From The Wall Street Journal:
Ranking high among the surrealities of 2016 was the meltdown at a literary festival in Australia when the American-born novelist Lionel Shriver defended the freedom of fiction writers to conjure characters unlike themselves.
“Taken to their logical conclusion,” Ms. Shriver warned, “ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all.” Among the concepts she skewered was “cultural appropriation,” the notion that members of one ethnic group mustn’t use (or eat or wear or write about) things emanating from other ethnic groups. The illogical impracticality of the idea, especially with fiction, hasn’t impeded its spread, and the resulting umbrage was a wonder to behold: An Australian writer of Egyptian and Sudanese origin stormed out of the speech, later blaming Ms. Shriver for celebrating “the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.” The officials in charge of the event disavowed their keynote speaker’s remarks.
Such exquisite sensitivities put a lot of well-meaning people into terrible predicaments in 2016. In the children’s literary realm, where “diversity” has become the lodestar, the year began and ended with choler, indignation and the repudiation of books.
. . . .
That controversy was reminiscent of an earlier one, when ignominy befell author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Sophie Blackall, who are white, for their 2015 picture book “A Fine Dessert,” published by Schwartz + Wade. The story traces four centuries of social and domestic change by showing the evolving ways in which families have prepared a sweet dish called blackberry fool. The book’s crime, to its detractors, was what one called the story’s “degrading” depiction of an enslaved mother and daughter in 1810 enjoying themselves as they make and taste the dessert.
In July, controversy swirled around Lane Smith’s picture book “There Is a Tribe of Kids” (which publisher Roaring Brook did not recall) for representing children in a natural setting with feathers in their hair (see below)—as if, critics said, they were “playing Indian.” In August, Candlewick recalled copies of E.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s young-adult novel “When We Was Fierce.” Early critical praise had morphed into social-media wrath over the author’s use of an invented urban dialect that was, in the words of one prominent fault-finder, “deeply insensitive.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)
PG says fiction is fictional. It’s made up from thoughts in the author’s mind.
Fictional stories don’t belong to anyone other than the author. Most historical fiction involves the author trying to imagine what life was like during a time before the author was alive. PG doesn’t believe that an author of the same ethnic group as a fictional character who lived 200 years ago has any better idea what that ethnic group’s daily life was like than an author of a different ethnic group.
In any case, it’s fictional and the author can include or create any components of characters or settings the author thinks will make for a good story.
These are fictional characters, not somebody’s actual great-great-great-great grandparent. Even in stories, fictional or nonfictional, that include actual people, those stories are not the property of the descendants of those people.
Are Mexican Americans to be prevented from writing about George Washingon? Can British authors write stories that include American characters? How long would the Western world have waited to read about the challenges of rural Chinese life before World War I if Pearl Buck hadn’t been permitted to write about it?
On a related note, it’s a long-established tenet of American law (descended from English common law) that you cannot defame a dead person.
The rationale is relatively straighforward. Defamation is defined as an act or statement that damages one’s reputation. The dead do not have reputations to damage. As the English jurist Sir James Stephen said in 1887, “The dead have no rights and can suffer no wrongs.”
(PG will note that some states recognize a right of publicity that prevents others from commercially exploiting the image or likeness of a celebrity without consent. Under some state laws, this right (which is a property right akin to a trademark, not a personal right) continues for a period of time after the death of the individual.)
Even under rights of publicity, only Michael Jackson’s heirs, not any African-American, can prevent the use of Michael Jackson’s image for commercial purposes. Similarly, Jay Silverheels’ heirs, not any Native American, could prevent the use of his image or commercial persona. (For those who may not know of Silverheels, he was the actor who played Tonto, the “faithful Indian companion” of The Lone Ranger in a television series created during the 1950’s.)
Furthermore, if one author writes a story, another author can write another story about the same subject or person. The idea that a story is “appropriated” by an author of a particular ethnicity implies that, by writing the story, that author has somehow prevented another author from writing about the same subject.
There are a great many biographies of George Washington. There are also a great many biographies of George Washington Carver. Nothing prevents any would-be author from writing another biography or work of fiction about either of these extraordinary individuals.
End of PG’s pontification.