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What is lost when we insist that literature be ‘authentic’ and that some portrayals – even journalistic narratives – may only be authored by their real life counterparts? If the latter half of the 20th century witnessed the death of the author, then the social media age hails its return as a mutant zombie. Increasingly, we are living in a time in which the written word not only cannot stand on its own merits, it must not. If this sounds alarmist, consider one of the recent controversies surrounding the question of who should be allowed to write what. While it follows an increasingly familiar and depressing pattern, the incident also represents a Rubicon-crossing moment in social media age censorship.

The book in question is an American YA (Young Adult) novel entitled American Heart, and the author is a white, non-Muslim named Laura Moriarty. Released this week, the story portrays a dystopian future America in which Muslims are being rounded up and thrown into detention centres. Within this nightmare is the Huckleberry-esque journey of a 15-year-old white Midwestern girl out of blinkered nationalism, as she comes to terms with the racism around her, and eventually travels with an Iranian-American companion to the Canadian border. As the title suggests, it appears to be a fable about the battle for the soul of Middle America.

In preparing the book, Moriarty was incredibly diligent, avidly researching Iranian culture and running the manuscript by two Iranian-American friends, a Pakistani-American practising Muslim, and a black colleague with a lot of experience in critiquing ‘white saviour narratives.’ The publisher then put the novel through a further round of ‘sensitivity reads,’ during which readers from the corresponding minority group are tasked with combing through the work for things that might be deemed offensive or ‘problematic.’ In the first instance, it seemed as though her painstaking deference had paid off. Late last year, Kirkus, the hugely influential industry magazine that reads books months ahead of publication, passed the novel to a Muslim-American reviewer who assessed it enthusiastically, awarding it a coveted Kirkus star. When the ‘culture cops’ got wind of this, all hell broke loose.

Diatribes promptly appeared on Goodreads beginning “fuck your white savior narratives.” A Book Riot article instructed its readers which novels to buy instead of American Heart, “a book that exploits Muslims” and which the unwary should apparently avoid lest they catch Islamophobia. The inevitable expletive-filled pile-ons erupted on Twitter. At this point, it is worth bearing in mind that very few of these splenetic internet warriors could have read American Heart, because the book isn’t published until this week. But in the Twittersphere, this is not the strangest thing or perhaps even strange at all. These storms increasingly erupt when any white writer, living in a multicultural society, dares to write a character outside their ethnic group.

More chilling is what Kirkus did next. First, the editor-in-chief posted an apology which effectively threw both Moriarty and Kirkus‘s own reviewer under the bus. “[S]ome of the wording,” it said of its own review, “fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity, and we failed to make the thoughtful edits our readers deserve.” Kirkus then retracted the review and rewrote it to include admonishment of the novel’s ‘problematic’ portrayal of a Muslim character through the eyes of a white girl (a device originally praised by the Muslim-American reviewer for being “an effective world-building device”). Finally, to be extra safe, Kirkus stripped the book of its prized star.

There is a saying in North Korea, the fist is closer than the law, warning those who misbehave that citizen retribution often travels faster than the authorities can. In 2012, after a 19-year-old man was arrested for burning a poppy, the Guardian‘s Ally Fogg wrote: “The new tyrant is not an oligarch or a chief of secret police, but an amorphous, self-righteous tide of populist opinion that demands conformity to a strict set of moral values. What we are seeing has less to do with the iron heel than with the pitchfork.” The term ‘banned books’ may seem a bit outdated in the 21st century West. Perhaps ‘backed down on books’ would be more fitting (if less catchy). But the phenomenon has the same effect – intimidation, silence, conformity, and artistic straitjacketing.

Of course, the woke among us will shrug and say that Laura Moriarity should check her (white) privilege. Alas, such people suffer from hubris and fail to realise that, in the end, this identity puritanism will come for everyone – yes, even black and minority ethnic writers. Demanding that art be ‘native’ has a way of fetishizing minority artists and ghettoising them to stay within their respective lanes as well. But – probably more pressingly for the culture cops – if the acceptable range of representation continues to narrow, the time will come when some of the most talented writers around, BAME writers who are middle class (as many of them are) and/or privately educated, will no longer be allowed to ‘appropriate’ the experiences of black people of more humble means (as they frequently do). If we are to follow this fashionable train of thought, what gave Marlon James, who wrote the brilliant Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, the right to portray shanty town kids when he’s the middle class son of a police detective?

We often call this a ‘cultural appropriation’ panic, but the animus driving it is reaching into the deepest crevices of writers’ private lives and personal histories. I call this the memoirification of literature; the lovechild of a justifiable call for more diverse writers and a social media marketing imperative, this drive to personal confession demands ever more particularised voices prepared to share their particularised testimonies under the banner of literary forms that are not, by definition, supposed to be testimony. And increasingly there are penalties for those who appear not to ‘stay in their lane’ and write endlessly about themselves.

There is no appeasing this impulse. In the last few weeks, I read an article asking who ‘gets’ to write fiction about sexual abuse and another telling writers how they must do so should they dare. The current zeitgeist for biographical vampirism is even pushing journalists reporting on issues of public interest to qualify themselves. As James Bloodworth recently put it, having fielded online jibes for writing a reportage book about low wage labour in Britain while not actually being (or no longer being, in his case) a low-wage labourer: “A peculiar thing about our age is that one of the easiest ways to get ahead is to talk endlessly about yourself. If you aren’t prepared to emote publicly about how ‘tough’ things were for you personally, you’re effectively at a disadvantage to those that are.” Were his critics not sure what journalism is?

For those of us that have memoir-worthy backstories but are more memoir-averse, this trial-by-testimony approach to choosing and marketing literature is alarming. As it happens, I fit within several historically ‘spoken for’ and much written about groups. However I don’t write testimony and I do not own these issues. There isn’t one way to emerge from adversity, so demanding a paint-by-numbers approach to its portrayal is frankly childish, reductive, and philistine. Characters should be three-dimensional beings, not mascots commissioned by committee.

Twenty years ago, upon the release of Anne Michaels’ acclaimed novel Fugitive Pieces – a story of Jewish displacement and generational trauma post-World War II – the author famously refused to reveal whether she herself is Jewish. Michaels believed that fiction should speak for itself, insisting even in 2009 that:

We should all be interested, no matter where we come from, or who our parents are. It’s not my province; it’s ours. These questions concern us all…With that book, I was asked am I Jewish, am I Catholic, am I Greek…And, yes, I did resist answering, because I really feel that to answer would be a cop-out…It would diminish the enterprise. Because, you know, it’s not about me. You spend your time when you’re writing erasing yourself. The idea is to get out of the way of it.

Just eight years later, Michaels’s comments sound like heresy. I can’t erase myself, and neither can you, the identitarian replies.  

In the literary world, as in politics and the humanities, marginalised people have, rightly, demanded that their voices be heard. This is a good thing, and these days anyone with even a cursory acquaintance with the sphere of publishing would know that previously underrepresented voices are not just being ‘given space,’ they are actively sought out. Great. What is not great, however, is assessing a piece of literature’s right to exist on the basis of the author’s skin pigmentation, gender identity, or biography, or employing these categorisations as proxy for an analysis of the work’s actual artistic merit. Have we forgotten that the imaginative process involved in fiction used to be valued for its own sake, embodying an aesthetic and moral ambition (for both writer and reader) to reach beyond the narcissism and self-interest that tend to afflict human beings?

No one can deny the significance of the testimony of the heretofore unheard, and how important it is for the rest of the world to listen. But this insatiable demand for strictly testimonial fiction and even journalism reflects a misplaced faith in the integrity of the memoir form itself. As our social world becomes ever more mediated and constructed, the notion of perfect authenticity has become a Loch Ness monster; often searched for, rarely (never?) seen. Many astute and talented memoirists would, I’m sure, concur. Published self-revelation is as much about what the writer omits as it is about what they include. Nabokov put it beautifully in his own Speak, Memory when he reflected on the trouble that can arise when an author inserts themselves into the text:

His true purpose here is to project himself, or at least his most treasured self, into the picture he paints. One is reminded of those problems of “objectivity” that the philosophy of science brings up. An observer makes a detailed picture of the whole universe but when he has finished he realises that it still lacks something: his own self. So he puts himself in it too. But again a “self” remains outside and so forth, in an endless sequence of projections, like those advertisements that depict a girl holding a picture of herself holding a picture of herself holding a picture that only coarse printing prevents one’s eye from making out.

Narcissism and self-deception exist. Everyone suffers them to some degree. Yes, even the oppressed. One of the only defences we have against these things is a collective resistance to what therapists call ‘no talk rules.’ This is why we must buy the new banned books. As the (young, gay, black) writer Ryan Douglass recently asserted: “The harm of callout culture is quietly dripping into PoC communities and making us afraid of our own narratives.” Indeed, autobiographical fiction tends to contain similar potential pitfalls to memoir, because a writer composes it in the knowledge that they will be quizzed about all of it; it is built into the marketing strategy.

And here we come to an inconvenient point for the ‘woke’: the trend towards identity puritanism in literature is not only being driven by an increasingly right-on publishing cohort, but by an economic model ever more reliant on social media (testimony, personalisation, first-person singular). One needn’t be a Marxist to appreciate the wisdom of critics who have argued for an analysis of the way literary genres have perhaps, in the words of James Dawes, “emerg(ed) as ideological practices for producing subjects consistent with broad economic and cultural transitions.” Is what many imagine to be a radical reshifting of voices, also a compliant cultural extension of tech-dominated capitalism, and the inevitable progeny of selfie culture? Today, activism is a key strand of the marketing strategy of big brands, from soda companies to supermarkets. And in the new activism culture, words are violence. Ergo, ‘calling out’ so-called problematic portrayals acts as substitute for real world action against the atrocities that these offending portrayals depict or warn of. But for all the ardency of call-out culture, not one profanity-strewn American Heart tirade will close Guantanamo Bay or reform a broken prison system.

What the author Lionel Shriver has called “a kind of fictional apartheid” harms both art and politics. In our hyper-mediated, panoptical culture, where neurotic self-reference is now almost completely inescapable, the continuing contribution of imaginative fiction and investigative journalism has never been more necessary. Increasingly, these are the social media age’s banned books. And those of us who are against what literary Nobel Laureate (and cultural appropriator) Kazuo Ishiguro calls “the imagination police,” have a duty to buy them. With that, my copy of American Heart beckons.

 

American Heart is released on January 30.


Bonny Brooks is a former IPS Research Fellow at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., for her work on North Korea, and has written widely for The Berggruen Institute and The Huffington Post’s WorldPost. She is currently writing a novel about North Korea activism and the new underground railroad. Follow her on Twitter @brooks_bonny 

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24 Comments

  1. Sounds familiar: “There is a saying in North Korea, the fist is closer than the law, warning those who misbehave that citizen retribution often travels faster than the authorities can.”

  2. Caligula says

    It was once said that nothing worked as well to sell a book as that book’s having been “banned in Boston.” Apparently just officially banning a book somewhere for some reason was enough to generate intense interest in finding out just what in it could have been so juicy as to get the book banned.

    Unfortunately, this principle doesn’t seem to work so well here. Perhaps because what gets a book and its author attacked is not what’s actually in the book but the author’s identity. As presumably the same work, if written by a different author, would not have generated this outrage (but perhaps just the ordinary sort of criticism, that perhaps for ordinary, pedestrian reasons the work might not be worth reading).

    That and, part of the difficulty here seems to be that a significant part of the publishing apparat is sympathetic to the mob, and thus all too willing to support it.

  3. That was supposed to say well-written article, don’t know where well-known came from, fcking auto-correct

  4. David Turnbull says

    Quilette. Please change your comment system so that comments can be edited.

  5. Can I buy a copy that hasn’t been sanitized by “sensitivity panels” or “privilege” detectors or given an imprimatur by somebody empowered to criticize what narrators can do and say? If not, maybe I’ll buy a copy anyway, just to uphold semi-free speech. Or maybe I’ll wait till she can write a book without “painstaking deference.”

    • I’m the author of American Heart, and I want to share my experience with professional sensitivity readers to clear up misunderstandings. It’s true the experience was unsettling in that if I’d taken all the sensitivity readers’ suggestions, they would have gutted the book; it would have been bland and pointless, in my opinion. The good news is the publisher didn’t make me take their suggestions. I did consider all of the sensitivity readers’ concerns, but I only took some of their suggestions–those I felt would truly make the book better. (This is in fact the same process that I teach my students when they’re getting feedback: listen, really listen, to all; apply your own critical thinking; and then decide if a change is warranted.) With the sensitivity readers, if I felt the suggestion wasn’t good, or true to the spirit of the book, I said ‘no, I don’t want to change that,’ and the publisher allowed me that option, and I actually said ‘no, that stays’ again and again. (I did have to dig my heels in on several matters, but ultimately, I was never forced.) Many passages that offended the sensitivity readers are still in the book, and that’s the same book that the Muslim reviewer from Kirkus liked so much; I think that difference makes the point that what offends a sensitivity reader, or a protesting group on Twitter, might not be offensive at all for a lot of people, and probably won’t be–even within minority communities. In any case, the real issue here is that if a book offends a person, that person doesn’t have to read it, and that person can criticize the book (ideally after having read it), but that offended person can’t insist other people have to be offended too. Sensitivity readers/ publishers aren’t insisting on this authority yet, or at least they didn’t with my book. But given the capitulation of Kirkus, I think it’s more than reasonable to worry about future books going through a more forceful “sensitivity” process, and really, whether books that might be deemed problematic will even be published at all. As late as last July, my publisher told me they were “delaying” publication of American Heart until “things calmed down politically,” which of course meant indefinitely. I asked them to be brave, and after a day’s deliberation, they decided they would be, and they stayed on course for the original pub date. I’m grateful for that. But clearly, there is now even more fear, and even more incentive for publishers to shy away from books that might offend anyone, even the most easily offended. The easily imagined endgame, which I suspect is already happening, is that publishers simply won’t buy ‘problematic’ books in the first place. And as the author of this article so eloquently warns–that’s where the real censorship begins.

  6. This is obviously bad. However, I wonder if anybody has been paying attention to the heavy politically correct bias of the novel’s plot. It reads like a wet dream of an anti-Trumpist. Thus it is truly ironic that the book has been blasted by exactly such people. Like Saturn, political correctness is eating its own children.

  7. Dave J says

    “There is no appeasing this impulse. In the last few weeks, I read an article asking who ‘gets’ to write fiction about sexual abuse and another telling writers how they must do so should they dare.”

    Just another step towards the goal of making literature conform to socialist realist principles which are a complete perversion of art.

  8. Quill says

    One suspects at least part of the impulse to censor art is the fact those doing the censoring lack the ability to produce art themselves. First-person narrative is the first and perhaps only stop for those who want badly to be creative, but lack the ability to generate narrative that isn’t sprung directly from their own experience.

    I would love to see a similar article focusing on the postmodern destruction of poetry: there, the requirement for personal authenticity is almost absolute, with the parallel rejection of technique in any of its forms. The tragic outcome is this closes the artform up, as those who lack raw talent have one option to improve, being to feel harder.

  9. Quill says

    I also wonder at the eventual role AI-produced narrative will play in this: it’s at least possible AI-produced narrative will be seen as pure, for want of a better term and thus allowable under conditions which severely restrict human artists

    • Elliot says

      Concerning, for AI novelists would also be perfect for the business model of major publishers. Imagine that you could make a factory line of fiction tailored for specific audiences. That’s what we’re walking towards. Chilling.

  10. This is a very well known phenomenon within democracies “Tyranny of Majority Opinion” and here we can call the elites of culture the majority even if they’re actually only a minority, their voices are amplified. Tocqueville, in the 1830’s while touring America, wrote:

    “In America the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dares to leave them. It is not that he has to fear an auto-da-fé, but he is the butt of mortifications of all kinds and of persecutions every day. A political career is closed to him: he has offended the only power that has the capacity to open it up. Everything is refused him, even glory. Before publishing his opinions, he believed he had partisans; it seems to him that he no longer has any now that he has uncovered himself to all; for those who blame him express themselves openly, and those who think like him, without having his courage, keep silent and move away. He yields, he finally bends under the effort of each day and returns to silence as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.”

    “One sees governments that strive to protect mores by condemning the authors of licentious books. In the United States no one is condemned for these sorts of works; but no one is tempted to write them. It is not, however, that all the citizens have pure mores, but the majority is regular in its. Here the use of power is doubtless good: so I speak only of the power in itself. This irresistible power is a continuous fact, and its good use is only an accident.”

    “I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America.”

    Democracy in America
    Alexis de Tocqueville

  11. Dave J says

    @Quill

    “One suspects at least part of the impulse to censor art is the fact those doing the censoring lack the ability to produce art themselves. First-person narrative is the first and perhaps only stop for those who want badly to be creative, but lack the ability to generate narrative that isn’t sprung directly from their own experience.”

    Surely that’s only the case if one defines art as being something that is created outside of one’s own experience.

    • Quill says

      @Dave J

      Art is notoriously difficult to define, not that this should stop us trying. I feel art is perhaps best defined as any specific work which reliably creates or induces a certain emotional state in a given audience, having being specifically created for that purpose, and which does so in and of itself. This is full of holes and I welcome critique, but it’s a reasonable attempt.

      With this in mind art can most definitely be sprung from one’s own experience – there’s a good case that all art is, to at least some extent. But as a writer and poet, I find writing consciously of my own experience instantly lends authenticity, and I find that stepping out of this means the demand for authenticity needs constant tending and considerable skill to meet. Mis-steps are easy and sometimes hard to spot, but the allure is that when it works, one feels a sense of creation over and above the process of relating one’s own internal narrative or state.

  12. @Mariusz
    The irony of the PC media bias narrative of the book itself being put inside the star chamber is not lost on this one.

    Seriously, if we would actually teach the youth the accurate history of the Russian Communist revolution then maybe they would’ve looked askance at that the mere fact they had to scrub the book and run it by the ministry of sensitivity before it could even be released.

    I suggest a required reading of The Gulog Archipelo & The Demon in Democracy to all highschool seniors.

    • I respectfully ask you to read my above comment regarding my experience with sensitivity readers. I don’t think ‘scrub’ is the accurate verb. However, I do endorse your suggestion of bringing The Gulag Archipelago into high school curricula, and having just now looked up The Demon in Democracy, I’m putting it on my to-read list, so thank you for that. I’ve had my own students read Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which includes a terrifying narrative of the Cultural Revolution.

  13. ccscientist says

    Some ironies in all this. First, if you can only write from your own lived experience, then you only have one story to tell. You cannot write historical fiction because you did not live in 1700.
    Second, this creates art apartheid. A white author now apparently may not have any ethnic characters in his novels. But really, it is worse because he may not have any handicapped or blind or old characters because he is not handicapped or blind or old. He really shouldn’t have any female characters because he is not female. He may not write about musicians unless he is a musician. There is no longer any possibility of writing fiction at all.

    • Anonymous Bosch says

      “First, if you can only write from your own lived experience, then you only have one story to tell. You cannot write historical fiction because you did not live in 1700.”

      Well said. As a fiction writer myself (as well as an individualist), I find the phenomenon of “sensitivity readers” to be disturbing and frankly insidious. That used to be called “research.” What bothers me the most about it are two things: first, that any character in any work of fiction should be viewed as a totem, representative of a larger group with which they share primarily arbitrary characteristics, instead of just an individual character. Second, that whoever gets selected to be a sensitivity reader has become a de facto and unelected representative for everyone who shares those particular characteristics. I can think of any number of people with whom I share certain physical aspects our society puts a premium on that I would NOT want to speak for me in any way, shape or form (Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders to name two). By that same token, I can think of many people I’m not “of a type” with who I WOULD want to represent my beliefs (Kmele Foster or the author of this article, to name two).

      The other day I saw a call for submissions for a Furry anthology that specifically said they’d be using a sensitivity reader. I wasn’t sure whether I should weep for the downfall of civilization, or rejoice that perhaps that was a sign a major correction to all this bullshit is coming.

  14. > “The term ‘banned books’ may seem a bit outdated in the 21st century West. Perhaps ‘backed down on books’ would be more fitting (if less catchy). But the phenomenon has the same effect – intimidation, silence, conformity, and artistic straitjacketing.”

    What about _shadowbanned books_?

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