My dear friend and writer of excellence from Amherst, Madeleine Blais (Uphill Walkers) passed along an op-ed from a recent issue of the Boston Globe, in which the well-known novelist Anne Bernays opines on the concept of literary "appropriation." Rather than try to paraphrase Ms. Bernays, I thought I'd share what she has to say.
Throw Shakespeare from the trainNot so long ago, it was an accepted fact that fiction writers could and did write from whomever’s point of view they figured was the best way to tell their story.
By Anne Bernays Updated April 16, 2021, 3:00 a.m. Boston Globe
Did an adolescent boy write “The Catcher in the Rye”?
Did a stuffed bear write “Winnie the Pooh”?
Did a pre-pubescent girl write “Alice in Wonderland”?
Did a semi-literate sailor write “Moby-Dick”?
Did anyone make a fuss at the time these books were published?
The answers to these questions is no, of course not. Not so long ago, it was an accepted fact that fiction writers could and did write from whomever’s point of view they figured was the best way to tell their story. Like actors — if they’re any good — they can become their characters to great effect. Their tools are imagination plus a better-than-average knowledge of how the human psyche operates.
When I began to write fiction, in 1957, my main characters were all versions of me in flimsy disguise. As I grew more secure in the craft, I gained courage and started inventing characters and roles for them to perform in. It was exhilarating. You could say that, in psychological terms, I was coming as close to living my fantasies as society and the law permitted. And so, in “Prudence Indeed,” my fourth novel, I had a man kill a woman by tightening the gold chain around her neck. In “Professor Romeo” my main character was a teacher at Harvard who couldn’t keep his hands and other body parts away from young women. There was no model; I had made him up.
Since fiction, and especially short stories, are about what people do to and for each other, we have the entire human population on hand. A very broad palette.
In the early ′70s, I wrote a novel, “The First to Know,” that only four people have read. It’s about the son of a Hemingway-esque writer and his troubles with dad. Written in the first person, I submitted it under a gender-neutral name, B.K. Pamet. The publisher believed I was male. The last novel I published (“The Man on the Third Floor”) features a man who finds out, in middle age, that he’s gay. This book must be convincing for some people, because it’s on lists of gay fiction worth reading.
The first time “appropriation” raised its loathsome head was back in 1967, when William Styron published the “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” about a slave who led a rebellion in 1831. The backlash was brutal: Styron should not have written this book, not because of a lack of talent but because he “couldn’t know” what it was like to be a Black man who was enslaved by another person. I submit that he could and did know simply by virtue of having and using the same sort of gift that Laurence Olivier did when he played Heathcliff and Meryl Streep when she played Julia Child. The pernicious criticism quieted down for a while and only recently reappeared, more ferocious than ever, when someone had the bright idea of demanding that all kinds of writers write only about what they know firsthand and have experienced up close. This belief is partner to the notion that if you’re American, you can’t cook a traditional Japanese meal; if you’re from Alabama, you can’t wear a sari; if you’re a poet, your translator has to be your mirror image. And so on, ad utter nauseam.
Recently a translator, Victor Obiols, rendered the poems of Amanda Gorman, this year’s inaugural poet, into Catalan, the language of Spain and Andorra. Not until after he had done the work did the firm that had hired him decide not to publish it. Why? Here’s what Obiols reported: “They did not question my abilities, but they were looking for a different profile, which had to be a woman, young, activist, and preferably Black.”
Follow the specious reasoning employed by such culture warriors: Children’s stories can only be written by children. The only person allowed to write a cookbook is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. If you haven’t lived it, don’t go near it or we’ll come and get you. Throw Shakespeare from the train: What did he know about how a jealous Black husband feels?
The concept at the bottom of this discussion is the notion of authenticity, which is another way of saying that something rings true, makes emotional sense. One of the most harrowing of all war novels, “The Red Badge of Courage,” about a young Civil War deserter, was written by Stephen Crane, a man who had never taken part in any war. It is still deservedly in print after 136 years. He must have done something right.
Anne Bernays is the author of 10 novels and the coauthor of three nonfiction books.