May 26, 2017
Anthony Horowitz, author of the very successful Alex Rider books (teen novels about a schoolboy spy) and the excellent TV series Foyle’s War, has landed himself in trouble. His offense? The intention to have a black boy as one of the two heroes of a new novel for teenagers. He has accordingly been found guilty of the crime of “cultural appropriation,” one of the direst sins of which a writer today can be guilty. Horowitz, not being black, is not entitled to imagine and create a black character. Just as well nobody told Mark Twain that he wasn”t entitled to do this, or we wouldn”t have Huckleberry Finn, the book out of which, Ernest Hemingway said, all American literature came.
Well, of course, like many in the late evening of life, I think the modern world is crazy, but “cultural appropriation” takes the biscuit; it’s real loony-bin stuff, barking mad. Literature is all about imagining other people, often people very unlike yourself. Horowitz wryly suggests that the implication is that he should restrict himself to writing about 60-year-old London Jewish men. The cultural appropriation (CA for short”I can”t be bothered spelling the words out every time) quarter-wits might say, “Absolutely, you”ve got it at last, Horowitz. In passing, how dare you, as a man getting on in years, imagine”appropriate”the experience of a teenage boy, even a white one, even a Jewish white one?”
One of the best new novels I”ve read in the past year was Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea. McCrea is a young Irishman, and Mrs. Engels was Lizzie Burns, an illiterate, working-class Irish girl who became first the mistress, then eventually the wife, of Friedrich Engels, friend and collaborator of Karl Marx. It is written in the first person, and McCrea has found a wonderfully convincing voice for Lizzie. It is very sympathetically and movingly done. It’s a highly intelligent novel and one that does justice to Lizzie as well as gives the reader a perceptive and sometimes very funny picture of the Marx family.
I loved it, but sadly, I can”t say I”m surprised to have learned that Gavin McCrea has come in for stick from people who maintain that he had no right to imagine Lizzie Burns and, by giving her a voice, appropriate”that is, steal”her experience. No matter that the portrait is sympathetic, even loving. A man is not entitled to impersonate a woman. Lord knows what the CA idiots would say to the stream-of-consciousness soliloquy James Joyce gave to Molly Bloom in “Ulysses.” Well, actually, I can guess, and it’s too depressing.
Male novelists have always imagined women, and female ones have imagined men. That fine historical novelist Mary Renault wrote one novel about Alexander the Great in the voice of a young Persian eunuch. Truly shocking: Eunuchs of the world should have united in protest at such CA. Perhaps there were too few of them to make a din. On the other hand, any Persian eunuch”should there happen to have been one who had read the novel”may have thought that Mary Renault had got it just right. You can”t tell.
How far can this nonsense go? Suppose you write a novel about a serial killer. Quite a few people have done this, Thomas Harris, for example. In creating the grotesque Hannibal Lector, was he guilty of CA, making fiction”and a good deal of money”out of what didn”t belong to him? Suppose you write a novel about Adolf Eichmann. Are you a thief, stealing his experience? As it happens I”ve done that myself, though I gave the Eichmann character a different name in my novel. Should I be ashamed? Of course not. How can you begin to understand murderous Nazis if you don”t imagine how they thought, and felt?