The use and abuse of imagination


In a Sept. 23, 2016, op-ed in The New York Times titled “Will the Left Survive Millennials?” novelist Lionel Shriver summarized her talk at the Brisbane (Australia) Writers Festival earlier last year: “Briefly, my address maintained that fiction writers should be allowed to write fiction – thus should not let our concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own.... If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience, there is no fiction, but only memoir.”

Shriver goes on to say that she felt that her thesis “seemed so self-evident that I’d worried that the speech would be bland.” As it turned out, the reaction to it was overwhelmingly negative.

“The festival immediately disavowed the address.... A ‘Right to Reply’ was hastily organized,” Shriver wrote.

Not long after her talk in Brisbane, The New Republic published an article titled, “Lionel Shriver Shouldn’t Write About Minorities.”

Shriver’s understanding of the argument against “cultural appropriation” appears to be that fiction writers should not write about people in different social, cultural or economic situations since such authors have not stood in the shoes of “the other.” Thus, a white author imagining being black risks creating a fiction that not only distorts and misstates black reality but also, wittingly, or unwittingly, offends, insults and humiliates the black reader.

Shriver seems to make a strong case for fiction writers following their imagination wherever it leads. Shakespeare peopled his plays with men and women who were not of his social class, intellectual ability, religion, race or sex: Falstaff, Hamlet, King Lear, Cordelia, Shylock, Iago, Othello and Lady Macbeth are a few examples.

Should Shakespeare stand accused of “cultural appropriation”? In many ways, the men and women who strut and fret on the stage, breathing life into the product of Shakespeare’s imagination, are more real to us than many of the living and breathing individuals in our daily lives.

Moving to the early 20th century, the Irish novelist James Joyce, a lapsed Catholic, chose as his modern-day Ulysses – be he hero or anti-hero – a non-observant Dublin Jew, Leopold Bloom. Moreover, Joyce chose to conclude his groundbreaking novel with the extended stream-of-consciousness monologue of Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife.

Should we disqualify Joyce, a man, from seeking to imagine the musings of a married woman in her 30s who has just hours ago committed adultery? Should we Jews condemn Joyce, born and raised a Catholic, for imagining what it would be like to be an Irish Jew in the Dublin of 1904?

Closer to our own day, William Styron, a white American Southerner, drew hostile criticism for “cultural appropriation” in his novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967), in which he presumes to enter into the heart and mind of the slave leader of a violent rebellion in 1831. Twelve years later, many in the American Jewish community criticized Styron for the alleged insensitivity the author displayed in his novel “Sophie’s Choice” (1979) – daring to use fiction to explore the experience of the Holocaust. Particularly upsetting for some was the fact that the Jewish protagonist, Nathan Landau, is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, while a flamboyant minor character, Leslie Lapides, is a caricature of a neurotic Jewish American Princess. The one character who experiences Auschwitz directly is not a Jew, but rather a Polish Catholic woman, the Sophie of the title.

Many literary critics praise Shakespeare and Joyce for their ability to imagine and to write compellingly about lives far different from their own - yet Styron and his fans are often chided for taking their fiction into imagined spaces into which they should not go. Why should this be?

In attempting to answer this question, I turned to an astute friend, a professor at Brown. Limiting his response to the American experience, he suggested that the particulars of our history, the evolving complexity of our social context, account – at least in part – for a heightened sensitivity to “cultural appropriation.”

An African-American brings to his reading of “The Confessions of Nat Turner” a deep awareness of racial stereotypes and of an ugly record of racist oppression and discrimination. In his cri de coeur “Between the World and Me” (2015), Ta-Nehesi Coates argues that it is impossible for white Americans to comprehend what it means to grow up black in America since those who “believe themselves to be white” are blinded by an invented construct that keeps black people at the very bottom of the social barrel.

When fiction writers seek to expand their horizons by venturing into lands they do not know except in their imaginations, they need to tread with great care, understanding that their missteps could bring unintended pain to their readers.

Should such authors alter their fiction works to minimize the possibility of inflicting inadvertent pain? Or are the demands of their art and their imaginations worth the risk of causing damaging personal and cultural pain?

I cannot answer these questions; it is up to the fiction writers themselves to make such moral and aesthetic judgments. As is so often the case, our task is to learn how to live with many of our troubling questions unanswered.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at