Identity politics collars fiction

Nov 3, 2019 by

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Advocates of identity politics are demanding that white writers stop creating fictional characters who are different from their own race, gender or sexual orientation.

They believe white authors have appropriated black, female or gay cultures for too long.

This new orthodoxy is blooming in many of our cultural institutions, especially in film, publishing and literary competitions.

Last year, The Saturday Paper, which awards the $15,000 Horne Prize for the best essay on Australian life, changed its submission rules.

It would, “not accept essays by non-indigenous writers about the experiences of First Nations Australians, essays about the LGBTQI community written by non-LGBTQI people or any other writing that purports to represent the experiences of any minority community of which the writer is not a member.”

In protest, the journalist David Marr and novelist Anna Funder, withdrew as judges, and the new rules were ditched.

Marr wrote in The Guardian, “Men can write about women, gays about straights, blacks about whites. You judge, as always, by quality.”

I wish that was true.

In 2017, the American book review magazine, Kirkus Reviews, removed a star (signifying an exceptional work), from Laura Moriarty’s teen fiction novel, ‘American Heart’.

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The story is set in an American dystopian future, where a 15-year old girl helps a Muslim girl to escape from a Muslim detainment camp.

Kirkus said it removed the star and rewrote the review because ‘American Heart’ was a ‘white saviour narrative’, where a person of colour relied on the compassion of a white person for rescue.

In the last five years, some youth fiction publishers have hired ‘sensitivity readers’, to assess whether stories may offend minority groups.

George Orwell would have liked the term, ‘sensitivity readers’ but as a journalist, he would have called them by their correct name – censors.

Under these dictates, books such as Thomas Keneally’s, ‘The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith’, Graeme Simsion’s, ‘The Rosie Project’, and even Charles Dickens’, ‘Bleak House’, with a female narrator – and thousands more – would never have been published.

Publishing companies and literary agencies have long flown the flag for freedom of speech. Now, I fear, it’s at half-mast.

Some argue that censorship is good for artists because it challenges their imagination.

Salman Rushdie wrote that this was like cutting a man’s arms off and then praising him for learning to write with a pen held between his teeth.

Paradoxically, those who subject fiction to rigid ideological purity tests, have more in common with the doctrinaire Chinese Red Guards of the 1960s, who ruthlessly stamped out progressive thinking.

Works such as ‘Clockwork Orange’, ‘Lolita’ and the ‘Tropic of Cancer’, live in fear of censorship. These famous novels are extraordinary explorations of the darker corners of human experience.

I write short stories and I’ve had some minor success with publication.

I can often place a story by creating a morality tale, e.g., a refugee Iraqi doctor who saves a mother and baby in a breach birth in an outback town, winning the respect of the sceptical locals.

Yet most of my stories have ambiguous moral endings. The ‘Ivory Hunters’ was a story about Kenyan park rangers lying in the jungle, waiting to ambush a group of teenage Somali ivory poachers.

The story is told by the head ranger. He is a black man with a young family. He is worried because his fellow rangers are frightened and poorly trained.

The poachers walk along a moonlit path and just before the rangers shoot, a baby elephant walks in front of their line of fire. The poachers laugh, drop their weapons, pat the elephant and shoo it off the path.

Things don’t go well for the poachers and things have not gone well for me, in my attempts to publish the story.

A literary judge in the UK said she liked the story but as I’m white and Anglo-Celtic, I had no right to create a black man’s reality, because I had no direct experience of it. I was guilty of cultural appropriation.

The novelist Lionel Shriver said if writers only portray white, straight characters, their work will be attacked for a lack of diversity. Yet if they include characters from ‘protected’ minority groups, they may be labelled disrespectful. You can’t win.

A part of the problem is ‘I feel’ and ‘I know’ are now synonymous. Our education system places so much emphasis on the right to ventilate one’s feelings, that umbrage and denouncement now rule.

Some years ago, I was the head of the largest writing program in Australia (RMIT). It was a good program but there were problems.

Students would often critique their fellow writers’ work based on PC values, rather than improving the quality of the writing.

It wasn’t only the students either. One screenwriting lecturer complained when a Bosnian student submitted a screenplay with a graphic rape scene by Serbian soldiers. The student told me the scene wasn’t fiction.

The other problem was that many students didn’t read. They were impatient to get their works published, so they created a ‘Year Zero’, ignoring the works of the most innovative writers of the last 100 years, or lambasting them as Dead White Males or politically naïve females.

How were they ever going to be writers if they didn’t read?

The clarion call for more ethnic and cultural diversity in publication would gain more traction if those writers could also produce works of a saleable quality, such as Alexis Wright’s novel, ‘Carpentaria’.

Universities encourage students to view literature through the prism of unequal power dynamics (such as ‘white saviour narratives’) and to scrounge for evidence of racism, colonialism and sexism, etc.

In doing so, the multicultural left has forsaken the plight of the working poor and unemployed, while allowing people to work for $15.00 an hour, across split shifts in insecure jobs.

Fiction overturns assumptions, mocks narrow-minded ideologues and disrespects sacred cows.

It is under no obligation to reflect reality, pursue social justice or push laudable political agendas.

The geography of the imagination is inviolate, unbounded and available to all.

Source: Identity politics collars fiction – On Line Opinion – 4/11/2019

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