Wednesday, April 21, 2021


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 train

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.

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.

Ms. Bernay's piece recalled to me last year's flap over American Dirt, by Janine Cummins, who endured the wrath of "woke" liberals  when her book was ballyhooed by Oprah, who chose it for her book club, and over-indulgently presented to the trade by her publisher, who garnered a set of lavish blubs from eminent celebs and writers--not a few of them of Mexican descent--describing it as little short of a cultural milestone and a masterpiece casting light on the crisis at the border between the U.S. and Mexico such as had never been shone before.  It was, one supporter declared, nothing less than "a Grapes of Wrath for our time."  

In response to this avalanche of praise, and after the book's publisher made the decision to position the book as more or less the most significant piece of literature since Uncle Tom's Cabin, came a tsunami of indignant reviews, protests, and sponsor cancellations of appearances scheduled for Ms. Cummins.  Much of this backlash centered on Ms. Cummins's credibility and credentials.  In brief, a number of commentators argued that having not been born Mexican, Ms. Cummins had no standing to write her novel set in Mexico and featuring mostly Mexican characters, most of whom detractors felt were woefully weighted toward the vicious and the piteous, not to mention their being inauthentic.  A number of these commentators lamented that Ms. Cummins had gotten many details wrong, although aside from a few errors involving translation, they were woefully short on exactly what was "wrong."  But, in sum and most egregiously, it was charged, Ms. Cummins had "appropriated" a story that as a non-Mexican, she simply was not entitled to write.

I myself had read American Dirt in galleys, after my bookseller wife Kimberly--long before all the fuss erupted--passed it along enthusiastically.  She was captivated by the story, the situation, and the characters and thought I would be too.  She was correct.

I found American Dirt, which follows the breathless journey of a young mother and her son on the run for the U.S. border while pursued by a ruthless Mexican drug cartel leader who has already murdered her husband and most of the rest of her family, to be an accomplished thriller that did indeed derive great power from its setting and the particular retelling of a fraught journey so many unfortunates have undertaken for no less serious reasons.

I lived for more than a decade on the border, in El Paso, described thusly by a friend when he heard of the teaching post I was bound for at the University of Texas branch campus there:  "El Paso may not be the end of the world, but you can certainly see it from there."  As it turned out, however, I rather liked El Paso for the very fact that it is about as uncharacteristic an American city as there is.  I found it to be essentially like the set of a Sergio Leone Western, only with automobiles and more people.  

There were some attempts at Americanization--an Army base, a belching copper refinery, and some shopping malls--but the whole of it was surrounded by a vast and fearsome high desert interrupted only by a slow-moving muddy sluice known as the Rio  Grande and utterly indifferent to the proclivities of those who tried to maintain a footing there.  The river, of course, marked the dividing line between the U.S. and Mexico, but that often seemed wishful thinking.  As far as I could tell, most of the population of twin-city Juarez came across the border during the day to dust the homes and tend the yards of El Pasoans, and at night, the tide shifted, when a goodly portion of the Norte Americanos trooped into Juarez to enjoy excellent food, 25-cent cervezas, and colorful nightlife.

Living in El Paso had little to do with life in the America that I had previously known.  The place--and the cultures which had been brought to being in such a place--was largely indifferent to such concepts as Disneyworld, or My Three Sons, or the Nike swoosh.  The news of the world found its way to El Paso, absolutely, but its effect was in aggregate about equal to the annual average of rainfall there, somewhere between 6 and 8 inches.

I bring all this up just as a shorthand indicator that I came to some familiarity with the borderlands during my decade or so in El Paso, and to a familiarity with a goodly portion of the literature that had emanated from those parts, and with the attitudes of those who had spent a lifetime in a place that had always served as a turnstile of sorts, as its more historic name might suggest:  El Paso del Norte.  

I'm skipping over quite a bit, given the time that had elapsed between my decampment from El Paso to my three decades in Miami (more trees, some water to go with the sand, if not all  that different in a lot of ways), but suffice it to say that when I sat down with American Dirt I felt as if I were reliving a significant portion of my past.  Janine Cummins nailed the milieu in a way that it rarely is, captured the sorts of characters she needed and to the degree appropriate for her story, and adroitly overlaid a familiar thriller plot atop a landscape that has been used but not overused for the purpose, B. Traven, Cormac McCarthy, and James Crumley aside.  I found the book thoroughly satisfying, and if not groundbreaking for the genre in the way that Silence of the Lambs or the work of James M. Cain might be seen, to be commended nonetheless for its heart-in-the-right-place treatment of the streaming migrants and a palpable recreation of the grinding fear that a desperate journey through the pitiless ratlands entails.  

Never for a moment did I think of Grapes of Wrath  or Uncle Tom's Cabin as I rapidly turned the pages.  Nor did it occur to me to wonder if there might be accomplished nuclear physicists or philosophically inclined explicators of the Mexican psyche whom Ms. Cummins might have shoehorned into her plot.  I was reading a thriller, believed entirely in this mother's utter devotion to carrying her son to safety, and just as when I was reading The Da Vinci Code, where I had no trouble at all distinguishing between its fanciful plot and anything having to do with actual Biblical historiography, I could easily discern that the principal aim of American Dirt was to entertain.  Imagine my surprise, then, when all that literary shit hit the fan.

"THIS is not the novel of the Mexican experience," many huffed, at the same time lamenting the fact that any number of books of true literary importance pertaining to Mexico had not been chosen by Oprah nor much read by a general population.  Several of the offended suggested that in fact they had written such far more worthy tomes, or knew someone well who had.

I was perplexed.  I could not remember any complaints that James Dickey had forever tarred Georgians or banjo players when he published Deliverance, nor that Thomas Harris, lacking a diagnosis as a psychopathic cannibal, should have had his typewriter impounded before he delivered Hannibal Lecter.  And as a writer, I share Ms. Bernays's opinion that it is one's imagination combined with acquired knowledge and topped off with a measure of skill that determines whether or not one is "certified" to write of any subject or inhabit the mindset of any creature, from stuffed bears to stuffed shirts.  The proof of such certification is always to be found in the pudding.  

I wrote my own indignant letter to the New York Times:

Regarding the flap over Janine Cummins' book, I would argue that much of the attendant controversy is the fauIt of the publishers, who couldn't be content just to put the book out there as a thriller "torn from the headlines" and wait to let it sink or swim on its merits.  What a ludicrous notion to describe it as a "Grapes of Wrath for our time," and saddle a fine little thriller with such a burden.  I doubt very much that Ms. Cummins presented herself or the book to publishers as "in the vein of Harriett Beecher Stowe."  But it is not a "bad" book in terms of its literary quality, not by any stretch.  Those who cast it as poorly written, characterized, or constructed are operating out of envy or for political ends.  Speaking as a NYT best-selling author, I wish I had had the good sense to conceive of and write it and to have pulled it off so well, and if I had and anyone had come after me about it, I would simply say (depending on the viciousness of the attack), "If you have a better thriller about the same stuff to write, where is it?  Until you  produce one, dry up."  Or words to that effect.  --Les Standiford

While the letter was not published, I felt a little better for having written it, as I do for having posted it here.  As I told my students at the time, and as I tell them still, it is not only your right but your duty to give voice to any character who appears in the demi-monde of your imagination, asking to be born.  The notion that certain subjects or experiences belong as writing fodder only to those whose personal identity or experience permits is not only misguided, it is the antithesis of that which promotes a unity of souls.  Simply put, a writer's authority is determined by that writer's ability.


writestuffnick said...

I get it. The traditional hierarchy that decided who and what got published is changing. Authors and stories that would never have seen the light of day are now being published. That's a good thing. The danger is that the avoidance of cultural appropriation will choke off many writers' creative choices. Has the fear of offending a particular group affected the way my memoir has been received by agents and publishers? I think so. Has it affected the creative choices I've made since. I know so. I agree with Les Standiford that we shouldn't completely lose sight of the way a creative work has traditionally been assessed: whether or not it's any good. Please don't tell me all I can write about are the exploits of this sixty-two year old straight, white, married guy living in the suburbs. Trust me, you don't want to read that story any more than I want to write it.

Les Standiford said...

That's a pretty funny close.

Debra Dean said...

I think you'd be right to nail your manifesto to the doors of the publishers' marketing departments. I was introduced to the culture of the exclamation point during the pre-publication period for my first novel. Of course, it was tempting to believe I might be the second coming, but I had only to notice that nearly every other writer coming out with a book that season was praised in the same bloated terms by their publisher. But it's the writers who take the blows when they come. I'm reminded of the brouhaha over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces (another Oprah pick), when it was discovered to contain large amounts of fiction. Not defending Frey, but was was largely lost in that discussion is that Frey's agent had submitted it to the publisher as fiction, but the publisher decided it would make a bigger splash if it were promoted as a memoir.

Les Standiford said...

It is of course the rare writer who would tell a publisher, "Hey don't make a fuss over my book," but Dennis Lehane tells the story of confronting his publishers who were planning a huge promotion for, I believe, his third in the Kenzie/Gennaro series. "Don't do that," he said. "This book is not going to measure up to all that hype you're planning. You'll kill it AND my career." The publishers backed down and Dennis breathed a sigh of relief. His rise to fame and fortune came along of course, but it was propelled by what's within the covers.