Fixed It VIII By Henrietta Harris


'Preventing writers from conjuring lives different from their own would spell the end of fiction."

By Lionel Shriver


'Preventing writers from conjuring lives different from their own would spell the end of fiction."

Up against the wall in a dark alley, I’d personally say the sword is mightier than the pen. But all this power to break bones imputed to mere language might seem a boon for folks whose medium is wordsmithing. Aren’t we writers menacing? Unfortunately, we authors now contend with a torrent of dos and don’ts that bind our imaginations and make the process of writing and publishing fearful.

I’ve written at length before about “cultural appropriation”—the idea that availing yourself of other cultures without permission is a form of theft—so let’s keep it short. Preventing writers from conjuring lives different from their own would spell the end of fiction. If we have the right to draw on only our own experience, all that’s left is memoir. But when I drafted my famous—or infamous—speech for a 2016 appearance at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, I’d barely heard of the term.

Fast-forward, and this ostensible taboo has grown firmly established, becoming a far bigger issue in literature than it was a mere two years ago. (Social fads can colour not only the present, but the past. It now seems as if we’ve been battling over “cultural appropriation” for years and years.) The notion often crops up in creative writing programmes, leaving upcoming writers confused about what material they’re “allowed” to use in their work and how in heaven’s name they’re supposed to seek permission to borrow a cup of sugar from marginalised peoples.

Yet these days, straight white fiction writers whose characters’ ethnicity, race, disability, sexual identity, religion or class differs from their own can expect their work to be subjected to forensic examination—and not only on social media. Publishers of young adult fiction and children’s literature hire “sensitivity readers” to comb through manuscripts for perceived slights to any group with the protected status once reserved for distinguished architecture.

ThepublishingmagazineK irkusReviews assigns“ownvoices”reviewerswitha matching “marginalised” pedigree to assess young adult books that contain a diverse cast. Last autumn, the magazine yanked both a positive review and its coveted “star” after online activists accused Laura Moriarty’s dystopian novel American Heart , which imagines a future in which US Muslims are sent to internment camps, of using a “white saviour narrative.” (Yes, whole plot lines are becoming unacceptable. This year’s

film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has attracted heavy flak because its racist cop rounds into a half-decent human being. Writers can refurbish murderers into good guys, but must never redeem a racist.)
As for adult literature, it’s impossible to gauge the degree of politically correct censorship going on behind the scenes at publishing companies and literary agencies. Editors and agents are unlikely to assert directly that a submission’s content is too hot to handle. Having tackled divisive subjects or deployed characters who don’t hew to the rules of identity politics—rules that are often opaque, or at least until you break them—authors are left with uneasy suspicions about why their manuscripts might be attracting no takers, but with no hard evidence.

Equally impossible to gauge is the extent of writers’ collective self-censorship. The tetchiness and public shaming of “call out” culture has to be influencing which subjects writers feel free to address and which they shy away from, as well as making many writers reluctant to include a diverse cast. Does the edict to eschew stereotypes mean a black character can never be a drug dealer? (So much for The Wire, then. Or Clockers, both created by white men.) Rather than tip-toe through this minefield, plenty of writers must be playing it safe with characters, topics and plots that won’t get them into trouble. But this caution is invisible. Literary roads not taken are mapped privately in a writer’s head, behind a screen, with the drapes drawn. We have no record of what a host of individual authors have decided to avoid.

Fixed It VI By Henrietta Harris
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