On Viking novels and “cultural misappropriation”

On Viking novels and “cultural misappropriation”

OSLO — I’ve spent the past two weeks in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway visiting museums and researching Norse history with an eye to, perhaps, one day writing a novel about the Vikings and their 11th century encounter with the First Peoples.

While I’ve been traveling, elite literary circles have been roiled over the question of “cultural misappropriation,” of whether “white” writers should refrain from writing about the experiences of minorities (the Other). As a novelist whose work has touched upon other cultures, I’ve watched the debate with interest, and with some dismay.

It began when American novelist Lionel Shriver argued at the Brisbane Writers Festival that “fiction writers should be allowed to write fiction — thus should not let concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own.” Her challenge to the notion of “cultural purity” was not well received by the literary left, which has embraced identity politics with a vengeance. The New Republic ran a response by Lovia Gyarke entitled “Lionel Shriver Shouldn’t Write About Minorities.”

viking_ship

I suppose under the new rules of cultural purity, my Viking novel would be acceptable. You see, one side of my family is Swedish (my maternal grandmother, Mormor, made meatballs as succulent as any in Stockholm), and the other side claims Native American ancestry from the colonial period. Of course, it’s absurd to think that matters. My DNA should have nothing to do with my writing a Viking novel.*

There simply shouldn’t be any barriers based on identity. The gay Jamaican novelist Marlon James, winner of the Man Booker Prize, has made this point, noting that while he is known for his Caribbean fiction: “I’ve been threatening to write a Viking novel for almost 10 years now.”

In my view, the only question a novelist needs to answer is: Am I drawn to tell this story? I know I won’t make the necessary investment in time and energy unless I can answer with a strong “yes.”

I’ve fashioned characters from different cultures, different walks-of-life, different sexualities, different races. That’s what writers do. That isn’t to say that culture doesn’t matter. It does. But love, jealousy, resentment, lust, hate, joy, and all the other emotions human feel are not restricted by age, class, or time period. (Read Li Bo’s Tang Dynasty poems of longing to be reunited with his wife, Zong, or the tortured and erotic love poems of Catullus. Universal. Timeless.)

Some writers will butcher cultures that aren’t their own. They’ll condescend or distort or stereotype. In short, they’ll fail. But so what? That’s a small price to pay for artistic freedom. There will be misses, but also hits.

I’d like to believe that this ugly intrusion of identity politics into the imaginative world will pass. There’s a not-so-faint whiff of the totalitarian in the campaign to narrow what’s “acceptable.” Even those sympathetic to the cultural purity argument who think fiction should be politicized, like Jess Row, admit that there’s a chilling effect for “white” writers (“What made you feel you had the right to write that book?”)

The best course for a writer is to carry on and ignore the static. I’m not going to let calls for literary cultural purity change what I choose to write about; I’ll let readers decide if I’ve hit or missed the mark. And if Marlon James ever does publish his Viking novel, I’ll be sure to read it.


* Shakespeare somehow managed to fashion Othello and Shylock without being African or Jewish. I find Kazuo Ishiguro’s English butler of the 1930s, Stevens, completely believable. (And Yo-Yo Ma plays Baroque music brilliantly, and Misty Copeland does more than justice to Balanchine’s classical ballet steps.)

Copyright © 2016 by Jefferson Flanders

A voice of one’s own

A voice of one’s own

The late poet and novelist Jim Harrison (best known for Legends of the Fall) told the New York Times earlier this year that: “I can’t read novels while I’m writing them because of the imitative nature of the brain. So I get along with a few European mysteries and lots of poetry.”

Harrison’s concerns were surprising. It’s true that many songwriters avoid listening to music when composing for fear of unconscious imitation, but you wouldn’t think that a seasoned novelist would worry about (mis)appropriating what he or she had read.

Writers work differently, of course, and I can only speak for myself. When I write, the words that I hear in my head and translate to the page are in my own voice. No doubt it’s a voice that has been shaped by my childhood exposure to plain style writing (the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling, A.A. Milne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, etc.). My writing naturally reflects those influences.

Eastman-Johnson-xx-Writing-to-Father-1863

Unlike Harrison, I don’t worry about reading someone else’s fiction when I’m working on a novel. I don’t fear unconsciously imitating another author’s style or lifting extended patches of prose—anything borrowed wouldn’t make it through my revision process. I revise line-by-line by reading out loud and changing what doesn’t sound right to me—that is, what doesn’t match the voice in my head.

I’m even less concerned about imitation when reading an author with a distinctive and unique style. For example, I just reread Mark Helprin’s wonderful novel Refiner’s Fire; when I look at the passages I’ve underlined in the text, I’m not worried about imitation. I know if I tried to match his voice it would ring completely false. Consider the following bit of dialogue crafted by Helprin:

“I have been learning English. Since the time of Erasmus we Dutch have envied the English. What an ecstatic language, a language to fill the boots of the greatest dream, a language of milk, a language of jewels. In itself it is worth more than nations. It strives and it loves, in words and phrases. Needless to say, like the waterbug, or the needle, we too love it and respect it as our king.”

Wonderful stuff—I admire Helprin’s word play, his poetic ear, and his sense of rhythm. But I can’t imagine writing (or imitating) something like this, even if I wanted to. It’s not the way I translate what I see and experience in the world into words. And when I read it out loud, it’s an intriguing and lyric voice—but clearly not mine.


Copyright © 2016 by Jefferson Flanders

A few thoughts on fiction and history

All novelists take liberties when they write historical fiction, drawing on their imaginations and from the raw material of the past. The question, then, is: how much should they stray from the historical record? How much should they rearrange facts, events, and timing to suit the needs of their plot?

Clio

For some postmodern authors, the very idea of “facts” or of a “historical record” is an illusion. They’ll blithely deconstruct and distort because they argue that what we call history is a subjective narrative by and for the powerful. (Include E. L. Doctorow and Robert Coover, among others, in this camp). Along those lines, the novelist Don DeLillo has written: “There is pleasure to be found, the writer’s, the reader’s, in a version of the past that escapes the coils of established history and biography and that finds a language, scented, dripping, detailed, for such routine realities as sex, weather and food, for the ravel of a red thread on a woman’s velvet sleeve.”

For counterfactual historical fiction (“what if Hitler had won the Second World War?”), there’s also a heavy reliance on elaborate fabrication. For example, novels like Robert Harris’ Fatherland or Dominion by C. J. Sansom—which all imagine a world altered by a Nazi victory—change history and then consider the ripple effect.

I prefer historical fiction grounded in reality. I like reading novels that are well researched about a given period of time and that are (for the most part) accurate in their depiction of events and personalities. It’s a more engaging way to learn about the past—Rudyard Kipling claimed that if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. When authors stray too far from the record, or when their dialogue includes jarring contemporary phrases, I feel let down.

In writing historical fiction, I try to avoid errors of fact and also of interpretation on matters small and large. So I’ve spent time researching the cost of a pay phone call in New York City in 1949, and the footwear of Manchu women in Beijing in 1794. Details matter, because they help create a sense of time and place.

Sometimes there are questions without clear answers, or where historians disagree. I’ve encountered some of these unresolved questions during my research. Why did the French Revolution descend into savagery in the summer of 1793, into the Terror? Could there have been a different, and peaceful ending, to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956?

In the end, it’s a balancing act. An overemphasis on the historical can weigh a novel down; a lightly-researched book can feel weightless, untethered to historical reality. The trick is to breathe life into the past—a different country.

Literary scholar Daniel Aaron had it right: “Historical fiction isn’t history in the conventional sense and shouldn’t be judged as such. The best historical novels are loyal to history, but it is a history absorbed and set to music.”


©2015 by Jefferson Flanders

William Shakespeare and the Mind of the Maker

In The Tutor, an elegantly crafted novel that imagines William Shakespeare’s life during the early 1590s (during what scholars call his “lost years”), author Andrea Chapin accepts the notion that one of the world’s most famous writers was, indeed, the son of a glover from Stratford-upon-Avon, a provincial English town.

The Tutor

That’s a distinct improvement over the recent attempted rewriting of literary history in Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s 2011 movie that depicts Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as having secretly written Shakespeare’s plays. De Vere died in 1604, well before Shakespeare’s later plays were staged, but that doesn’t give the Oxfordians pause. They claim that de Vere must have left a cache of writings.

Another group of literary conspiracy buffs argue that Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, is responsible for Shakespeare’s works. As with de Vere’s advocates, the Baconians claim that their man had the education, background, and biography to be a literary genius, and Shakespeare didn’t. They’re wrong. Columbia University’s James Shapiro does a masterful job of debunking Bacon-as-Shakespeare and the other candidates in his Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, noting that Shakespeare’s literary rivals and colleagues never called his authorship of what were very popular plays (and well-received poetry) into question.

In The Tutor, Chapin’s Shakespeare isn’t a fraud, but rather a man-on-the-make capitalizing on his gift of glibness. He’s a bisexual rake who manipulates men and women through his quick wit, personal magnetism, and brilliant acting. In the novel, Shakespeare is a schoolmaster, a tutor, to an aristocratic Catholic family in Lancashire. A young widow, Katherine de L’Isle, becomes Shakespeare’s muse and his quite critical line editor, as can be seen in this passage from the novel:

“…she dipped a quill in ink and started to write on Will’s pages, circling words, querying meaning and placement and feeling. Her lines stretched out at strange angles from his neat and careful handwriting, connecting his words to his. By the time she finished, the pages looked like maps, his words countries whose boundaries and allegiances had been called into question.”

Even while Chapin accepts the reality of the Stratford Shakespeare, she can’t resist introducing a classically-educated character to “improve” and inspire his writing. His torrent of sonnets and plays suggests, however, that Shakespeare didn’t need prodding to write, and apparently didn’t need much in the way of editing—one contemporary noted that his manuscripts had few corrections or revisions.

William Shakespeare

It’s hard for some university-educated types to accept that William Shakespeare, a commoner with (perhaps) a grammar school education, remains one of the world’s great authors. Yet I’ll argue, based on what I’ve seen in journalism and publishing, there’s little positive correlation between formal higher education and great writing ability. (In fact, ofttimes the more advanced degrees the writer holds, the more stilted the prose.) Look no further for proof than to those notable writers lacking academic credentials: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Jack London, George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Ray Bradbury, Maya Angelou, Gore Vidal, Doris Lessing, and Stieg Larsson.

There’s a reluctance to embrace this truth: a writer needs only imagination and a way with words to invent a believable world.

Writers need some education (apparently the grammar schools of Shakespeare’s time could be fairly rigorous), and I don’t mean to downplay the importance of research—I write historical fiction, after all. I suspect Shakespeare was a very curious man, and one who turned to people, and books, to learn what he needed to know for his plays.

I hold, however, that the creative Mind of the Maker (to borrow Dorothy Sayers’ wonderful term) counts for more than long hours in the archives. Even first-hand experience can be overrated, despite Ernest Hemingway’s admonition: “In order to write about life first you must live it.” A number of inventive fabulists (James Frey, Misha Defonseca, Margaret Seltzer, Greg Mortenson) have shown that a skilled writer can fool critics and readers into thinking that the imagined is real. (These authors have established a new genre: the false memoir.)

Other marvelous writers have demonstrated that, with enough craft and some diligent research, they can fashion a seamless fictional world with little or no first-hand experience. Experts on life in the Soviet Union raved about the accuracy of Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, and yet the novelist didn’t speak Russian and spent only two weeks in Moscow before writing his bestseller. Patrick O’Brian, author of the famous maritime series featuring Jack Aubrey, apparently couldn’t sail. Sid Smith’s Something Like a House, a novel about the Cultural Revolution, won Britain’s Whitbread First Novel Award and yet Smith couldn’t read or speak Chinese, and hadn’t worked in or visited China. Creativity, it seems, can trump biography. In fiction, what matters is that the reader believes.

At the same time, I do think accuracy in detail counts—especially in historical fiction. Getting things (geography, clothing, historical context) right helps the reader enter the different country of the past. I’m sensitive to anachronistic speech—I find it particularly jarring when a character uses slang or a phrase that doesn’t fit the story’s historical period.

In the end, what ends up on paper or in pixels must first emerge from the mind of the maker. Shakespeare noted the power of imagination for the poet:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

William Shakespeare, commoner, didn’t achieve title or rank, didn’t secure a position at court, and (from what little we know) didn’t travel extensively. But he had the poet’s eye, and that was more than enough.


©2015 by Jefferson Flanders

The stories we tell

We need stories.

They help us make sense of our existence, of where we have been and where we are going, of what is right and wrong, and what purpose and meaning we find along our way, crooked or straight.

Campfire

It seems there is a story ready-made for every phase of our lives. We borrow these stories and mold and shape them to fit our own circumstances.

There is the story of birth, the story of coming of age, the boy-meets-girl story, the overcome-odds career story. The stories of joy and grief, of love and loss, and of success and failure, of faith and redemption. Finally there is the last story, the story of death, one that others will have to tell for and about us, for we will have departed the stage.

Some stories are one-of-a-kind, bespoke stories, made unique by events or by circumstance: the first man on the moon or the last man (or woman) standing after a tornado has swept through a farm town.

Others are universal, archetypical, templates for the human condition, mythic in their scope and focus. In some magic way these legendary stories reflect elemental truths or record traditions of great value.

Scholars like Joseph Campbell have outlined the repetitive myths that have excited our imaginations for centuries: the Quest of the Hero, the Pursuit of Love, the Adoration of the Sacred, our Rendezvous with Death.

These stories tap into powerful human memories, into what Jung called the collective unconscious, in strange and surprising ways. How else to account for the continuing popularity of the saga of Beowulf? The story’s appeal to its original 8th century audience seems natural: it tells of a hero who fights the monsters that roam in the dark outside the warmth and light of the Great Hall, both a cautionary tale and one designed to inspire the courage of its listeners.

The primal power of Beowulf has lasted. The saga has been retold in fiction and film repeatedly. There have been four full-length cinematic versions in the first decade of this century alone, including one featuring Angelina Jolie (director Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 Beowulf) and another, Outlander (2008), that reimagines the story from the perspective of a warrior from outer space.

Hollywood will never run out of material, for like children at bedtime, we seem to crave hearing the same tale—with some embellishments—over and over again.

Then there are our own stories, the ones we tell ourselves. They chronicle our existence. They may, or may not, align with what others see or experience but they are stubbornly ours. In them we often play the role of unreliable narrator (a term invented by literary critics), and yet we can be reliably expected to fashion a story that somehow meets our psychic needs. We may be victim or hero, bystander or protagonist, innocent or guilty. We may sand off the rough edges and conveniently forget those awkward moments that don’t quite fit into the storyline we have crafted. Under extreme pressure, we may even create a freshly-conceived, alternative reality and come to believe in it.

We need these stories, both the personal and the borrowed. They help us find our place in the world. They give us roots. They can gird us for combat or prepare us for love. They inspire us (remembering that inspire in the Latin means to breathe into). They are the stuff of dreams and of nightmares.

They may very well be what sets us apart from the rest of creation. Who else tells stories? And who else lives by them?


Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved