How Cancel Culture Corrupts Fiction

Advocates of identity politics in Australia want to control film, publishing houses and literary competitions, and force them to conform to politically correct precepts.

I studied Marxist philosophy at Flinders University in the 1970s. It’s unusual that any writing of mine would appear in Quadrant, as my writings have been trenchant attacks on the pernicious and alienating aspects of modern capitalism and workplace slavery.

Yet the continuing attacks on the core tenets of the Enlightenment (liberty and artistic freedom) by a radical salon of postmodern “multiculturalists” or “cancel culture” devotees, means the economic Left must join with the liberal Right to preserve free expression in the arts.

In May, Verity La, one of New South Wales’s highly regarded small publishers of poetry and fiction, published a piece of creative non-fiction called “About Lin”. The story was about a white Australian male who travels abroad to sexually exploit a Filipina woman. The writer was Stuart Cooke, whose awards include the Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Porter and New Shoots poetry prizes, the BR Whiting Fellowship, and an Asialink Fellowship to the Philippines.

Cooke’s story outraged elements of the Filipino community, who called it narrow-minded, racist, misogynist, fetishistic and more. Verity La took the story down and issued this extraordinary apology:

We accept that we have caused harm. We failed badly. As of now Verity La is taking a break from publishing so we can reflect on the ways in which the journal has been complicit with systemic racism, sexism and disablism … We can do better. We will do better.

The awful, almost begging, fearful tone of the apology has a historical antecedent in the trials by ordeal of the Spanish Inquisition.

Cooke had written in the preface of “About Lin”:

all white men—particularly those who are able to travel to countries like the Philippines—are participants in and perpetrators of patriarchal and colonial power … there can be no innocent, white male narrator, and from this it follows that the behaviour of white, male narrators, however confronting, must be carefully scrutinised … I believe that it’s important to talk about these issues, rather than edit them for the sake of portraying a more palatable form of masculinity.

Cooke was scrutinised all right, but the last thing the harpies of political correctness want to do is “talk about these issues”. They went for his jugular with a keyboard and now Verity La has stopped publishing.

In 2018, the Saturday Paper, which awards the $15,000 Horne Prize for the best essay on Australian life, changed its submission rules. It would not:

accept essays by non-indigenous writers about the experiences of First Nations Australians, essays about the LGBTQI community written by non-LGBTQI people or any other writing that purports to represent the experiences of any minority community of which the writer is not a member.

In protest, the journalist David Marr and novelist Anna Funder withdrew as judges, and the new rules were ditched. Marr wrote in the Guardian, “Men can write about women, gays about straights, blacks about whites. You judge, as always, by quality.”

Many literary publications are now judged almost solely on political content. But it goes further than that. You can’t write about indigenous issues unless you are indigenous. You can’t write about LGBTQI issues unless you are a member of or identify with that community. I had an issue with this as a short story writer, which I will discuss later.

Recently the actress and film director Eliza Scanlen apologised after a racism outcry at the Sydney Film Festival in June when her first award-winning short film, Mukbang, was shown.

Mukbang is a drama about a schoolgirl getting caught up in the trend of binge-eating in South Korea. The writer and actress Michelle Law attacked the film for being “profoundly problematic in the way it appropriates Korean culture in order for a white girl to find herself”. Fat Salmon Productions, who made the film, issued an obsequious apology and said:

we’re ashamed to have overlooked the issues with the film and it just proves how insidious, persistent and deeply embedded systemic racism is in Australia and in us as white Australians.

The film-makers re-edited the film and released it on a streaming platform. But that wasn’t good enough for Ms Law: “This incredible hustle would’ve been a tremendous amount of work for the filmmakers and the staff within Sydney Film Festival to pull off … and all to sweep under the rug their racism.”

Even if a retraction is made or the film is re-edited, the parties are still guilty. In Stalin’s show trials of the late 1930s, there was no leniency if you admitted your guilt. You were still shot.

In 2017, the American book review magazine Kirkus Reviews removed a star (signifying an exceptional work) from Laura Moriarty’s teen fiction novel American Heart. The story is set in an American dystopian future, where a fifteen-year-old girl helps another girl to escape from a Muslim detention camp. Kirkus said it removed the star and rewrote the review because American Heart was a “white saviour narrative”, where a person of colour relied on a white person for rescue.

In the last five years, some youth fiction publishers have hired “sensitivity readers”, to assess whether stories might offend minority groups. George Orwell would have enjoyed the term “sensitivity readers”, but as a journalist, he would have called them by their correct name—censors. Under these dictates, books such as Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and even Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, with a female narrator—and thousands more—would never have been published.

Publishing companies, literary agencies and competitions have long flown the flag for freedom of speech. Now, it’s at half-mast.

Earlier this year, the Hachette Book Group in the US cancelled the publication of Woody Allen’s upcoming memoir, Apropos of Nothing. The move came after a staff walkout at the publisher’s offices in New York and Boston. In 1992, Allen was accused of sexually assaulting his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, but he has never been convicted. Vanessa Mobley, an executive editor at Little, Brown, one of Hachette’s prestigious imprints, wrote, “We stand with … Dylan Farrow and survivors of sexual assault.”

Such absolutes are the stuff of a new morality. Its goals are to censor or cancel voices that in the minds of an indoctrinated clique are sexist, racist, homophobic or just plain disagreeable.

In June this year, the BBC sought to remove the famous “Germans” episode of Fawlty Towers from its platform. The offending scene was where the Major (played by Ballard Berkeley) uses the N-word three times while regaling hotel manager Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) with a story about taking a woman to see a Test match featuring India. Cleese has questioned the wisdom of trying to make past cultural artefacts—Fawlty Towers was first broadcast in 1975—conform to contemporary moral standards:

Sir Isaac Newton had shares in the South Sea Company, which indulged in many different types of trading, and some of it, disgracefully, was slavery. So are we going to get rid of Newton’s optics on the grounds that it’s not really sound any more because he held shares in a company that dealt in slaves?

Cancel culture has plenty of historical antecedents but I will mention only two. During the French Revolution, as the guillotine went into overdrive and fear of being called a counter-revolutionary stalked the streets, there arose from the First Republic the Cult of Reason. The revolutionaries believed reason alone, in the hunt for truth and liberty, should replace the Catholic Church. Robespierre proscribed the Cult of Reason and replaced it with the Cult of the Supreme Being in 1793. He thought people needed something to worship, and that was to be civic-minded, public virtue, which he thought essential to the new republic. The cult and Robespierre didn’t last long. He went to the guillotine on July 28, 1794.

Some people argue that censorship is good for writers because it challenges their imagination. Salman Rushdie wrote that this was like cutting a man’s arms off and then praising him for learning to write with a pen held between his teeth.

Paradoxically, those who subject fiction to rigid ideological purity tests have more in common with the doctrinaire Chinese Red Guards of the 1960s, who ruthlessly stamped out progressive thinking. Works such as Clockwork Orange, Lolita and Tropic of Cancer live in fear of censorship. These famous novels are extraordinary explorations of the darker corners of human experience.

I write short stories and I’ve had some minor success with publication. I can often place a story by creating a morality tale—for example, a refugee Iraqi doctor who saves a mother and baby in a breach birth in an outback town, winning the respect of the redneck locals. Yet most of my stories have ambiguous moral endings. “The Ivory Hunters” was about Kenyan park rangers lying in the jungle, waiting to ambush a group of teenage Somali ivory poachers. The story is told by the head ranger. He is a black man with a young family. He is worried because his fellow rangers are frightened and poorly trained. The poachers walk along a moonlit path and just before the rangers shoot, a baby elephant walks into their line of fire. The poachers laugh, drop their weapons, pat the elephant and shoo it off the path.

Things don’t go well for the poachers and things have not gone well for me in my attempts to publish the story. A literary judge in the UK said she liked the story but as I’m white and Anglo-Celtic, I had no right to create a black man’s reality, because I had no direct experience of it. I was guilty of “cultural appropriation”.

The novelist Lionel Shriver said recently that if writers only portray white, straight characters, their work will be attacked for a lack of diversity. Yet if they include characters from “protected” minority groups, they may be labelled disrespectful. You can’t win.

Some years ago, I was the head of the largest suite of creative and professional writing programs in Australia. It was a good program but there were problems. Students would often critique their fellow writers’ work based on PC values, rather than on improving the quality of the writing. It wasn’t only the students either. One screenwriting lecturer complained when a Bosnian student submitted a screenplay with a graphic rape scene by Serbian soldiers. The student told me the scene wasn’t fiction.

The other problem was that many students didn’t read. They were impatient to get their works published, so they created a “Year Zero”, ignoring the works of the most innovative writers of the last hundred years, or lambasting them as Dead White Males or politically naive females. How were they ever going to become writers if they didn’t read?

The clarion call for more ethnic and cultural diversity in publication would gain more traction if those writers could also produce works of saleable quality, such as Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria.

Universities encourage students to view literature through the prism of unequal power dynamics (such as “white saviour narratives”) and to scrounge for evidence of racism, colonialism and sexism. In doing so, the multicultural Left has forsaken the plight of the working poor and unemployed, while allowing people to work for ten dollars an hour across split shifts in insecure jobs.

Fiction overturns assumptions, mocks narrow-minded ideologues and disrespects sacred cows. It is under no obligation to reflect reality, pursue social justice or push laudable political agendas. The geography of the imagination is inviolate, unbounded and available to all.

Malcolm King is an Australian writer.


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