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article imageOp-Ed: Freedom of imagination — Literature vs cancel culture?

By Paul Wallis     Mar 30, 2021 in Lifestyle
Sydney - In the ever-increasingly tedious cancel culture world, an interesting, if irritating, argument has finally arrived - Should writers represent cultures and people other than their own? It’s a fully justifiable argument, both ways.
The current manifestation of this argument is The Democracy of the Imagination, a charter manifesto (dear god…what an expression) on the rights of writers to express their imagination. This manifesto was declared and passed unanimously by the writers association PEN International.
That was when the now very large argumentative snowball started. The Guardian explains in relentless detail the depths and heights of this argument, and there are many of both. There’s considerable sensitivity here, and rather annoyingly, none of the sensitivities can be ignored. There are no easy positions, no simple ideologies.
That unavoidable fact hasn’t stopped the shrapnel flying far and wide. PEN America states, with considerable reason, excessive politeness and clarity, that one of the possible issues here is misappropriation of culture.
That’s a murderously hot topic on a regular basis in the United States covering many art forms. Can a white person write credibly in the first person about being black? How about writing about being transgender, if you’re not transgender?
Presumably, people can; let’s face it, total ignorance is not a disqualification from being a writer. The problem with this quaint if neat solution is that as a non-cultural member you’re more than likely to be misrepresenting the people you’re writing about.
There’s a nuance here, and it’s very much social and cultural. For example - I’m not gay. I’m from Sydney. Gay is like the weather here. It’s not really that big an issue at all for anyone, gay or straight, apart from occasional atrocities.
That said - Should I write about gay people? I can from an observer’s perspective. I can’t, in the first person. I’ve had a fair few gay and lesbian friends. That doesn’t mean I can express anything but my own views from an actual personal perspective, third person.
Does a writer’s “imagination” extend to the sensitivities of those about whom he or she writes? Judging from the brutality of formulaic modern fiction, it doesn’t.
Let’s face it, we writers are very much part of the wider problem. Who creates these never-sufficiently-loathed modern stereotypes? Writers, mainly. Who creates “nerds” and “bimbos”? (Both words come from media.) We write the characters that create the stereotypes. Visual media does the rest. …And another monstrosity is born.
To be strictly fair about this:
• Characters are part of stories and have to function as parts of the stories.
• Characters are inevitably male, female, trans, black, white, whatever.
• “Imagination” rarely gets a look in. The characters are dictated by the storylines.
• The nature of the character becomes the stereotype.
Much good that does anyone. “Nerds” are by definition virgins who play Dungeons and Dragons. “Bimbos” are blonde and incapable of comprehending anything. Whites are racists and blacks are gangstas.
Imagine that.
People have every right to resent any negative imagery of themselves, particularly some hackneyed lame-ass stereotype. How do you argue with that? You don’t. You can’t.
PEN America has raised a major issue for writers – How, exactly, do you manage your creative right to expression and your inherent personal obligations to others?
Suggestion – Be creative as you like. Just don’t be a jerk.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about The Democracy of the Imagination, PEN America, cultural misappropriation, Gay, Transgender
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