A metaphor of cultural appropriation for SFF writers.

You know when a mainstream book goes really big, and it’s something that uses SF tropes. Like, for instance, if someone writes a books with vampires and then acts as though urban fantasy doesn’t exist. Her fans read it. They say, “OMG! These vampires that she’s invented are the best thing ever!”

And then they run across Dracula and are all, “Hey– this Stoker guy is totally ripping off vampires. And they don’t even sparkle.”

Or, say that there’s someone writing dystopian SF, who then says, “I don’t write science fiction” or disparages it as “”talking squids in outer space.” Then goes on to get all the interviews and the awards and completely eclipses the people in the SFF community who are writing dystopian SF.

And your head explodes with fury and outrage?

That’s your culture.

Now extend the metaphor and imagine that your culture has been systematically oppressed for centuries. That gives you the general idea what cultural appropriation is.


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13 thoughts on “A metaphor of cultural appropriation for SFF writers.”

  1. Quick question, how can a writer address using other cultures in their writing without coming off on the wrong side? Curious if there are resources people use, or guidelines you yourself use? Thanks!

    1. This is another metaphor, and it’s imperfect but…

      Think of it like plagiarism. If it’s not very well known, and you use it without citing sources (acknowledgments & author notes) then that sucks. If it’s “fair use, or part of popular awareness so everyone knows about it, then you are probably okay. Although be aware that some things you think are fair use, aren’t. Like saying “I need to xerox this.” Everyone does it, but it’s a brand name that’s been co-opted by popular lexicon. And then there’s a big, fuzzy, grey area in the middle.

      When in doubt, do the same thing you’d do to avoid plagiarism. Research the context, check with a primary source, and know that you might have to decide not to do something.

      It’s an imperfect metaphor, because with plagiarism, there’s a single creator who can give you a definitive answer if you ask for permission. When you are looking at a culture, everyone in that culture will have a different reaction. There is no seal of approval.

  2. Although this isn’t a mainstream example, I once described Anne McCaffrey’s dragons/dragonriders and a family member said that it sounded like a ripoff of Eragon.

    But more on point, yes, having studied marginalization of “other” cultures and global design, this is really powerful.

  3. When did Stephenie Meyer act like vampires didn’t exist? Her fans might have, but every interview I’ve ever seen with her she just said it was her take on them.

  4. I thought you were talking a load of old twaddle until I read the below link, because who hasn’t heard of Dracula!? Wow. That’s incredible. I’m hoping the writer was very young or something.

  5. Are we talking the twihard comment or something else? Because i find myself in need of an example if we are talking about something else.

  6. Chuck Shingledecker

    Wow! Very well put. I believe I will be using this example/metaphor in the future.

  7. When I was in art school I noticed a high degree of snobbery toward “crafts”. “Art” was an “elite calling” while “crafts” were decorative traditions that “anyone” could do. (Sometimes divided into “High Art” and “Low Art”)

    An interesting thing is when, in art history we got to the “Arts & Crafts Movement” which started as an appreciation of craftsmanship, and became “Artistic Elite” could turn “craft works” into “High Art”.

    So Shaker chairs are popular (low art), but a Frank Lloyd Wright chair is “High Art”. “Simple Gifts” is folksong/spiritual (low art) but “Appalachian Spring” is a Orchestral Suite (“High Art”).

    So it seems to me that some mainstream authors (Cough*MargaretAtwood*Cough) are claiming to be an “Artistic Elite” who can take the tropes of SF (which they see as popular/low art) and turn it into “High Art”

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