This didn’t happen to me. It happened to a friend of mine who used to work at Powell’s. I’ve never worked at Powell’s. She was standing next to a display of Riverdance photobooks or stacking a display of Celtic Christmas photobooks or photobooks titled maybe The Dublin of Joyce, I don’t know, but anyway you get the point: stacks of grass that green and grey stone walls and smiling old folks in tweed and maybe a pint or two of the good dark stuff. Anyway there’s a customer, a black man, and he smiles and says Ireland, huh?
And she says, yeah, it’s always a bestseller, all this Irish stuff. —She usually worked in the red room; the books on Ireland would have been in the purple room. But this might have taken place in the orange room. I don’t know for sure.
Anyway he shrugs and says well Ireland, it’s kind of like an Africa for white people.
And my friend allows as how okay, yeah, she can see that.
And he leans across the stacks of books and says, thing is, most of us actually came from Africa.
I’m not going to link to it, the critical contretemps that’s USsed and THEMmed its merry way across LiveJournal (mostly), in part because I have read maybe a teaspoonful of it, in part because it is far more heat than light (my fingers scorched already by what little I read myself), in part because “linking” to it would require nigh-daily updates longer than this post will ever be, even accounting for all the posts and threads that have since been flocked up tight, in part because people I respect and even count as friends however internetty are saying inflammatory things on either side of the divide, but mostly because I haven’t even read the book whose discussion started? sparked? is the focal point? of the current fine mess, so I wasn’t going to say anything at all.
Still, these ripples still keep lapping even at the shores of my little backwater.
But if I say something like how it’s an incredibly dick move to say you haven’t read the book, it’s such an egregious example of X that you couldn’t finish the book, because I mean come on, how can you say something so surely without reading it for yourself, well, someone might say why should I have to read the book to have an opinion because X and anyway I never used the word egregious, why aren’t you engaging my argument?
And if I say something like how it’s an incredibly dick move to say if someone hasn’t read the book what business do they have stating such a divisive opinion about it, because I mean come on, one of the unstated goals of an undergraduate education is to be able to say things about books one’s never read, well, someone might say yes but their argument is wrong I mean X why I’d never, and anyway that’s ridiculous, and why aren’t you engaging my argument?
Which would leave me protesting that I’m not trying to engage any arguments, I’m just trying to point out that if your goal is to have a conversation then you’ve lost by opening with a dick move and if you’re just preaching to the choir well that’s fine but realize what you’re doing and don’t pretend otherwise, but that leaves me as the guy in the middle with the squashed armadillos saying on the one hand but on the other and anyway a mild and not-at-all-inconveniencing pox on both your houses, and no one likes to hang out with him.
And if I say the reason I’m not engaging any arguments is because I haven’t read the book in question, that might leave you with the impression you’ve sussed out which side I’m really on. But then I’d have to point out that the move in question as described sounds dicey as all get-out and I’d never attempt it myself and the earlier attempt that some have cited, which I have read, I’ve got to tell you didn’t work in my opinion, well, that might leave you with the impression you’ve sussed out which side I’m really on, and if so could you tell me? I mean would you look at the crazy on my face? Is that the time? Whoa.
None of which anyway is what I wanted to say.
What I wanted to point out:
This entire argument, about cultural appropriation and all the isms that implies, is raging around contemporary works set rather firmly in the genre of fantasy.
I can’t think of another contemporary genre whose tropes are so nakedly the fruits of cultural appropriation. Whose toolkit is so openly dependent on the tactics of cultural appropriation. —We go to write about the fantastic, and so we sauce our pastoral dish with a biting dash of Other, because what is more strange or fantastic than the Stuff from Beyond the Fields We Know? —And more: we appropriate our appropriations, cannibalizing the books our books are made of until Fantasyland begins to take on its own dim shape, with folklore and folkways we all agree on that nonetheless have never existed anywhere in the REAL world. Miles and miles of books and not a TRUE or AUTHENTIC moment in any of them, and how proud we are of that!
Because look at the beauty. Look at the power. Look what can be done with these tools. But look at the tools; look where they come from; look at what we’re doing with them, and what we’re doing it to. —That’s where the critical discussion needs to be.
(But it is! cry US and THEM. That’s exactly where we are! Weren’t you paying any attention? And anyway I think I made one too many dick moves myself to be able to take on the mantle of Reasoned Discussion, and also anyway, I haven’t read the goddamn book—)