Anthony Horowitz vs the culture cops
It’s been eight months since the American novelist Lionel Shriver whipped up a storm at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia, when she donned a sombrero and denounced the identity politics movement against ‘cultural appropriation’. Back then, Shriver hoped the obsession with cultural appropriation would just be ‘a passing fad’.
How wrong she was. If anything, this censorious movement is on a roll right now. Just this week, the Mail On Sunday reported that bestselling children’s author Anthony Horowitz was ‘upset and disturbed’ to be told by his editor that it was wrong for him to create black characters.
Horowitz is famous for his Alex Rider spy novels. For a new series of books and films, he wanted to create a leading black character. He was rebuffed, and now, he says, he’s having ‘second thoughts’. If a globally renowned writer can be so fearful of writing about the lives of others, just because those lives lay beyond his own experience, then the future of literary and artistic culture is truly at threat.
The current fashion for ‘calling-out’ people (namely, white people) for cultural appropriation inevitably has a stifling effect on cultural and literary production. But it is also likely to have a detrimental effect on the very people cultural purists claim to be defending – black and minority ethnic people. Indeed, in the past, if white artists hadn’t reached across the divide, many black artists and cultures wouldn’t have reached the mainstream. What’s more, just as white people are being encouraged to stick to their own culture, so too will BME people have their imaginations limited by this racialised climate. Culturally, we’ll all be much poorer.
The author and radio presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied famously stomped out of Shriver’s Brisbane speech. She later wrote in the Guardian that white people writing about the lives of BME people was merely ‘a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others’. This is nonsense. The truth is, regardless of your background or present circumstances, human beings have a unique ability to look beyond their immediate experiences. Indeed, this forms the basis for not only cultural exchange, but solidarity. And solidarity is the premise on which we can build a better world for us all.
Courtney Hamilton is a writer based in London.