Why a Politically Correct World Wants Writers Who Don’t Use Imagination

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How can we know if Elena Ferrante is culturally appropriating or not if we don’t know who she or he actually is?

Let me backtrack: Ferrante, for those who don’t follow literary trends, is the author of a popular quartet of novels about two Italian women’s friendship. The novels, which are exceptionally vivid and absorbing in their detailed depiction of life in Naples, Italy, have unsurprisingly led to interest in Ferrante herself. Probably like many of my fellow Neapolitan novel readers, I had no idea that Ferrante’s name was a pseudonym until I googled her.

I was surprised—but not too surprised. Ferrante’s writing often showcased all too well the ugliness inherent in some kinds of relationships, and her cast of characters often detailed our worst inclinations. Perhaps, I speculated, she felt that revealing her true identity would make her a target of criticism, especially from people who might believe she was depicting them in her fiction.

But in a recent article published in the New York Review of Books (and in newspapers in Europe) Italian writer Claudio Gatti makes the case for who Ferrante really is: “Far from the daughter of a Neapolitan seamstress,” he writes, “new revelations from real estate and financial records point to Anita Raja, a Rome-based translator whose German-born mother fled the Holocaust and later married a Neapolitan magistrate.”

In other words: it’s very likely the real Elena Ferrante did not personally experience the Neapolitan upbringing she writes about so grippingly, since Raja, although born in Naples, moved to Rome at age three and spent the rest of her childhood there, according to Gatti.

Does that matter? Well, if you’re OK with a novelist using her imagination, that’s fine. (Mary Shelley didn’t have to dig up a corpse and turn it into a monster to write Frankenstein, after all). Sure, Ferrante could have learned about Naples from actually experiencing life in Naples. Or she could have learned about Naples from reading about it, visiting it, and talking to people who lived there.

Unfortunately, the latter is no longer acceptable in our politically correct society, as novelist Lionel Shriver learned after a speech she delivered last month.

In the speech, Shriver, wearing a sombrero, talked about cultural appropriation. Relating the saga of two college students in Maine who caused an uproar after hosting a party where they encouraged attendees to wear sombreros, Shriver concluded, “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”

Exactly.

And yet Shriver’s remarks were viewed as so controversial that the officials who invited her “publicly disavowed her remarks,” according to the New York Times.

That’s incredible.

It’s also insulting to the abilities of truly great storytellers. Did Shakespeare have nothing worth saying about women’s experience, or Emily Bronte about men’s experience? Do we really think imagination is limited by what a writer has personally experienced, and that nothing can be learned by observing others, by contemplating their approach to life and their actions?

Right now, I’m working on a story about a seventy-two-year-old woman. As a twenty-something, I don’t know firsthand what it feels like to be seventy-two. But the experience of thinking about what it would be like if I were seventy-two—and a host of other traits this character has that I do not—has been illuminating and rewarding. I’ve been privileged to leave my own experience behind, to sit and wonder what it would be like to have an older body, to have decades of experience and memories to look back on, to have been a child in the 1950s, and to have had a child myself.

And if the story ever does get published, I assume it would be judged by those who have been seventy-two; whether or not it reads true to their own experience of life in older age is of crucial importance. That’s how it should be. But we would be a poorer world in terms of literature if we limited ourselves to making art based only on our own direct experiences.

I’m of mixed mind about the push to find out Ferrante’s true identity. (It’s a little odd to claim you want to be anonymous, yet give interviews.) But regardless of the morality of trying to track down her true identity, let’s all agree it’s OK for storytellers to spin whole universes, including those with casts of characters with experiences unlike their own.

There’s no need to ban it: the characters, the situations, the cultures that are untrue to real experiences will inevitably fade away, be cast into bins and pass out of print. In fiction, surprisingly enough, only the true will last—and promoting that, not fretting over cultural appropriation, should be the focus of those who care about good writing and storytelling

As Shriver put it in her talk, “The ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.”

“Someone like me only permits herself to write from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina, closing on sixty, able-bodied but with bad knees, skint for years but finally able to buy the odd new shirt,” she added. “All that’s left is memoir.”

What a poverty that would be for us.

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  • abs_structurer

    So, the only safe genre would be autobiography?

    • David

      Not if you’re a cis straight white middle class Christian male or one who isn’t and insists on thinking for himself or herself. Consult your local Commissar for permission before writing, but be warned that you’re very likely to be arrested for thoughtcrime.

  • Do we really think imagination is limited by what a writer has
    personally experienced, and that nothing can be learned by observing
    others, by contemplating their approach to life and their actions?

    It’s a good thing J,R.R. Tolkien didn’t think that way…

    • Ruffin

      It’d be scarier if he did, and only wrote from his own experience. In that case, I wouldn’t want to move any furniture for his friend Mr. Lewis, either.

  • Erik S

    It turns out that Shakespeare was never in Elsinore (or even traveled to Denmark!), and never learned to speak Danish, so I hope they pull back that rotten play of his — racist piece of trash!

    • Micha_Elyi

      It turns out that Shakespeare lived his whole life without ever being more than 100 miles from London. There is no historical evidence that he ever travelled to Italy, France, or anywhere much beyond London and Stratford.

      • Erik S

        That SOB!
        He is even worse
        than I thought!

  • xpatYankeeCurmudgeon

    And they wonder how the label ‘regressive Left’ appeared…

    • fandango

      The French call them “reacs” – leftist reactionaries.

  • Micha_Elyi

    Let’s just all agree that the Left is stupid, a waste of time, a sink of human energy, a poison that kills hope, a barrier to a well-lived life, and that we’ll never vote for a Leftist, hard- or soft-core, for anything ever.

  • werewife

    Oh, for the Love of Life Orchestra. Not only did Mary Shelley not dig up and revive a corpse, she was never a Swiss gentleman of good family.

    What gets my biggest, wildest wild mountain goat is that this “cultural appropriation” nonsense is directed against admitted imaginative artists, but not against actual phonies claiming blood and culture for reasons of actual APPROPRIATION OF IDENTITY, like Elizabeth Warren, Ward Churchill (exposed and humiliated only through his own hubris) and that contemptible cosplayer “Nasdijj.” I direct attention to the delightful novel The Thieves of Manhattan (Adam Langer, 2010) for a fun romp through the recent history of literary fraud, in the form of a literary fraud.

  • mirt

    Is it indeed obligatory to learn who wrote a book in order to read it? I personally do not care about the author that much, I just want to read a good book. To those who cry about “cultural appropriation” I say “I am not interested”. And shut the door.

  • TimW42 .

    The PC crowd are the enemy, just like the Soviet literary “critics” there to make sure everybody followed doctrine. Does that mean vampire fiction has to be written by actual vampires now? These people are idiots and they should be mocked and scorned at every opportunity.

  • InklingBooks

    To some extent, this is not a new idea. Decades ago, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both prominent Oxford literary scholars, loathed the idea that an author’s experiences determined what he wrote. The difference is that back then the stress was on an author’s biography determining what he wrote, It said: “Shakespeare described Juliet in a certain way because he is a middle-aged man.” Today the stress is on dictating what an author will not be permitted to write about. It says, “Shakespeare can’t write about Juliet because he is not a teen girl.” In either case, it’s demaning of writers.

    There’s another factor that’s not often mentioned in this debate. That’s that you can be too close to a subject to see it well. A little distance adds perspective. A wife may understand her husband better than he understands himself and vice-versa. The same may be true of the two (yes two) sexes and our various ethnicities, nationalities, and races. And outsider can often see things an insider cannot.

    What’s really needed to write about a particular group is sympathy and a willingness to observe and understand them. That and perhaps a sense of humor. All seem lacking in social justice warriors. Many seem unable to grasp any point of view but their own nor are that, as we can observe on many college campuses, willing to try to understand others.

    • Ruffin

      Distance is one reason why Jews have done so well in American comedy. They’re close enough to mainstream America to understand it, but just far enough outside to see what’s truly funny.

      (A couple millennia of rabbinical debate to sharpen the wits can’t hurt. Personally, I’d love to have the transcript of what wasn’t written in the New Testament. Twelve Jews hoofing it around Galilee with nothing to do but talk; one Messiah to referee. I can’t decide if it’d be Seinfeld or the Three Stooges, but I’d love to see it.)

      Canadians have also done well in the US for the same reason – they’re not quite like us, but close enough to get the joke.

      • fandango

        “They’re close enough to mainstream America to understand it, but just far enough outside to see what’s truly funny.” You should tell that to George Carlin and Louis CK. Other than that: amazing to what lengths people go to peddle their medieval jew-obsession.

        • Ruffin

          I was thinking more the Stooges, Marx Brothers, Jackie Mason, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, George Burns, etc. – the generation that started on vaudeville and then dominated comedy through the 40s, 50s and 60s.

          (If you want to stay current you can throw in Lewis, Sandler, Wilder, Stiller, Brooks, Crystal, Bruce, Dangerfield, and the rest of the more recent crop if you like.)

          It’s not a “jew-obsession” to point out that a LOT of the greats in comedy were or are Jewish, well out of proportion to the 2% of the US population that’s Jewish. Naming comedians who aren’t Jewish doesn’t change that, just like Larry Byrd doesn’t change the demographics of the NBA.

          And I don’t find Louis CK particularly funny. He seems to have taken Carlin’s seven words as a personal challenge.

          (Also, you neglected to accuse me of being Canadian-obsessed. Work on that one, huh? I’d suggest you start with Seth Rogan, just so you’re on familiar ground, but I don’t find him that funny either.)

          • fandango

            “And I don’t find Louis CK particularly funny. He seems to have taken Carlin’s seven words as a personal challenge.” well, this clears things up. The rest – smoke and mirrors. Btw, check out this conundrum: how come so many talk about lots of jews in Hollywood, comedy, media, advertising, etc., and so few talk about even more joooos among science (i.e. deserving) Nobel laureates? Well, them jooos are perched on this special branch where they are “close enough to mainstream science, but just far enough outside to see it’s strange”. Hmmm, what a fascinating, completely objective, unbigoted assessment.
            Also one Larry Bird doesn’t, but two Larry Birds….

          • Ruffin

            Easy enough – education and reasoning ability are and have been stressed in Jewish communities for centuries. When the rabbi is the top of the social pyramid, it pays to study. Portable skills (smithing, trade, medicine, etc.) have also been invaluable when your neighbors are likely to throw you out any minute. The sort of people who say things like “joooos” like to take out their mindless bigotry on the sons of Israel just because they’re different and easy to scapegoat. Farming isn’t the best career choice when facing pogroms and expulsion.

            We were talking about comedy, not science. Different reasons for different fields. I realize you’re just being an antisemitic little troll, but try turning your pointy hood around so you can see out the eye holes. (You did remember to cut eye holes in it, didn’t you?) Maybe then you’ll notice that we’re on the subject of “A little distance adds perspective”, not whatever you spilled in your keyboard that’s make your “O” key so sticky. No one wants to know what you do with your O key.

            Two Larry Byrds don’t make a trend. (They make a flock.)

            And Louis CK still isn’t funny.

  • This is all from the same single page of the Progressive fascist playbook: POWER. You must bend the knee, serf, bend to my will, conform your actions and your very beliefs to my demands, or suffer the consequences (e.g., firing, public approbation, loss of publishing opportunities, failure to be granted tenure, etc.). The purported rationale for why you should bend your knee is never the true purpose, the bending of the knee is the true purpose. Just fascists fascisting. 🙂

  • Only Europeans should be allowed to wear business suits, only Croatians wear neckties, only Chinese pay cash, only Vietnamese play Kim in Miss Saigon.

    (Sorry, Lea.)

  • fandango

    This is the greatest success of regressive leftoids in the academia: the fact that this absurdesque (absurd+grotesque) cretinism is even publicly discussed. At this stage flogging seems to me the only possible remedy.

  • InklingBooks

    For those who, like me, don’t understand what Elena Ferrante meant when she described herself as “skint,” here is a definition.

    “Skint is a British documentary series broadcast since 13 May 2013 on Channel 4. It follows members of the general public in various locations who are either unemployed or have very little income as they live their daily lives. The series features many issues in episodes including alcoholism, drugs misuse, long term unemployment and legal matters.”