Write What You Know, Know What You Write: On Lionel Shriver and Cultural Appropriation in Fiction

There is so much going on in the world right now—and even within the realm of race and culture and public life—that l'affaire Lionel Shriver may not be on everyone's radar. But it's something I've been following, because as a literary scholar interested in the way that our beliefs about literature interact with other kinds of cultural ideology it hits me where I live. Long story short, Lionel Shriver, white woman and novelist, said that cultural appropriation is not a thing and that the concern with it impedes (even censors—her word, though clearly not one that reflects reality in that she gave the speech and wrote the novels in the first place) the work of fiction. She also said a bunch of things about wearing sombreros at fiesta-themed frat parties & similar. The full text of her remarks is here.  

Let's dismiss the second out of hand, because it's just racist apologia that has nothing to do with the work of fiction (does she truly believe that the frat boys in sombreros are trying earnestly, gently, empathically, in the manner a serious novelist might try to understand a character s/he's creating, to walk a mile in the hat of someone else? Seems to me to strain credulity and radically misunderstand the nature of a frat party), although it does contextualize her attitude on literature. Let's talk about the first point.

In writing MFAs and creative writing classes the nation over, writers tell younger writers or people who hope to become writers, "write what you know." Why? Because when we write what we know, we speak what we need heard, and we speak from a well of knowledge we may not even be aware we have. The things that define the experience, that make it what it is, are available to us if only we can retrieve and organize them. "Write what you know" has an element of craft—that's how you make something believable, and therefore good—and also, less explicitly, an element of intellectual judgment about the work and the possibility of the work of fiction—that it can, when it works, tell someone else about what you know: let them understand it, live in it, experience it vicariously.

A couple of years ago, I heard a truly remarkable keynote talk by Fred Moten at the Louisville Conference on Literature After 1945. This remains maybe the best—the most accomplished, the most engaging—academic talk I've ever heard, and in one of the bits I remember most vividly from it, Moten spoke to the need for the work of Black writers in anthologies, and specifically to the capacity of poetry to transmit what we do not know. Poetry, he argued, has the potential to give us the rhythm, the texture, the sensory experience of a life not our own—in poetry, even someone who had not grown up around Black women and the rituals of lye and hot irons, of money and pain and time that go into rendering Black hair acceptable to white beauty standards, even I (and even Marjorie Perloff, who had said some pretty brutally dismissive things about the work of Black poets in major anthologies to which Moten was responding) might come to know "the smell of burning hair."

I could spend several thousand words about how and why poetry and also fiction can, especially in their most finely-wrought iterations, do this thing. The short version is that they absorb us, that they engage us empathically, that they work on us in a thousand ways large and small, through craft and the nature of the medium. They simulate experience, give us the closest thing possible to knowing what is written. 

...as long as what's written is known. As long as there's something there to be transmitted. 

In today's Times, Kaitlyn Greenidge argues that who gets to write what hinges on whether or not what's written is good. I think she's right. 

The novelists who write characters outside their own experience do so at a risk. Whenever you write what you don't know, you risk getting it wrong. If done well, though, it's a goddamn triumph. And these are the things that writers are supposed to be able to do well: to imagine the lives of others, to understand them, to grasp them from the inside out. Writers are supposed to be able to do the imaginative work, the empathic work, and also the intellectual work—research where necessary, identify what you don't know, make sure it's believable. If the resulting characters are hollow to people who do know the experience the characters are an attempt to depict, then it's the writer who's failed. But of course the thing is: the writer has to be willing to listen to the people who their characters ostensibly represent. That's who gets to decide if the character is believable. Not the writer herself, when it's not her experience. Not the writer's circle of friends. Because: write what you know. 

And if the writer can't hear that? If the writer is standing at the podium alone, insisting that her character does too accurately represent the experience that she herself has never had, insisting that even to the people who actually have had it? If the writer is willing to insult the people with whom she insists she is capable of empathizing sufficiently to depict their experience as if she knows it like her own? 

Then it's not just bad writing. Then it's a failure to understand the way writing works, and what it does, and what it can do. It's a betrayal of the possibility of fiction, not a valorization of it.