with skill and sensitivity.  I’m not going to try to tell you how to do that. in terms of writerly technique. I’m not convinced I know how to do it myself, though I’m prepared to try and to learn in the process. What I want to talk about is simpler: POV (point of view) characters versus characters depicted from the outside.

Thomas Keneally, speaking of his famous novel The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith, says now that he was wrong to write from the eponymous character’s viewpoint. For Keneally, the idea of a white (there’s that word again!) author depicting such a character is fundamentally flawed. Not only is it next to impossible for someone whose cultural group is the source and target of Jimmie’s rage to properly understand and convey that feeling, but it’s inherently disrespectful. Jimmie Blacksmith’s explosion is directed at the culture which marginalises him and seeks to make him a non-person. For a member of that culture to recreate these things and to derive direct benefit from that recreation is bitterly ironic.

Keneally stops short of suggesting that the book shouldn’t be done, however. He appears to believe that the tale would better be told from a point of view closer (culturally speaking) to his own, as the writer. In other words, if he wrote the book now he would depict Jimmie as seen through the eyes of the people that Keneally more or less identifies with. And that raises yet another thorny set of questions. Here are a few of them.

  • If a creator is part of a dominant cultural group (white, male, straight — or whichever variation on the theme is locally appropriate*) isn’t there some kind of obligation to depict other elements of the society under examination in the work?  If he creator operates with characters which reflect only the creator’s own personal cultural identity, will that creator not be further marginalising other groups and perpetuating a cultural hegemony?
  • If that creator attempts to enter and depict the POV of a character from a marginalised group, is this not itself a form of oppression? Is the creator not ‘seizing’ or ‘appropriating’ the very reality of that marginalised group, creating an inherently false narrative which may further marginalise the people in question?
  • If the creator refrains from depicting the POV of a marginalised character, instead portraying them only as seen or perceived from the ‘safe’ viewpoint of the dominant cultural group, does this in itself not perpetuate the cultural hegemony and further the oppression of the marginalised group?

You see the point. Write from within Jimmie’s POV? You’re appropriating and oppressing. Write Jimmie from an external POV that you identify with? Now you’re marginalising and oppressing. Leave Jimmie out altogether? Hey! Where are the depictions of persons outside the main cultural paradigm? Is your society so completely uniform?

In other words, you’re faced with three mutually incompatible approaches each of which can be critically reconstructed in a way that makes you, the creator, into an oppressor. So how do you win?

Well — you don’t just stop writing. And you definitely don’t stop writing diverse characters, because the world around you is diverse and if you want your work to carry a sense of truth, you have to deal with that diversity. The key, I am told, is respect. What form does that respect take? You’ll have to ask yourself first. It might also help to ask some of the stakeholders: people who identify with marginal groups that you choose to depict.

Look — the extreme view on appropriation is clearly wrong. The idea that creators should depict only within their cultural purview is too stupid even to discuss. Fiction is about creation and imagination. You have a license to think outside the box, and you should use it. Some of the most interesting, challenging and entertaining SF of all time has come about from authors trying out completely alien viewpoints. If we can do that, then surely we can depict viewpoints which are a little closer to home.

So: you’re not gay, but you want to write a gay character from within POV? Fine. Go ahead. But try to ensure you actually understand something about that POV. Don’t just watch reruns of Will and Grace on cable. Get out and look around. Try to put yourself in the space that gay people are forced to inhabit. Ask questions, but do it politely, respectfully, and expect to hear some anger and some refusals because it’s a hell of a topic for anybody, let alone someone who’s been on the wrong end of the Social Conformity Hammer for most of their lives. Read books and articles, too. Maybe jump into social media: pick the right forums and then just read and listen.

You’re never going to please everyone. There will always be people who choose to take issue with your work. That’s kind of a given in these Internet-powered, social-media driven days. Your goal isn’t to be completely safe. Your goal is to create and depict people in a manner which drives your narrative while still conveying sympathy and respect. Bottom line: people from marginalised groups in any society are still people. If you work at creating three dimensional, sympathetic characters, and recognise that being part of any social, cultural or sexual group is only part of an individual’s make-up, chances are that the majority of your audience will understand.

…and of course, you may even find that you now have an audience.



One comment

  1. wolandscat · · Reply

    Well stated. One bone to pick. Why should every book I or anyone else writes contain its own full world of diversity? Why should the narrative be ‘progressive’? Who says what that is anyway? SJWs? Don’t make me vomit!

    Why can’t it just contain the characters I want to write about in the story, who might be mostly Indian textile workers, or gay old men or kids, or more likely, no-one cares about their sexual and racial ‘identity’ (mostly a construct of post-modernists and their divisive identity politics). There’s no diversity as such in Crime and Punishment or Madame Bovary or 1984 or most other great novels. However, when I go into a decent bookstore (let’s say it has at least some thousands of titles qualifying as some kind of literature), then I am going to see diversity – there will be novels about gay people, slavery, gen Xers, kids, dogs and everyone else. I see no reason why any particular writer should bear some personal responsibility to depict some supposedly perfectly balanced version of (some) society.

    Any picture of diversity has to _emerge from_ the sum total of what a society’s writers put out – the whole bookstore if you like. If someone is to be tasked with ‘balance’ it might arguably be publishers or distributors. But there’s still a problem: what if it turns out that all the fiction written for/by some minority group is just bad, what do publishers do? And how do they decide which theory of minority victimhood they have to follow to get the ‘diversity’ right? Which theory of ‘progressiveness’? We’re really just talking about which currently fashionable aesthetics.

    The only responsibility publishers and book distributors can be tasked with possibly work is not to reject good writing on the basis of the characteristics of its writers or the content (barring obvious exceptions of criminals making money from crime, and out and out extreme immoral content). Otherwise they should just publish what they think will sell. After all that’s the game they’re in.

    Writers should write what they want and just try to do so well and authentically.

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