Monday, October 06, 2014

Literary Gentrification and Cultural Appropriation

This is from a 2010 review of Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue by Hal Parker. I found it in Foz Meadows' blog:
Reappropriating genre literature under the aegis of high culture has become a familiar convention of postmodern literary fiction; really, “literary genre fiction” is arguably a genre of its own at this point. Even more common is the practice of saturating a novel in a given milieu to such a degree that the milieu itself comes to serve as the “brand” of the novel. There, however, lies the rub: While Mr. Chabon is white, much of the milieu providing the “brand” of Telegraph Avenue (soul and jazz music, Blaxploitation films, the Black Panthers, Oakland and its environs) is unmistakably black. What this means is that “literary genre fiction” now runs the risk of becoming a kind of sophisticated “literary gentrification”—a process by which a predominantly black milieu is appropriated by a white novelist as a springboard. Put simply, is the story of “Brokeland,” whatever it may be, really Mr. Chabon’s to tell?
I don't have an opinion on Chabon's book, which I have not read. But I kind of like the term "literary gentrification," especially since I don't have to worry about doing it myself, since I am not a literary writer.

I wrote an essay at Strange Horizons about "Writing What You Don't Know," which is about cultural appropriation, and I don't want to repeat myself, except to say I'm not entirely comfortable with the term cultural appropriation. Per the online Merriam Webster, appropriate means:
1: to take exclusive possession of : annex (no one should appropriate a common benefit)
2: to set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use (appropriate money for the research program)
3: to take or make use of without authority or right
Meaning # 3 is the one we are talking about here, I think. But humans constantly borrow from one another, and they usually do it without authority or right. Every culture is made up of bits and pieces taken from other cultures; and this is done without respect for trademarks, copyrights or patents, which are all recent concepts, tied to capitalism and the theory that ideas are products that can bought and sold.

I prefer terms such as racism, exoticism, disrespect or ripping off without credit to explain borrowing we don't like.

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