Quote for the Day

Saladin Ahmed:

I wish writers — white, Black, Arab, etc. — would just say “I have X personal experience with this place/culture, have done Y amount of research, and have tried my best. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is SOME SHIT I MADE UP.” There are lots of things in our writing we can take a deep stake in — but ‘authenticity’ is probably the least productive one.

More to the point, I wish reviewers/critics would stop using this as a criterion. 90% of critical/readerly praise for authenticity amounts to either “this guy imagines this culture in a manner which agrees with my imagining of this culture,” or “I didn’t know anything about Malaysian street culture, but now I do!”


14 thoughts on “Quote for the Day

  1. My take on authenticity is: This author has convinced me that his description of this culture is real. Even if it isn’t. Even if the culture is entirely made up, I can suspend disbelief and accept it as if it were real.

  2. Right, but I think Ahmed’s point (based on the whole of his comment) is, and I think I tend to agree — that’s not a good use of “authentic”, as a word. Or at least, if you (unspecified general you-reviewer, not specifically you-Lois) write that something “feels authentic”, you should make it clear that the emphasis is clearly on the feels rather than the authentic.

  3. Authenticity is frequently just a way for people to try and clear people off what they think is their patch : ‘Oh you shouldn’t write about Brazil because you’re not from there. I’m from Brazil and only I should be allowed to write about it!’

    Personally, I am not wedded to the need for authenticity. Originality and insight are far more important in the depiction of a place, time or people than some weird artistic essentialism. The author is, after all, supposed to be dead.

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use authenticity in that way, to be honest. Far more common is a sort of fretting about whether or not something is authentic, and whether or not the person reading it can “trust” it, or is getting the “right” ideas from it. As the scare quotes should suggest, part of me would love to live in your postmodern paradise, where we all know that we don’t read River of Gods to find out about India, we read it to find out about Ian McDonald’s vision of India, and can praise or criticise that without necessarily attaching any emotional or moral judgement. But that, unfortunately, is not the real world and not likely to be the real world any time soon; the author may be dead, but their words can still cause harm, and criticism somehow needs to accomodate that fact at the same time as recognising that authenticity is, as Ahmed puts it, a constantly receding horizon. Not an easy needle to thread, I fear.

  5. I remember during Racefail that argument did get pitched about a bit but then that was a time when a lot of people were reaching for sticks with which to beat other people…

    Authenticity has only really been an issue for me once I think and that was in a Christopher Fowler short story that appeared in Black Static a little while ago. It was set in post-Hurricane New Orleans and it was just pure cliche. You could have spread it on a bagel and dumped smoked salmon on it it was so cheesy…

  6. If I could be sure the name Abdel Jameela in Saladin’s Ahmed’s story ‘Hooves and Hovel of Abdel Jameela’ was a joke, I’d take his comment more seriously.

  7. As I understand Ahmed’s point, it is that we shouldn’t be using the term at all.

  8. We shouldn’t be using it as we often are using it at the moment. That is, what you say you mean when you say “authentic” doesn’t actually have anything to do with authenticity, so it would be better to say it in a different way — to make it clear that what you mean is I can suspend disbelief and accept it as if it were real. Purely from a precision-of-language perspective, leaving aside any political considerations, I agree with that. And if you then want to get into discussion of why it feels real, and what that means for the perceived authenticity of the work, well, that’s a different kettle of fish…

    Ian: explain?

  9. Not to confuse the issue, but “authenticity” can be mean different things. Jim Jarmusch famously said, “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.” He probably wasn’t talking about the depth of one’s research.

  10. No, you’re quite right to mention that; I do think the issue is more care when using the word, and clarity about what is being meant by it, rather than never using it.

    I do have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of a world made from whole clotch (insofar as that’s possible, etc etc) as “authentic”, because I do think the word implies that a judgement is being made against some reference point. (I suppose you could compare later to earlier stories in a made-up setting, and say that they either do or don’t feel “authentically” part of the established universe.)

  11. “I do have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of a world made from whole clotch (insofar as that’s possible, etc etc) as “authentic””

    I can envision an argument being made from an anthropological perspective.

  12. I suppose, but (assuming I’m correctly understanding what you mean by “from an anthropological perspective”) I think I’d lean towards something like “plausible” if I wanted to say that.

  13. After the meta-analysis of Weingard’s article about Jewish authors in fantasy and the imminent release of The Clash of the Titans remake (which promises to be a worse chariot wreck than the original, if that is possible), I wrote about this topic, as seen through the double vision of a cultural half-breed:

    Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

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