Possibly Inappropriate

If you haven’t caught the latest Canlit controversy, go Google. Look up The Writers Union of Canada and “The Appropriation Prize.” I’ll wait.

I may be the worst person to talk about cultural appropriation, because frankly, I’m not much of an activist. I’m more of a sedentarist, really. (Did that pun make sense?)

Owing to a pretty privileged life and having not had significant exposure to major publishing, cultural appropriation as it affects me, personally, to date, seems to largely boil down to a lot of eye-rolling and general irritation. (I swear, if I read one more story about a magical spiritual experience in India….) But I get that it affects other people and other cultures much more deeply and painfully. Maybe I don’t get it on a gut-wrenching level, but I can see that this has happened to other people.

Here’s the part I don’t get.

In all the crying and hand-wringing over “I’m a writer, and it’s my job to put myself in other people’s shoes, and why can’t I write about whatever I want to?”, who exactly is holding an actual gun to people’s heads and saying “Writing about a marginalized culture, eh? You feeling lucky, punk?”

No one is actually stopping anyone from writing these things. Hell, by most reports, no one is actually stopping anyone from publishing these things, either. Write whatever the fuck you want, there’s no pen and paper embargo preventing you from doing so.

But, more and more, people are saying, hey, stop that. You are hurting me with your words. You should not hurt people with your words. You should be careful with those things. Maybe instead try writing things that don’t use and damage and hurt people, mmkay?

Is that so terrible?

I mean yes, there are other power dynamics to this, and people are losing plum jobs because when the are in a position where they get to amplify certain voices, they are picking (and sometimes celebrating) the ones that are hurting other people…. but at the base level, we’re still down to looking at the words. Which ones did a writer choose?

Seriously, is all of this because some people want to write what they want to write without being held responsible for the words that they put out into the world?

They don’t want to face criticism for what they’re doing? (Clearly none of these people have a mother like my mother.)

I’m trying to understand who writes and publishes so cavalierly that they don’t understand that words have power. Art has power. Why else do we do this if we don’t think words can do something real? So when we use that power–even unintentionally–and hurt other people with it, why disbelieve that the words hurt?

Like, I get that nobody likes to be told their wrong. And the 140 characters on Twitter from people who are so damn fed up with all this that maybe they don’t have time or energy to stay it nicely anymore can be harsh. It’s upsetting. I can see why people get huffy or defensive…. heck, if I were in the midst of a tweetstorm, that would probably be my first reaction, the reaction that’s emotional and easy instead of the more reflective “Damn. I fucked up.”

Nobody likes to put their precious words out there and get told that they used their words wrong. In writing this post and putting it out there, maybe someone is going to reply and tell me that I’m privileged and naive and that I used my words wrong. But I’m still responsible for my words.

And it continues to puzzle me, in all of the “Isn’t this censorship?” and “Writers can imagine themselves in other people’s shoes” and “This my artistic choice!” You are being held responsible for your words. You may be shocked to discover that your responsibilities are much larger and more wide-reaching then you realized when you hunched over your laptop and first tapped them out. Your use of words might result in major consequences for your life. This may suck.

But you do not have a special calling that absolves you from responsibility for your words.

The Great Non-Debate

Some time ago, a writing acquaintance of mine told me a little bit about what genre writers (in this case, sci-fi and fantasy) tend to talk about.  This confused me a little bit, since a) I wasn’t aware that there was supposed to be a distinction between genre writers and literary writers, and b) I didn’t realize that I was a literary writer.

Let me tackle point b) first, since I enjoy a good navel-gazing.

The term ‘literary fiction’ always troubles me a little bit, since what exactly does it mean to be literary?  Fast definition check: literary, adj, concerning writing.  Is there some kind of fiction that doesn’t concern writing?

There’s certainly a connotation that literary writing is Art, but then, does that make me an artist?  I’m at a point where I can take myself seriously as a writer, but artist still feels like a stretch to me.  I write good stories but Literature? Art? Me?Does not compute.  In some ways, it’s like painting. I can paint a pretty landscape (I really can!) but no one is going hang it in a gallery.  Granted, I am a far better writer than a painter, but so far my brain does not lend itself to writing that changes the shape of Literature For the Ages. This doesn’t bother me. I’m happy to write well and to write work that people read and like.

Coming into point a) here, how exactly is that different from genre fiction?  Quick definition check: genre, noun, a category.  So then, is genre fiction stuff that fits into a category, but literary fiction is all the stuff you can’t put into a category?  Doesn’t that make it the ‘miscellaneous’ category?  Is the arty acclaimed stuff all miscellaneous extras?

I’m using facile definitions here, but I think my point is clear–these divisions are silly.  Truthfully, they aren’t writing definitions so much as they are publishing definitions–useful to understand when it comes time to sell your work, but otherwise not particularly helpful for writing.

That said, readers of different genres–and I’m including literary fiction as a genre here–have different expectations, and as such, there are things that you can get away with in some genres that don’t quite fly in others.  People can sincerely fall in love forever in an instant in a romance novel.  You can have scientific exposition in a sci-fi novel. There’s a lot of room for navel-gazing in a literary novel.  The thing is, just because you can get away with something, should you?

I read and enjoy both literary fiction and genre fiction.  The worst literary fiction, from my point of view, has beautiful, poetic writing, and no story. I can think of many examples of highly acclaimed books that I had to keep forcing myself to read through because as lovely as the writing was, the story was boring.  The worst genre fiction has me rolling my eyes at the cliches and repetition, but I more often than not I keep reading it through to the end.

Perhaps what this reveals is that I am not that sophisticated a reader.  I am okay with that.  I’m not that sophisticated a cook either, but I can put together a good meal.  Heck, even sophisticated chefs enjoy a plain old burger and fries at times, so why insist on living within a rarified air of sophisticated, uh, stuff?

I can’t help but think that it would be great to do both–great writing, and a story that moves along and makes you want to keep reading.  In that sense, both genre and literary writers can learn a lot from each other.

As such, trying to pit the two categories against each other–or worse, elevate one above the other–is not a useful exercise to me.

Let’s all just be writers and read everything, okay?  Glean what you can from all sources. Your work will be better for it.