Novelists these days face difficult working conditions, even the few who land seven-figure deals. Witness this year’s fiercest skirmish on the literary frontline of the culture wars: the clash over Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. Cummins is a well-to-do white American. Her heroine is a Mexican woman shielding her son from a brutal drug cartel. Following not one but two lacerating reviews in the New York Times, Cummins has become the latest high-profile author to face a public outcry over her act of cultural appropriation.
In this case, that’s fair. As Slate reports, Cummins’ publisher apparently foresaw the controversy and mounted a pre-emptive defence that “backfired spectacularly.” Bulwarks included a note in which Cummins lamented that American Dirt hadn’t been written by “someone slightly browner,” plus a dubious claim to Puerto Rican heritage and a description of her Irish husband as an “undocumented immigrant.” What ensued was uproar at her inclusion in Oprah’s Book Club, a book tour cancelled over safety concerns, the contention that those concerns were exaggerated and an open letter from 141 writers, arguing that “a novel blundering so badly in its depiction of marginalized, oppressed people should not be lifted up.” Related charges flew fast: Cummins was profiting from a publishing apparatus that offered lesser rewards to more accomplished Latino writers—Valeria Luiselli, Fernanda Melchor, Yuri Herrera and others—and the product of her white saviour complex was the transformation of Mexican traumas into torture porn for American readers. By poorly representing marginalised lives at the expense of comparatively marginalised novelists, and fudging her rationale for doing so, Cummins arguably contributed to her own misfortunes.
But then, I’m a novelist too, and I know the difficulties we face—especially as my new novel likewise risks charges of cultural appropriation. It tells the stories of a refugee from the Balkan War and an Iraqi asylum seeker in offshore detention. I am neither of those. It also tells the stories of half a dozen others whose identities diverge sharply from mine. Every time I sat down to write, throughout the five years I spent on my work, I heard proleptic cries of cultural appropriation. Every page I wrote was hard won from a creative process that involved, among other things, a protracted moral struggle. The result comes from a daily reckoning with doubts about what is possible, permissible and just in a work of fiction today.
What is involved in facing these doubts and writing into them? Some writers suppress misgivings about appropriation—or, like Cummins, paper over them. Particularly when frustrated by the language policing of literary discourse, it’s tempting to dismiss the voice of doubt. But I knew, before I began writing, that I didn’t want to skirt the issues or keep criticisms out of earshot. The situation is complex, especially in its ethics, and I wanted to honour its complexities rather than treating them reductively. To that end, I listened as carefully as I could—not only to what was said, but also to what wasn’t. In hearing out many arguments from many quarters, I tried to tune in to subtle divergences between similar views, to ambiguities obscured by assertive rhetoric.
Charges of cultural appropriation come in three basic varieties. The economic charge recognises that well-paid publication opportunities for literary fiction are scarce, so the elevation of someone like Cummins entails the deprivation of her marginalised peers. The political charge recognises that the publishing industry has too long excluded those who aren’t white, male and middle-class, so activism is needed to enhance diversity and make literature more representative of wider society. These charges are usually directed at editors and publishers, respectively. The third charge is the ethical one with creative implications: to write a cultural identity that isn’t one’s own is to commit a moral transgression, an act of harm—a violation of just relations between persons. I’ll leave editors and publishers to deal with the other issues. As a writer, the ethical problem is mine to face, and it’s the one I felt most keenly with every word I put on the page.
To outside observers, discussions about narrative proprietorship may seem absurd. Inside the discourse, the crosstalk is more often multivalent and bewildering. It’s said that a writer of relative privilege can’t avoid misunderstanding marginalised people and misrepresenting cross-cultural characters. It’s also said that anything goes when empathy and imagination are matched by a command of craft and style. It’s said, too, that you mustn’t adopt the third-person voice because the trauma of marginalisation can’t be adequately rendered from outside the body, but then it’s said that the first-person voice makes you a ventriloquist treating your subjects like sock-puppets. All you can do authentically is write about yourself as yourself. If, like me, you’re a cisgendered heterosexual white man, you know the constraints on your capacities. But whose interpersonal experiences are really so pinched and crabbed? I, for one, can’t speak truly of myself if I can think only as myself: those very limitations irreparably distort my experience as one human subject thrown unwillingly into a world alive with others.
Nevertheless, these limitations are changing the terrain of contemporary fiction, thanks to writers whose rallying cry is own voices. While cultural appropriation is a reactive charge against books already published, advocates of own voices are future-oriented and prescriptive, imposing boundaries on books as yet unwritten. The case for own voices begins from a validation of the intersectional matrix of identity categories—categories sliced and diced along lines of race, gender, sexuality, class, age, ability and so on—and affirms that the stories of people in each combination of categories are the rightful property of authors whose identities fit the same combination. It’s a case made frequently over the last few years, though rarely with the verve of Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied. In 2016, Abdel-Magied publicly walked out of the keynote address at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, shunning the arch-conservative novelist Lionel Shriver when Shriver mocked the concept of cultural appropriation. “The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air,” Abdel-Magied wrote later, laying out the rules for the literature of own voices:
It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.
This is impassioned, but scattershot. Conflating the economic ills of cultural appropriation (profits accrue to exploitative players) with its political faults (marginalised writers can’t break through), Abdel-Magied distils them all into an ethical injunction aimed not at editors, nor at publishers, but at the very source of literature. As she sees it, writers themselves should arrest their own thoughts before they yield misbegotten work, proactively refraining from creative labours that might worsen economic and political inequities. But note the rhetorical sleight of hand in her consternation towards a person who “writes the story of” a marginalised subject.
What are the implications of her wording? Does she mean that I, as a novelist, shouldn’t write as someone distinct from myself, shouldn’t speak in a voice that isn’t naturally mine? Or does she mean that I shouldn’t even write about someone distinct from myself, shouldn’t presume to tell anyone’s story but my own?
Because Abdel-Magied’s position teeters atop a slippery slope to creative oblivion, it tends to be met with fearmongering or flippancy. Here’s Shriver foreseeing doomsday: “the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction … All that’s left is memoir.” And when the Cummins fiasco led to the same slippery slope, readers were exasperated and derisive: “I’m reading American Dirt (and loving it) and then I find out there is all this controversy and now I’m annoyed at humanity for deciding what fiction writers are allowed to create in their minds.” And lest anyone think these concerns belong only to conservatives denouncing political correctness, Zadie Smith, doyenne of liberal belles lettres, has voiced her fatalism in an elegiac essay:
Do we know what fiction was? … In the process of turning from it, we’ve accused it of appropriation, colonization, delusion, vanity, naiveté, political and moral irresponsibility … Many have moved swiftly on to what they perceive to be safer ground, namely, the supposedly unquestionable authenticity of personal experience … The adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane. This principle permits the category of fiction, but really only to the extent that we acknowledge and confess that personal experience is inviolate and nontransferable.
The fear, I suppose, is that it’s impossible to reason with advocates of own voices because they hold dogmatic views on who ought to be published, read and esteemed, and their preferences are tantamount to edicts that can’t be challenged. If such a view escapes reasoning, what avenues remain open to dissenters? Only the above: you deny that writing involves any ethical responsibilities and deride those who think otherwise, or else you choose between Shriver’s paranoia and Smith’s resignation.
But what’s striking to me about this situation isn’t the paucity of serious responses to own voices. It’s that even the most serious responses bemoan the movement’s creative limitations while conceding its ethical vitality, rather than pointing to the incoherence of its ethics and its pretence of an impossible ethical purity. This isn’t to question the political objectives of its proponents: surely, from a liberal standpoint, the self-possessed articulation of marginalised experiences is essential to redress systemic imbalances of power. This is, however, to point out the problem with the ethical foundation of own voices: the presupposition that own voices narratives are prima facie virtuous, so that creative departures from a writer’s own identity categories are necessarily compromised.
Given that Smith is more comfortable with equanimity than Shriver has ever been, it’s no surprise that she sees and values the animating principle of own voices. The point of restricting the proprietorship of narrative is to rescind power from those who have traditionally possessed it (or, rather, those whose presumed identity categories have enjoyed a cultural supremacy akin to power) and so accrue power to those long deprived of it. The point, then, is to enable the self-actualisation of the disenfranchised via ownership of a story of selfhood—“to reclaim [one’s] agency when it comes to the representation of selves.” What is surprising, though, is that Smith doesn’t note that the politics of this objective are irreconcilable with the ethics of attaining it.
Maybe because the reclamation of agency is a liberal virtue, the attempt at reclamation seems of a piece with the Kantian ethics that underpin just relations between persons in liberal societies. Kant’s position (or the moral of The Good Place) is that ethics consists in a mutual recognition of the inviolable agency of individuals, and manifests interpersonally in a refusal to instrumentalise others. Simply put, each person ought to be treated not as a means to an end but as an end in herself—and advocates of own voices are really only demanding that writers uphold this agreement. Yet, unavoidably, to the extent that own voices has an affinity with first-person narration, its political allowances undercut their own ethical justifications.
A first-person narrative cannot be ethically just in the Kantian sense. Not now, not ever. Even a rudimentary first-person narrative is necessarily compromised by a violation of just relations. It’s flat-out impossible to write in a voice that substantiates an I without instrumentalising everyone external to the narrator. While the term supporting characters is often used offhandedly, it aptly conveys the instrumentalised nature of non-narratorial figures. However fleshed out supporting characters may seem, however artfully constructed, their narrative position reduces them to devices performing a function as instrumental as the pylons of a bridge. They are not dignified as ends in themselves, despite their individuating characteristics, because the gravitational pull of the speaking subject draws every other narrative component into orbit around the I. Other people are structurally servile, each one a means to an end subjected to the narrator’s priorities.
One recent illustration of this appears in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the prose début of the poet Ocean Vuong. The novel is narrated by a queer American-Vietnamese refugee, taken to the US in infancy, now a young man exploring his sexuality. Since Vuong himself is a queer American-Vietnamese refugee, taken to the US in infancy, his narrator, known as Little Dog, is emblematic of own voices in literary fiction. But Little Dog’s sexual awakening is shared with that of a white teenager called Trevor, who is selfish, exploitative, even abusive, yet never distinguished as a subject of dedicated sympathy. Although readers can infer more to Trevor’s story than what Little Dog shares—repressed homosexuality, self-loathing—Little Dog doesn’t embrace Trevor as a beneficiary of his emotional acuity. On the contrary, Trevor is objectified, eroticised, bereft of an interior life and thus reduced to an ancillary mechanism of Little Dog’s self-realisation. Advocates of own voices would say that Trevor’s interiority should indeed be deprioritised, secondary to Little Dog’s sense of self on the cultural margins. They might even say that readers today have heard enough from the Trevors of the world, and not nearly enough from the likes of Little Dog. Be that as it may, it’s not sufficient to resolve the ethical double-bind of Vuong’s novel: for Little Dog to be seen as an end in himself, he must reduce Trevor and others—including his parents—to mere means. Political advancement has a price, and the price here is ethical cleanliness.
No doubt a book like Vuong’s is politically important, conveying the felt effects of multiple marginalisations. If you value pluralism, there’s magic in its potential to liberalise readers. But there’s nothing convincing about the idea that its admirable politics entails an admirable ethics, such that there’s something ethically suspect about writers unlike Vuong creating characters like Little Dog. In fact, to suggest as much would be to contravene the novel’s politics. After all, the authority of Vuong’s narrator, and thus his bid for agency, rests on the ethical principle that he deserves to be recognised as an end in himself. But if, in assembling his narrative, he doesn’t dignify others’ claims to this same principle, he gives them grounds on which to share his grievances. Far from mitigating an ethical injustice, this situation would perpetuate it. Avoiding it, however, seems possible only by decoupling the political objectives of own voices from any pretence to ethical purity—and, in the process, dismantling the movement’s proscriptions on creative license.
Own voices also misses the virtues of alternative narrative modes. What is involved, really, in doing what Abdel-Magied finds so dubious? To sit silently at a desk, before a blank page, and imagine a route into the mind of someone radically distinct from oneself—with no guarantee of any gains beyond the outcome of the work—is to assume a profoundly respectful stance towards unfamiliarity. When done sincerely, it is an attempt to fully subordinate one’s own ego to those of others, to recognise their irreducible particularities, to envision people as ends in themselves. And what about narratives that view their characters from a remove? Because own voices favours testimonial writing, it devalues third-person narration, but a movement away from distinguishing individual people also has its ethical uses. It can establish parity between various individuals seeking equal recognition as subjects, or it can illuminate the disparities that persist beneath a veneer of equality.
There’s no law to ensure that any of these approaches to narrative must be successful. The results may well involve misconstruals, stereotyping or worse—as American Dirt does, given Cummins’ reticence to read the literature of those for whom she presumed to speak. But nor is there reason to assume that these approaches are, by default, more ethically fraught than those of own voices. The brutal truth is this: writing isn’t clean. Simply to narrate is to wrestle in muck. Whether done well or poorly, in fiction or memoir, first-person or third-, there’s no situation in which a writer’s ethics might be free of grime. Narrative itself is grimy because it necessarily instrumentalises individuals. The ethical thing to do, I think, is to know this and own the filth.
The narrator of my novel has a very partial view of the people around him, people from cultures that are neither his nor mine. It’s a speculative view, too, as he imagines those parts of their lives he can’t be certain about, so he feels the sludge of ethical compromise rising around him the more he enters others’ worlds. To forewarn Abdel-Magied, he certainly does filter other people’s experiences through his own “skewed and biased lens”—knowingly so, consciously using them to support his own story. In fact, past a certain point, he treats everyone outside himself as a means to an end, a projection of his innermost concerns. But notions of narrative proprietorship are always bedevilled by illusions, and I doubt we’ll reconcile any ethical differences until we acknowledge that we’ve all got dirty hands. That’s just one way to not whitewash the dirty work of narration, to not shrug off the discomfort of knowing that all narratives do unethical things to the people they contain.