Portrait by John Springs

Canary in the cultural coalmine

Robin Ashenden talks to the prescient Lionel Shriver about cancel culture

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It is five years since the 2003 Orange-prize winning novelist, Lionel Shriver, delivered a speech at the Brisbane Literary Festival in which she argued against the concept of “cultural appropriation”, an expression that in 2016 was only beginning to percolate through to the public. Popstars had been “called out” for putting on Native American headdresses, adopting cornrow hairstyles, or wearing Geisha kit in their videos. In 2015, the University of East Anglia’s student union had banned sombreros from a Freshers’ Fair, claiming that they were “discriminatory or stereotypical imagery” and “culturally indifferent”. So far, so Monty Python. But what would it mean for literature? 

It was clear from Shriver’s speech that she’d given the matter some thought. Her talk that day was a passionate defence of the writer’s need for creativity without boundaries, the right to invent any characters they wished — whatever the gender, sexuality or colour. Otherwise she would be reduced, she said, to writing only “from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina, closing on sixty, able-bodied but with bad knees…” 

Attempts “to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail,” she admitted. “Most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying.” In closing, she concluded that writers needed to wear “many literary hats”, and jokingly, perhaps rashly, put on that bugbear of the UEA student-commissars, a sombrero. The backlash was immediate but intense, and the response of her attackers as telling as that of her literary colleagues back home. On the anniversary of her Brisbane speech I asked her for her memories of the event and where, half a decade later, we’ve found ourselves. 

What made you feel such a speech was not only timely but necessary? 

¶ Now that the concept has grown so dishearteningly ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget that “cultural appropriation” was not a well-known concept in 2016, and I had to research online what it meant. The term is one of those brilliant coinages that assumes the conclusion; “appropriation” is by definition a kind of stealing, so to use the expression is to lose the argument from the off. Five years ago, this new taboo had largely affected the fashion and music industries … But it was clear to me that if the taboo were to take hold in fiction, the consequences would be catastrophic. I take no pleasure in my prescience.

You said in Brisbane that the limitations that the movement threatened to place on writers represented “a contraction of my fictional universe that is not good for the books, and not good for my soul”. Why the second? 

“Projecting yourself into the minds of characters very different from yourself requires nerve”

¶ Fiction is driven by twin desires to burrow inwards and understand the self, and to explore outwards and understand the rest of the world. Although my novels pursue both ends, they’ve increasingly focused more on the rest of the world. Projecting yourself into the minds and feelings of characters very different from yourself requires nerve, of course, but also an unselfconscious joy in experimentation and risk-taking. Writers these days imagine there is a “right” way to get into the heads of characters of, say, another race. There isn’t. You can get away with just about anything on paper if you do it with enough brio and conviction.

Shriver at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival

That openness to adventure isn’t purely a literary matter. The current cultural environment is making us all look frantically for our own “safe space”, where the lunatics will leave us alone. Desperation for safety doesn’t bring out the best in people. It brings out cowardice, suspicion, paranoia, excess caution, and an inclination to stay home and shelter in place. Look at Covid.

What was the immediate response to your speech? 

¶ The Brisbane festival administrators hardly covered themselves in glory. They lied to the press that I’d no permission to speak on this topic, when I had cleared the topic with them months ahead of time and have the emails to prove it. The festival organized a rowdy “right of reply” event full of folks who’d never heard or read the speech immediately across the hall from my solo event for my new novel. Lovely. 

The one woman [Australian journalist Yassmin Abdel-Magied] who walked out on my talk has dined out on the gesture ever since. But I suspect, hilariously, the biggest beneficiary of the international hoo-ha that surrounded that speech was yours truly. It jacked up my name-recognition like nobody’s business.

What would you say are your detractors’ main objections to you? 

¶ I suspect my most egregious transgressions are those of tone. I am direct. I don’t hedge my points. I don’t preface my statements with a lot of “of course slavery was terrible” stuff, which is a waste of time, and I don’t qualify my positions. Multiple other authors have claimed that they can be “culturally appropriate” because they’re so respectful and they do so much humble homework, but other writers aren’t likely to be so magnificently sensitive, so those people shouldn’t put their sticky fingers on another culture’s sacred stuff.

“The current cultural environment is making us all look frantically for our own safe space”

I think this whole fake taboo is patently absurd, and all writers, no matter how talentless, careless, or crass, have a moral right to make up whatever characters they want. That kind of unabridged assertion drives the opposition insane. The other thing that drives them nuts is a sense of humour. I make jokes. Being droll about subjects that are meant to be deadly serious shoves an electric cattle prod right up the wokester ass. Of course, in my detractors’ terms I am a racist, ableist, white-supremacist, colonialist, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, hate-speech-spewing Islamophobe. Yawn.

Did you expect more support than you got from other writers? 

¶ Of course I did. But the vast majority of my literary colleagues regard themselves as broadly left-wing, so they appease the left’s maniacal fringe in order to maintain their progressive credentials. In their defence, many writers just want to get on with their work. They don’t want to draw untoward attention to themselves if that attention is not in the interest of promoting their books. They certainly don’t want to court a reputation that might make them unpublishable. I’m sympathetic. 

I’ve also heard from some writers who’ve shared privately that sure, they’re in my corner, but they’re white and they’re male, and they’re convinced that sticking their necks out would only get their heads chopped off. Yet the number of my colleagues who publicly stood by me I could count on one hand with fingers to spare. Thank you, Philip Hensher.

A couple of years later, there was a similar reaction to your piece in the Spectator about Penguin Random House, and their stated intention to publish writers on a quota-basis by 2025, “taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability”. Can you outline your objections to this policy? 

¶ To recap, Penguin Random House announced that they were aiming to statistically reflect the demography of the UK, along all those lines you noted, in both the list of authors they publish and their staff. Oh, and they also planned to drop any educational requirements for new hires — which I noted was either an indictment of the house itself or of the quality of British education.

I have opposed what Americans call affirmative action since I was sixteen and it first came into fashion in the US. I especially oppose arithmetic quotas, which are destructive even for the people they’re designed to help. Does a Pakistani writer want to have a book accepted merely because the catalogue needs one more South Asian? I don’t think so.

I observed that the purpose of a publishing company is to produce books that people want to buy. Which you would think would be obvious, but no longer. We now regard “diversity” as an end in itself. But a publishing company that merely sits around being diverse is not doing its job. I know this is no longer a popular value to promote, but I am less interested in goodness and fairness than I am in excellence — excellence exhibited by anyone.

Across the board, especially in the post-Floydian universe, institutions are forgetting what they’re for. The National Trust is supposed to preserve Britain’s architectural heritage, not to lecture people on the evils of slavery. Corporations are supposed to produce their widgets, not reflect the demography of the United Kingdom. Diversity is a by-product, however desirable. Diversity alone is not the primary purpose of any institution I know of. 

And since then, has the situation improved at all for writers?

“Being droll about serious subjects shoves an electric cattle prod right up the wokester ass”

¶ I’m afraid we’d all agree that publishing has only got worse, and the orthodoxy to which the industry so doggedly adheres has only got more stringent … Younger staff are now convinced that they have to approve of the content of any book they’re asked to work on, or even any book that a company releases. In the US, expressly conservative imprints are springing up, which is a reaction to the new ideological homogeneity of mainstream presses. The funny thing is that there’s money in anti-wokery. It plays to the opinions of the vast majority of ordinary people.

Recalling a very religious upbringing you once quoted from your childhood diary: “if belonging to Our Family means believing in an accepted doctrine, then I want no part of it. That is totalitarianism.” How much have such early experiences informed your later resistance to the new “accepted doctrine”? 

¶ Hugely, and congratulations for having connected the dots. I powerfully rebelled against being told what to believe, and fiercely resented being forced to publicly profess what I didn’t believe, when I was as young as eight. I’m a natural apostate. And as John McWhorter observed some time ago, we’re dealing here with a theology.

My reliance on opposition is both a strength and a weakness of my character. I am far better at declaring what I don’t believe than what I do — at running away rather than towards. I thrive on forces to react against, and in this sense I am if anything too suited to the present cultural moment. I don’t relish personal conflict in my private life, but I do relish ideological conflict in public life, and I may be too readily drawn into arguments I’d be better off giving a miss. 

You’ve also said that your characters “have to be interesting more than nice. And often interesting, to me, is not very nice.” Isn’t the defining feature of the New Orthodoxy that it prizes “nice” way above “interesting”? 

¶ Another word for “nice” is “good”. The present era puts a premium on virtue above all other qualities. In literature, the perfectly virtuous character is improbable, inhuman, boring, and often, counterintuitively, unlikeable. In real life, we tend to love people in spite of themselves, and the same traits that infuriate us about our friends and relatives can be the very same traits that we also adore. But again, this issue is larger than fiction. In the big picture virtue is not the only quality I care about. I also savour beauty, wit, intelligence, eloquence, mischief.

“I suspect the biggest beneficiary of the international hoo-ha that surrounded that speech was yours truly”

I further object to a version of virtue that’s simple and obvious. To the degree that great novels take on morality, they address quandaries. It’s anything but obvious what’s the best way forward. Today’s cartoonish social justice movements reduce goodness to slogans. You label yourself “anti-racist” and never shut up about climate change. But genuine goodness is hard. Like, do you damage the quality of your family’s life by taking in a difficult elderly parent who has nowhere else to go? That’s hard.

I look at people ruining whole careers with Twitter pile-ons, and I think: that’s evil. But they think they’re doing God’s work. This is where my background comes in. Many of my father’s theological colleagues were puffed up narcissists. They were in love with the sound of their own voices. They were as interested in self-promotion as anybody.

You said in an interview that “we don’t know how much people in my profession are not writing things. Because there’s no record of what you don’t do.” How true is this statement for you and other writers you know, five years on? 

¶ We’ve all grown more timorous. This is a terrifying time to venture any views that run counter to left-wing dogma, and that dogma grows ever more rigid. On social media, new rules keep getting generated willy-nilly by people with no authority, which can be retroactively imposed on something you wrote 20 years ago. Polls clearly testify that large swaths of the population in the US and UK do not feel free to express their real opinions in public. In any authoritarian system, the instillment of self-censorship is the ultimate victory. The proles police themselves. They know it isn’t in their interest to ever, ever say, “We’re supposed to call that person ‘she,’ but I’m sorry that’s obviously a man.” So they keep their mouths shut. About everything.

In the same interview, you added, “The fact that I have ended up spending hour upon hour writing or talking about a concept like cultural appropriation means that in some ways the Left has won. That is … they have managed to colonise my life with their stupid idea.” Yet you have a new book fresh out — Should We Stay or Should We Go — a comic novel about the horrors of old age and the myriad ways of dealing with it. It’s been broadly well reviewed and seems to be selling. What price have you paid, then, for choosing to stand up to “the stupid idea”? Has the Left really won? 

The publishing industry now regards “diversity” as an end in itself

¶ So far? I’ve nothing to complain about. I had an audio of a Spectator column taken off YouTube because it “violated community guidelines”, but I was positively grateful to have this one brush with so-called cancel culture, because I was able to leverage it into more content. True, I’ve no way of knowing how many festival invitations, speaking gigs, and media appearances I’ve missed out on because I’m perceived as persona non grata. But my diary is full enough. A reduction in come-hithers is a godsend.

I don’t want to seem cocky, nor would I be wise to tempt fate. People are continually asking me, “Why haven’t you been cancelled yet?” Maybe I’m just not important enough. Or maybe, more probably, whatever their occasional qualms with my positions, both my publisher and the editors who run my journalism have supported me. In particular, hats off to the Spectator and HarperCollins. If there is an answer to this Maoist feeding frenzy, it lies with people in power, who need to start acting as if they’re in power and so can afford to stop indulging childish, self-destructive, illiberal nonsense.

Lionel Shriver’s Should We Stay or Should We Go (2021) is published by the Borough Press, HarperFiction, London

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