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Lionel Shriver: ‘This Entire Hoo-Ha’ Illustrates My Point

14 minute read
Hopper is a former Ideas Editor for TIME.

On September 8, Lionel Shriver, the author of novels such as We Need to Talk About Kevin and most recently The Mandibles, gave a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival about cultural appropriation and identity politics. In part, Shriver argued that fear of cultural appropriation can inhibit not just fiction writers seeking to create with empathy characters whose experiences differ from their own, but also members of minorities wishing to be seen as just a person, something other than a broad identity. Many disagreed with Shriver’s remarks—both its content and tone—which have since been widely read online. Festival officials themselves publicly renounced the speech. One woman who walked out on Shriver’s speech, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a mechanical engineer and writer, wrote in an essay initially posted on Medium then by the Guardian that the speech “dripped of racial supremacy.” Various other outlets have also published criticisms, creating a varied conversation about the issues Shriver presented. To continue that discussion, a week after her speech, TIME spoke with Shriver about the response.

There’s been a fair amount of critical response to what you said.

I’m not in on all of it because I don’t participate in Facebook, etcetera. And it doesn’t really break my heart to be left out of it. Honestly, if you submit to the amount of criticism that’s out there every time you say anything, eventually you don’t say anything.

Have you read any of the criticism that’s been published elsewhere online?

Not much of it. I’ve seen bits and pieces of that blog that have been quoted back to me.

By the woman who walked out of your speech. Were there any parts of her criticism that you found valid?


Did her criticism vindicate your point?

I think this entire hoo-ha is an exercise in illustrating my point. If to disagree with someone is to personally injure them in a grievous and unpardonable way, then intellectual discourse is dead. That speech didn’t attack anyone in particular. It attacks an idea. And we have to be able to attack ideas.

In writing the speech, do you feel as if you neglected to have empathy for the side with which you disagree?

I have no empathy with that side. So, yeah. Deliberately. I was putting forth an argument. And I wasn’t even going to go through the rhetorical exercise—which is all it would have been—to feign sympathy with this weak and destructive notion.

But isn’t part of what you were discussing that, when creating a work, you empathize with people who are experiencing different thoughts than your own?

Of course. I’m advocating for empathy. It is part of my occupation. My primary feeling, if you want me to be sympathetic with the other side is that this concept [of cultural appropriation] is not in the interests of the very groups it feigns to defend.

How so?

The whole notion of re-enfencing ourselves into little groups, first off, encourages pigeonholing. It means that we don’t read books about people who are different; we just read books about people who are just like us. And we don’t experience the empathy that you’re recommending to me. And we all the more think of each other in terms of membership of a collective. And I don’t think that’s in the interest of any minority group. Why would they want that? And why do they want us to keep our hands off their culture and therefore ignore them? The exchange of cultural practices and ideas—even costume—is fruitful! It’s in the interest of those groups—for us to be able to exchange our experience.

But while people in minorities may wish not to be pigeonholed, and so maybe agree with you about that, those broad identities are nonetheless still used by people who wish them harm as a means of finding, constricting and even physically attacking them.

Well, there’s nowhere in that speech that wishes any of these minorities harm. And I resent this knee-jerk resort either accusing me directly or implying that I am racist. That’s a cheap brush to tar anyone with in these days. It’s also a serious charge, and it tends to stick. Just because someone’s called you a racist, then you become one [in the public eye].

But part of the fear is that fiction at its worst is caricature—

Of bad fiction.

Yes, however, fiction at its most dangerous is perhaps caricature rendered so well that those reading it or even writing it don’t realize that it’s in fact caricature, and therefore it has the same effect without people questioning it.

You’re still talking about secretly bad fiction, and you’re saying that the audience is too stupid to pick up that this character is a caricature. I just don’t believe that. I don’t believe in secretly bad fiction. But we have to give each other the permission to write bad fiction. Most fiction is not as good as it would like to be. I would certainly say that of my own work. That’s just the nature of the animal. And if you hold yourself to a standard that says, Well you can only write about these protected groups if it’s perfect, then you’ll never do it, if you have any understanding of your art.

But in modern society, you can have this good intention of empathy and come up short but another member of the majority could nonetheless affirm it, and so while members of the majority make a living affirming it, members of the minority remain voiceless.

Why are the people in the minority voiceless?

The thought is: By majority members being able to write about these other cultures, the space for minority members writing about their own experiences in fiction are being [pushed out]—

Well that’s just not the nature of publishing. There’s nothing stopping people from telling their own stories. And that’s switching the issue around. First of all: It’s not a zero-sum game. There’s not a law that says, There are only a hundred books a year that are going to be published, and we’re going to publish white people first, and—oops!—we ran out of slots, we’re not going to publish you because you’re from the wrong group. It doesn’t work that way. There are all kinds of publishers.

The issue is not whether people from minority groups should be able to tell their own stories. That’s great. If people are inclined toward writing literature and happen to be coming from a group whose experience seems to be underrepresented in literature, go to town. Hit the word processor. But that’s not really up for grabs. What’s up for grabs is whether I am allowed to have black characters in my fiction. Would Johnny Got His Gun be acceptable today because the author was not actually disabled? That’s the question. And do we really want writers to constrain the cast of their characters to all white, when that’s not representative of the real world? And yet if you do that, you get criticized for it. So you can’t win. So which is going to be?

Part of the critique made by the woman who walked out of your speech is that by making someone else’s experience a tool for your own end, you’re making them less human.

That’s ridiculous. All characters in fiction are, you could call them, tools to an end. The end being whatever effect you want to make with your book. So all your characters are being used for something. But you make them up, and they’re your characters, and they belong to you.

And you could use yourself as a tool.

You use yourself. Of course. All the time.

At the end of your speech, you expressed that you hate the idea of having to write about only you. Is there then an underlying dissatisfaction with yourself that makes you want to inhabit other people?

No, it’s not dissatisfaction. It’s more a claustrophobia. And I think most good fiction writers and readers feel the same thing. That one of the great reliefs of sitting down with a novel is to inhabit someone else’s mind and someone else’s life and someone else’s experience. To get out of the prison of your own head. And to a degree, that’s an illusion. But it’s a profitable illusion.

Can I just say: I am dumbfounded at the reaction to that speech, the point of which I found self-evident and downright anodyne. And I find the aftermath very discouraging. The upside, however, has been that I’ve had an outpouring of solidarity from other writers. And that affirms my view that this is an important right to continue to carve out for fictions writers. But I find the concept of cultural appropriation so dubious that I am distressed that we have had such an extensive conversation about it.

But do you think that is a result of you being a person in the majority? And that you haven’t necessarily felt the sort of lingering effects of colonialism—of what cultural appropriation in the longer view is part of?

I feel certain there are plenty of writers who are from various minorities who would still agree with me. And after all, do we want to say that they can’t use white characters? I don’t see why this cultural appropriation thing only one way. Can’t we say, Oh, you can’t use English because that’s not your first language—English belongs to us, so you can’t have it?

Well, the difference is about power.

Oh, this is definitely about power. But a lot of this is about the performance of injury rather than the injury itself. And that is an assertion of power: We can shut you up.

But it’s an assertion of power by people who aren’t naturally given power by the rest of society.

But as I’ve tried to elucidate, I do not believe that in the big picture, it is in the interests of minority groups to pursue this ideology. It’s short-sighted.

Do you feel at all as if you’ve been miscast? Even just as a woman in a culture that still undervalues women’s voices.

Well, I think that it’s not fair to assume that I have never experienced any form of discrimination. Any Western woman who is 59 years old has certainly in her lifetime experienced plenty of discrimination. And obviously I don’t like it. But for example, I have not chosen to dedicate my life to defending women. Plenty of people have, and I’ve benefited from their efforts. And I’m grateful. But one of the things that I’m pleased about is that, other people having broken down barriers for me and before me, I am not obliged to dedicate my whole life to feminism. I am a feminist along the way, but it is not my primary purpose. And that’s a relief to me. And it seems to me that when you’re a member of any of these minority groups that we’re talking about, the ultimate endpoint should be release from these groups so that that identity does not define you, that you are seen as a person and not defined by membership of this so-called community. One of my big problems with identity politics is that I reject their idea of identity. I think that they’re embracing a prison. And I want everyone to get out. And certainly relating to my being a woman, my ambition has always been to get out.

If an actual representation of a person doesn’t exist—or isn’t read by the writer—then what is the author empathizing with when creating a character unlike them? Is it stereotypes? Or are they crafting from a different place?

It depends on the author. You draw on lots of different kinds of experience to write characters. And I don’t tend to draft my characters in accordance with particular real people—or I do so rarely—and so I use scraps from everywhere. Which is what we all do [even those who are not authors]: We construct a version of the world. Which if we’re aware, we’re constantly revising. And that version of the world and what people are like is influenced by what we read, conversations we have with each other, what we see on TV and what we observe walking down the street. And I’m not any different from anyone else. So at my best, I’m always listening and adding bits and pieces to the mix. Fiction writers are not in some arty category. We’re just doing the same thing that everybody else does. We just write it down.

To your mind, are there instances of harmful ethnic stereotyping in fiction? And can an author, therefore, be wrong when creating a fictional character?

You can certainly write a character badly, so the character is flat or is supposed to be a representative of some minority but doesn’t go beyond that. That to me, is doing a bad job. Oh, you have a black character. It’s what I addressed in the speech: Television went through a period, and still is doing it to some extent, compulsively putting in gay characters in a very tokenistic spirit—which I thought at least heralded the success of the gay rights movement, which I thought was good, but it got a little formulaic after a while. But if you look at Modern Family, those characters are not just gay. They’re characters. So that’s doing it well. But just because sometimes people do it badly and use stereotypical characters it doesn’t mean that we should prohibit them from trying. And I’m saying, Okay, well let’s give people credit for trying—even when they fall on their face. They are trying to address a larger world full of people not like them.

You feel people should try to escape identities. But nonetheless, society can force those identities on even people who want to escape them. Therefore identities are part of their human experience. It seems you agree that that happens. Does that mean in order to create a character from a minority, a writer has to include how society forces those identities to affect the character’s experience of the world—at least if the author is striving for realism?

If you’re saying that if you write a character from a minority group who may well have experienced discrimination from others and you put that into the mix of your character, yeah that probably increases their persuasiveness. But I certainly don’t want to say that there’s some rule that, If you use a character who is from X group, you have to include—absolutely—this experience. Fiction thrives when it does not acknowledge any rules. And some of the best books out there have broken rules that we thought were hard and fast about narrative, and it turns out, no, you don’t have to obey that rule. And so: I don’t want any rules. And if I write something that doesn’t work for them, there are going to be plenty of people who tell me.

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