I wasn’t going to do this on any public platform, because I’d be getting in over my depth and because of the regular awfulness of the below-the-line comments, but that Lionel Shriver piece in Prospect last month continues to irritate, so.
In a keynote speech on ‘Fiction and Identity Politics’ delivered at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016 (concerning cultural appropriation; reprinted in full in the Guardian) Shriver identified herself as “a renowned iconoclast”. In the article published in Prospect entitled “Writers blocked: how the new call-out culture is killing fiction” she again takes up the role of maverick speaker-of-truth, defending her right to be “mischievous, subversive and perverse” against “the #MeToo and ‘cultural appropriation’ mob”. The whole article reads like one long cry of “political correctness gone mad” from someone on the foot behind the back foot. Her complaint is argued with a sort of plain-speaking reasonableness but no interest – or even curiosity – is evident in how the processes of writing (and who writes), publishing and reception have never been purely literary. And the maverick role, favoured by magazine eds who see some increase in circulation here, is just tedious.
According to Shriver, “the right not to be offended” is taking over all rational, critical discussion, with the result that “we authors now contend with a torrent of dos and don’ts that bind our imaginations and make the process of writing and publishing fearful.” Fearfulness is cousin to paranoia: “popular conflation of art and artist potentially makes the publishability of authors’ work dependent on how we comport ourselves at parties”. A rejection by an editor – “Maybe the editor just thought it was crummy. We’ll never know” – is assumed to be for reasons of “thought crime”. She worries that “The whole apparatus of delivering literature to its audience is signalling an intention to subject fiction to rigid ideological purity tests, unrelated to artistry, excellence and even entertainment, that miss the point of what our books are for.” She worries that “If all modern literature comes to toe the same goody-goody line, fiction is bound to grow timid, homogeneous, and dreary.” She worries a lot.
She worries because, I believe, she’s got hold of the wrong end of the stick. At base, “the #MeToo and ‘cultural appropriation’ mob” is not about virtue-signalling and ideological purity, it is about challenge to power and to privilege. (Shriver knows this, how can she not, but chooses to go into aggressive-defensive mode. She's entitled to this mode, of course, but it's silly. And needless, because the novel is, as Shriver herself says, “magnificently elastic”.)
The list that I wrote in 1963 of books that I’d read that year (when I was aged 12) stretched to around 40 titles; two were by women, one was a translation, none was by a not-white author. Some of those books were, and still are, terrific. But what gets published – and who writes for publication and what gets reviewed and who gets a job in publishing and what gets read and which books get the prizes – has never been determined by purely literary criteria. Publishing is a business and an institution, with built-in privileges. It’s political; it was never, and still isn’t, pure, whatever that is. Between 1963 and now publishing has adjusted, a little, but it has all been so slow, which probably does have to be the case with institutions, which by definition are concerned above all with self-preservation and so by nature are conservative. Shriver’s shock-horror about what gets published and what not being determined by non-literary criteria is not a little naive.
Shriver is not keen on the word privilege: “I can’t be the only one who’s sick up to the eyeballs with that word.” When she mentions marginalised communities, her phrase, she puts them in quote marks, as if she can’t quite believe they really exist. I’m as privileged as Shriver; more so, because I’m not just white but male, and live in the West, and of a certain age (which by pure luck entitled me to be paid to go university and to be able to live cheap in London and a whole lot of other things, and I’ve never had to go to war: I’m part of the most privileged male generation in human history); and if there’s any reason for me writing this, it’s embarrassment – that white people of my peer group should continue to be given space for such nonsense. I know they can seem reasonable. I can seem reasonable myself, sometimes. I’m as full of prejudice as the rest of us.
“Mob” – what a word. Barbarians at the gates. Hi, mob. Let me check your papers: oh, sorry, that clause doesn’t seem to be grammatically correct. “We live in denunciatory times,” says Shriver, licensing for herself a whole lot of denunciation and what comes across as well-bred panic. No, let’s not check the papers, their page after page of tedious questions configured by those with the power to choose what and what not to ask and how to grade the answers. Shriver is worried about the policing of what she writes by non-literary criteria; some acknowledgement that the whole history of writing and publishing has been policed for centuries by power structures that have nothing to do with pure (it’s never pure) literature wouldn’t come amiss. Let’s talk. We can make time for this. There are people in the waiting room who have been waiting for generations. If their sentences, the whole way they use language, can seem beyond what I’m used to, that could be my problem not theirs. If they are running out of patience, don’t blame them.