Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Bye, puppet by Keren David

The New Yorker recently ran an entertaining essay on the pitfalls of British writers trying to write books set in America.  Britishisms (their word, not mine)  invariably creep in, says writer James Ledbetter. He cites the American author Lionel Shriver, who has lived in Britian for many years. In her most recent book, he says, an American character signs off a telephone conversation with her sister by deploying a British term of endearment: 'Bye puppet'

Puppet? Not poppet? British writers reacted with bemusement and amusement. Had the New Yorker (famous for its assiduous fact-checking) got it wrong? No, actually, Shriver had written ‘puppet’. So either she’d picked up a Britishism, put it in the mouth of an American and mangled it in the process, or she’d invented a new endearment. The book is set in the future, so that’s possible.

 But Shriver is quoted as saying: “My publishers think I have become some kind of linguistic moron,”
“In truth, I am one of the better sources for what is and is not British or American usage. However, I do sometimes become uncertain.” 

Well, join the club, Lionel. Anyone writing about, or in the voice of contemporary British teenagers needs to master a blend of Ameri-English formed by years and years of watching Friends. ‘Gotten’ is pretty standard British English usage now, if you’re under a certain age. ‘Do you know what ‘smores’ are,’ I asked my kids, recently, sure they would not know. I hadn’t a clue myself. But they knew they were ‘some sort of dessert with chocolate and biscuits and marshmallows’. They hadn’t eaten them, they’d seen them on TV. And it’s more than vocabulary. For a lot of young adults, the rhythm of their speech, owes more to Ross and Rachel than to Eastenders or Coronation Street.

The New Yorker didn’t turn the tables and ask how American writers get on when they set books in Britain, with British characters. They certainly didn’t mention the YA series which ethnically cleansed Whitechapel in London of its Bengali community, and placed an expensive boarding school there instead.

Lionel Shriver has had much to say recently about readers and reviewers who complain about cultural appropriation, most recently in the Spectator. Broadly speaking she deplores those who argue for more sensitivity towards specific minority groups when they are portrayed in fiction, and believes that writers should not ever feel constrained and unable to imagine their way into anyone’s head. Her characters are, in fact, her puppets and they can be in whatever shape she wants them to be.

I agree with her, I would hate to think that I could not write as  -  say -  a mixed-race boy, as I did in Salvage, and in The Liar’s Handbook.  If I could only write as myself -  Jewish, white, middle-class, middle-aged, British, female – then I’d be very bored, and very boring. That's not what writing fiction is about for me. If I wanted to write memoir, I'd do just that.
Where we differ is that I think that the freedom to write as anyone I want to, comes with some responsibilities. One of those is to try as hard as possible to respect and reflect the world of the people we write about. The other is to point out, loud and clear, the lack of BAME and working class people in publishing, from the management of publishing companies, to prize shortlists, to the authors who get book deals. Unless you acknowledge your own privilege, it’s hard to see how you’d start to imagine the life of someone without it.

And in a world where cultures are amalgamating and blending, where we’re all a little confused about which words belong to whom, where poppets become puppets and the world is full of linguistic morons, then of course minority groups are going to fear their distinctiveness will become lost, and they may feel angry and vulnerable and express this with feeling. I felt a little sad to see poppet turn into puppet. How much worse if your words are those of a minority whose difference is denied, and whose prospects are still narrowed and threatened by prejudice?


Andrew Preston said...

But Friends is so yesterday.

Gina Blaxill said...

Agree about wanting to have the freedom to write as who we want to. I've seen a depressing number of blog posts arguing against that, saying that, for example, a white middle class female author just can't write as, say, a POC teenage boy. That seems to be to be depressing, limiting and will do nothing to increase diversity or representation - of course you need to do your research, and get it write, but surely fiction is all about freedom?

Joanna Nadin said...

Friends is so not yesterday amongst teenagers. Great piece, Keren.

Helen said...

Yep, my teenagers love Friends too. And they say "gotten", though it puts my teeth on edge.

Mary Hoffman said...

I think one of the most annoying US imports, for which Friends is largely responsible, is "Check this out!" but it seems to fit the me, me, me approach of the Selfie - I won't say generation, as I don't want to stigmatise a whole generation - but section of a generation.

Andrew Preston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katherine Langrish said...

Totally agree, Keren!

Anne Booth said...

This is really interesting, and I agree with you!