Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Tale or the Teller?

An aspect of the obsession with an author's credentials (about which I have been complaining) is given articulate expression in today's Observer in an article by Sarfraz Manzoor: Why do Asian Writers Have to Be 'Authentic' to Succeed? Manzoor notes that writers of 'Asian' novels are expected to be the voice of an erstwhile hidden community and that while they are thought to be so their novels are lauded, but that once they are 'exposed' as being not quite of that community themselves - ie mixed race, middle class or Cambridge educated - they can expect a critical slamming.

What is all this about an author's 'authenticity'? Have we forgotten that art is an act of imagination and empathy, that the further away an author is from that which he/she successfully evokes, the greater his/her achievement, both artistically and politically in a world of communities badly in need of bridging? Nowadays this prejudice is linked with the cult of personality which is grounded in the commercial impulse, but it has its roots in the political correctness of the 1980s. Manzoor makes the case that nowadays a white author (as opposed to an 'inauthentic' Asian author) is lauded for empathising with the Asian experience. Back in the eighties, however, a white English vicar empathised enough with a young Asian girl to get a novel about one published by a feminist publisher, only to have it pulped when the publishers discovered there was man behind the pen-name. A similar thing happened when a story about the pain a man can cause a woman, published in a feminist anthology, was discovered to be by the writer John Ashbrook, only that time it was a woman who got it in the neck: his partner, our own Manchester-based one-time novelist and now playwright Elizabeth Baines, who was suddenly 'exposed' by association as an 'inauthentic' feminist writer and quickly dropped by her feminist publishers.

Interesting that such Stalinist-style insistence on personal authenticity and lack of faith in the words on the page should have elided in the intervening years with the trashy commercialist
cult of the Glamorous Author.
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