Writers, Sombreros, and “Cultural Appropriation”

I’m reluctant to wade too deeply into the swirl of art and identity politics issues sparked by author Lionel Shriver’s recent remarks at an Australian book festival. But I do feel a responsibility, as someone who cherishes artistic freedom, to weigh in. So here’s my position on this controversy.

One, a fiction writer’s freedom to write about whoever they wish to write about is non-negotiable. If we’re going to insist on a society in which people are free to fall in love with people of other races and ethnic identities, then it follows that writers should be allowed to imagine the lives of people of other races and ethnic identities. I believe that fiction’s power to help us imagine and empathize with the lives of other people who are ostensibly different than us is a force for good, and leads to a more just and equitable society.

Two, what is the appropriate response to a writer who writes something that other people deem offensive? I happen to believe that no writer should be pressured to apologize for something he or she has written. I will never ask a writer for a public apology, and I will never publicly apologize for something I’ve written. Disagree with, rebut, and argue against the ideas you consider offensive. Confront ideas that threaten you by articulating ideas of your own.

To those who make statements about how writers “should” write about other people, I ask, what are you prepared to do to a writer if you’re offended by his or her work of fiction? Who gets to decide for everybody else what is acceptable to write about? How do you intend to enforce those norms?