Authors fear accusations of cultural appropriation

From The Bookseller:

Cries of cultural appropriation could be dissuading authors from publishing books that reflect black, Asian, ethnic minority (BAME) audiences, the Westminster Media Forum has heard.

The issue, which emerged at the discussion forum yesterday, (24th January), was raised by Nicola Solomon, chief executive for the Society of Authors, who pleaded with publishers “please don’t troll our authors for cultural appropriation”.

“We need to have as many diverse voices as we can,” she said. “This is often hard to hear for publishers and others, but for our authors who maybe are trying to include other voices in their books – because after all, writing fiction is about imagination, and you ought to be able to imagine other worlds to your own and other faces than your own – please don’t troll writers for cultural appropriation every time they put a black face in their book if they are not black. We absolutely need as many authors as possible but we also need authors to write about a range of people and to imagine people they are not.

“It’s a terribly important thing and our authors are finding they are very, very caught between two stalls here,” she said.

Author and illustrator Shoo Raynor, who is on the committee of the writers and illustrators’ group at the SoA, said the issue of cultural appropriation was coming up in “every meeting”.

“Certainly at the moment, the thing that comes up every meeting is cultural appropriation and how we are often stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Raynor said. “Publishers will often ask to have ethnic characters removed from stories. I’ve not had that problem myself but various people have, purely because they’re not going to sell the book. We hear lots and lots of stories, horror stories.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

57 thoughts on “Authors fear accusations of cultural appropriation”

  1. I have heard this fear from more than a half-dozen of my writing friends. They want to have a more diverse story cast, but they fear that, being white, they will misstep or be accused of appropriation.

    I’ve even had some ask me if their Latino characters are “legit.” I say, “I’m from ONE ethnic group and have no insider knowledge of any other. You do the best you can and hope you don’t get one of those chip-on-shoulder, ubersensitive critics.”

    I think we just need to chill and have more grace all around. And this year, seems we need a lot more of that, not just in literary circles.

  2. I think it was in a comment here that someone mentioned ‘Writing With Color’ as a resource. Following it has given me a different perspective, because the advice given there is so reasonable and welcoming. However, then I look at the comments on the article you link to, and am once again given the impression of unrelenting hostility. It only takes a few of those voices to out-shout a lot of friendly and encouraging ones. There is a reason that Nalo Hopkinson made a public call last year for more kindness in the SFF community.

  3. Did you know that the Shaft novels were written by a white guy? If I remember right, he actually won awards from the NAACP for his depiction of African-American characters. He did a lot of research.

    Funny how that sort of thing is considered evil now…

    • Not that long ago, political correctness advocates were complaining that white authors ignored non-white characters. The problem to be solved was making white authors write a more diverse cast. Now that that problem has been solved, the new problem is to undo that one.

      The only way to win this game is not to play.

  4. Cultural appropriation (also known as borrowing from other cultures) makes for some awesome stories. Little wonder then that the wrongfun Nazis want to shut it down.

  5. Has anyone considered not caring what the shouty whiny people think? Their premises are stupid and easily refutable, so if you must deal with them then explain in the simplest terms possible why their notions are stupid, and go on with your day. This is not rocket science.

    • From what I’ve seen, trying to explain does nothing. They have judged and made a decision and decided their target is the lowest form of scum and must be destroyed. Not even apologizing will change their minds. It is scary. Thankfully, I haven’t let that stop me from trying to be diverse in my writing.

    • My sense is that “shouty, whiny people” control more and more of the levers of power inside the Big 5. As in, I wonder if a Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan or Orson Scott Card turned up on the doorstep of Tor with their first book in 2017 they’d be anything but summarily rejected. From reading (which I realize is only kinda, sorta associated with the publisher) I’ve tentatively concluded the answer to that question would be yes.

      • Which is just another reason the Big Five are becoming irrelevant. Years ago, I used to dream of being published by Tor. Now I don’t remember the last time I read one of their books.

      • Well, based on the fact that of the five novellas is publishing this month, two are authored by middle-aged, white, male Americans (Matt Wallace and Joe McDermott), I’d say that if Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan and OSC were starting out today, they’d be just fine submitting to Tor.

        Now, for sure, OSC would have trouble getting published by Tor if he was already well known for his political views, but somehow not also a best selling author.

    • I don’t care. America’s known as a melting pot, which means our collective culture has been created from the cultures of everyone who has come here.

      If you live here, some of that’s gonna rub off on you as you grow up.

  6. Authors ‘fear’ — or is it they’re just tired of hearing about — accusations of so-called cultural appropriation?

    I figure if ol’ Mark Twain could do it the rest of us can.


    When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

    Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the voice of God. — Mark Twain

  7. This is not rocket science.

    In my case, it is. Well, at least rocket science fiction. 😉

    The lead character in the series I am writing is very white, very blond, and of Russian and English descent. His love is black, older, and of Mexican descent. I got Argentines and Chinese and Koreans and Inuit and Mongols and Quebecois and Albanians. If it weren’t for cultural appropriation, I wouldn’t have a story.

  8. How can authors fear a myth?
    I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, cultural appropriation is a ridiculous and harmful concept.
    Ridiculous because nobody actually knows What it means, ask any three social justice types on the Internet to give you – I definition of cultural appropriation and they will be completely different, they don’t know what it means they’re just playing with words.

  9. Wouldn’t it only be cultural appropriation if one took it (whatever it was) and claimed it as one’s own? Wouldn’t it otherwise be diversity?

    We diversity in artists, in actors, in writers, in governance, in business, in education, in everything. Everyone should be able to use their own voice and be respected.

    But we also need people to be able to use their voice even if it’s not their own. It’s called freedom of expression. So long as we don’t stereotype, if the characters are fully developed, it’s done with respect, then there should be no issues.

    But what do I know? I just listen to the characters in my head.

    • Yeah, makes no sense. I figure I”m human and any human culture is one I can choose to write about, dress as, speak in their language, etc. Even if I were, say, Chinese, I don’t have a right to say Chinese culture belongs solely to ME and you can’t have it.

      That’s bullshit.

      If you say, look at your characters and make sure the minority ones (or any) aren’t looking like pure stereotypes and only stereotypes. That they are rounded. If all the Muslims are extremists, if all the feminists are preachy-screechy, if all the Christians are prudes, if all the Latinos are nannies or housekeepers, etc, then ponder it.

      But pretty much, please, as a Latina, I don’t own Latino culture (as diverse as it is). I don’t even own my own Cuban culture. I didn’t create it and I didn’t get a copyright.

      I think folks who think they OWN their culture and no one but their own kind have authority to speak on it or write about it or wear the style…. they can kiss my Latin butt (which, contrary to stereotypes, is not actually bubbly round.)

  10. The one advantage SF has over most genres is that race and/or culture only matters if you make it matter.

    Does anybody particularly care what race Paul Atreides comes from? The Mule? Arkady Darrell?

    Set the story centuries or millenia in the future or in a galaxy far, far, away and the entire debate becomes irrelevant.

    Of course, if your story is set in near-contemporary times *and* has a political component, *then* it might make sense to go out of your way to annoy part of the audience. Because, no matter what you do, somebody *will* find fault. In that case the best thing to do is what Rick Nelson used to sing about: just do as you darn please.

  11. The article makes some interesting points but the writer does not appear to understand the term “troll” as it is currently used. However, this appears to be a British site and maybe they use it differently over there.

    Lyle Blake Smythers

  12. I’ve read several accounts of authors being attacked for ‘cultural appropriation.’ Especially in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, where it really shouldn’t matter. I used to think it was if you used a stereotypical character from another culture. Like if you have a Japanese person using a Katana or a Hispanic with a bandanna. Now, it looks like it is used to declare that ‘white'(whatever the hell that means) authors aren’t allowed to write characters of color. Thereby pushing diversity out of the marketplace. I think their hope was, that this would push all white writers out of the market to be replaced by a more diverse crowd. The only problem with this idea is that they make it a zero-sum game, and it isn’t. The only gatekeepers that matter are the people who buy your novel, be they white, black, brown, or green. Being an author is the only true anonymous profession. Once you leave the system and start self-publishing, no one knows what color you are or what gender. Furthermore, NOBODY CARES. I hate the race game, it is designed to elevate one people at the expense of another. When in reality, it doesn’t have to be that way.

    • It is also a very dangerous game.
      Actions breed reactions; say something often enough, loudly enough and people *will* take you at your word. But react according to *their* self-interest, not yours.

      As they say, be careful what you ask for…

    • This whole uproar over cultural appropriation reminds me of Something that happened in romance World not so long ago, when it was revealed that a popular writer of gay fiction Who wrote under a male pseudonym Was actually female.
      The backlash from her former fans was pretty astonishing to me, Because the same people who are claiming that her works were well written When they thought she was a gay man Now state that she is appropriating gay culture.

      • There was an award-winning female Muslim writer in the UK some years ago who was widely celebrated for her portrayal of the problems of Muslim women in modern Britain… until she turned out to be a middle-aged white, Christian, male priest who happened to know a lot of Muslim women in his parish.

        They don’t care about the books, they care about who wrote them.

    • ” ‘white'(whatever the hell that means) authors aren’t allowed to write characters of color.”

      Exactly right.

      Id only add that white people arent white, theyre yellow and pink with green and blue highlights depending on bloodline inheritance. They are also people of color.

      I learned recently that this c is called ‘identity politics’ … that it is a purity test that I would say is an ugly, ugly fascism. Completely. The attempt to silence others’ creative lives is the mark of fascist dictators, the destroyers of art to serve only their version of art, which is usually self aggrandizing claptrap. That is exactly what this c is all about. Trying to silence others.

      I get that injustices have beenservedup. But if one knows history, egregious injustices have been served up for every group on the face of this earth. Carrying it forward to oppress those whose ancestors have already been oppressed–under the boot of the those who claim to have had ancestors oppressed… looks like a circular firing squad.

      Ought I only write about mestizo mexican horses? Would it be alright if I wrote about a sorrel or a gray or a brindle? Thing about horses, they love whomsoever brings them apples. They dont give a s what color you think you are. Or what color they are. Which proves that horses are higher beings than some humans.

  13. This brings to mind the old idiom: write what you know. However, in the realm of speculative fiction, at its very core is: write what you don’t know.

    The book I just released has a white, male, brawny, athletic type; a small, bald-headed black woman; and a middle-aged, male, hispanic army major as some of the main characters. Of all those mentioned characteristics, I can claim white, male, bald-headed, and middle-aged (on the high side!). Does that mean I can’t write stories with any of those other adjectives to describe my characters? That doesn’t sound like the world I live in, nor does is sound like a story I’d care to read.

    Fiction, people. It’s fiction. Of course, I realize I’m preaching to the choir in this forum.

  14. You are free to acknowledge the issue of cultural appropriation, to ignore it, to deny that it exists. You owe no one anything but your readers, and if you want to be a commercial writer, you owe them everything.

    Will you be judged? Yes. You’re a writer. Your work will be judged on many counts by many people, and it will reflect on you and your brand.

    So whatever you do, do it intentionally, and will full understanding and acceptance of the consequences of your actions. Do not blame your readership and critics for being who they are. Acknowledge the environment into which you send your work, and accept the outcome.

    Nobody is lying to you about the nature of the market. Own your choices.

  15. Cries of cultural appropriation could be dissuading authors from publishing books that reflect black, Asian, ethnic minority (BAME) audiences, the Westminster Media Forum has heard.

    Let’s see, how can I write a weaker opening sentence than this front-runner? “…Westminister Media Forum has dreamed.? Does that get it done?

    Or, …Forum has fantasized.? Or has wondered?

    Has heard? That was the winner?

    I’m finding something less weighty to read.

  16. A couple of weeks ago someone here linked to a heart-rending story of a promising (black) author who went through hell for years as people in the traditional publishing industry told him how black writers write and what black readers read.

    Last week we had a post in which we learned the vast majority of “Black American Fiction” does not go through the traditional publishing establishment at all.

    • And there are of course cases where accusations of Cultural appropriation backfire.
      I’m reminded of an incident where a prominent white writer wrote on her blog about How offensive and racist a particular book was even though she hadn’t read it.
      She encouraged her followers to to call Amazon and report the book And even in some cases to pirat it, with the result that Amazon removed The book from their website.
      It was later revealed that the author of that book Was black and a Newby author.

  17. Yet another exciting view into the dilemmas of the Hand Wringers Union.

    I cannot believe authors limit themselves in this way. But if they want to, that’s their choice. I wish them luck.

    As for me, I can’t wait to write about the next character who comes from a place and culture that’s different from mine.

    It’s one of the things I love about developing a story–the delight of discovery.

    Aren’t we all so happy we don’t have to go get permission from the cultures we write about? Can you imagine?

  18. It seems to me the key is being respectful. I can see being upset if you read a book about your culture and it’s inaccurate or full of stereotypes. Maybe that means doing a little extra research or talking to a person from the culture you’re writing about, but I think such efforts should be encouraged, not shouted down.

    • None of that matters with the cutural appropriation police, though. To them, it doesn’t matter whether you’re “respectful” or not, it matters that they can virtue signal to their friends. You can never win with these people, because they’ve already decided that you’re the enemy. Screw ’em.

    • Got it in one, Matthew. Taking the time to understand the elements you’re including in your work is as important as taking the personal responsibility for reactions to your work. And if you don’t consider the implications of what you’ve written, then that too is a choice that you own.

      • There is no possible way to ‘understand the elements‘ in a way that satisfies the professionally offended. They will accuse you of doing it wrong if your own understanding differs in the slightest degree from theirs. It’s what they do. They are fire-eaters, and they will find fire to eat if they have to light it themselves.

        • Even if it doesn’t.

          As the examples cited prove, it isn’t about *how* but about *who*. The guardians of culture just want to control who can play–them–and who can’t: everybody else. Doing it respectfully or whatever doesn’t factor into it.

          This is pure binary: you either accept their posture and let them rule or you ignore them and go on with your life.

    • Matthew, I don’t think anyone here would argue with you.

      Unfortunately, the cultural appropriation police are not talking about research and discovering new and interesting things about a given culture, being respectful, or trying to get things right.

      They are talking about someone from a majority culture writing about, including, riffing on, or using anything from any other culture.

      Just google it. You’ll see loads of the culture police getting on people’s cases for wearing feathers in their hair that might look Indian, using designs that look Mexican, having a hair-doo that looks like an afro, etc.

      Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, told that it’s difficult to give a concise explanation of cultural appropriation. The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defined cultural appropriation as follows:

      “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.

      “Unauthorized” use! Of cuisine! So if you create something like General Tso’s Redneck BBQ, you’re a bad person. If you see a dude dancing, like his moves, and show it off at the next dance, you’re an oppressor.

      Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation may be perceived as controversial, even harmful, notably when the cultural property of a minority group is used by members of the dominant culture without the consent of the members of the originating culture

      “Lack of consent.” As if there’s a consenting body for cultures and they speak for all that grew up in that culture. As if they own words like “dude”, “rock and roll”, and “yo.”

      I heard a great talk once about how our strengths can become our downfall. Take any virtue too far, and you can turn it into a vice.

      This is what has happened to the cultural police.

        • Signature quote:

          “Human nature, social norms, and the culture of the workplace generally pull us toward virtues. But virtues are not always what they seem. Not only can they conceal vices, they are not invariably virtuous. In a world where rapid change is the one constant, all received wisdom, including what is virtuous, must be regularly re-examined. Nothing is a blanket prescription in a highly dynamic universe. Change requires, above all, adaptability, the ability to stretch beyond the status quo, get beyond what you were taught or see beyond what has worked in the past.”

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