Two weeks ago, the Canadian literary scene got quite the shaking-up. (If you somehow missed this, start here and just keep clicking on links.) My students are wondering about it, talking about it, trying to solve this problem so it doesn’t inhibit creativity and multiculturalism but still considers people’s feelings when it comes to theft.
I have also been reading about this. As a fiction writer, I don’t want to inadvertently stomp on someone’s cultural heart. It’s not in anyone’s interest that I remain ignorant. I also believe it’s my personal responsibility–not an editor’s–to make sure that I don’t cross the line.
I think I’ve come up with an idea. It came to me while reading Robert Jago‘s On Cultural Appropriate, Canadian’s Are Hypocrites. He uses Harry and the Hendersons as an example of how cultural stories get taken out of context and badly used. I’ve never seen Harry and the Hendersons. Even when my kids we small and we were watching some rather terrible movies, we didn’t sink that low. Why not? Because it’s clearly crap. I don’t want to waste hours of my life deliberately partaking of total crap. There’s enough of that I can’t avoid.
So, how do I avoid total crap? There are certain filters or lenses one might use to determine crap levels. Part of it’s personal perspective; another part is something I picked up during my brief foray into academia. When writing non-fiction, there are certain standards for fact-checking and attribution to which one must adhere. One will not be taken seriously if one writes an academic paper that has no citations or uses “I once heard” as a resource. Primary sources are required; lack of citation is plagiarism.
I think I’ll apply the same criteria to my fiction.
- If I haven’t used primary sources wherever possible, I can’t publish that story. (I, myself, count as a primary source, but I have to be ready to back that up with some sort of evidence.)
- If I haven’t been able to come up with a minimum of three primary sources, I can’t publish that story.
- If I’ve used something without permission, I can’t publish that story.
- Anything that I’ve “made up” is to be clearly made up, not thieved. (I’m thinking about monsters and space aliens here.)
- If I use someone else’s idea/tradition/culture and make money off it, a good chunk of that money (50%?) should go to a charity that supports said someone. My primary sources will be able to guide me to appropriate charities.
Fiction writers are still working with the making-up-stories-by-the-fire approach. Whatever one heard was fair game for pre-radio-era entertainment. Sometimes it was possible to trace the origin of the story; other times, it would be beyond the story-teller’s means/ability to do such a thing. Back then, there was some reason to just “borrowing” a story.
That’s not the state of things now. I have several libraries at my disposal, Google on all my electronic devices, and access to every country/culture on Earth through social media. I have no excuse for not getting a) the accurate story and b) permission from the appropriate people.
Not, of course, that this will save me from crap writing. What it might do is save my (few) readers from crap writing, and then the only thing they have to worry about is their personal opinion of my writing–including semi-colons.