Culture warriors now making war on writers of fiction
As bestselling novelist Lionel Shriver discovered last week, putting yourself in other people's shoes is now off-limits
Plain-speaking: Novelist Lionel Shriver gives as good as she gets. Photo: Gerry Mooney
'As Lionel Shriver made light of identity, I had no choice but to walk out on her," said an arresting Guardian headline last weekend about one of my old friends.
Now, I'm well aware that Lionel is plain-speaking about what she considers pretentious rubbish in a way that frequently gets up the nose of the conventional literati. I always, for example, enjoy her outings on programmes like the BBC's Newsnight, where she applies common sense to issues that have innumerable cultural warriors disappearing incoherently up their own bums. But she's polite, highly intelligent and gives much thought to what she says as well as what she writes.
At 15, Mary Ann Shriver - from a devout Presbyterian family in North Carolina - changed her first name to Lionel. I'm one of those friends who told her long ago that since she had been so perverse as to choose a name that intrigued everyone, she wasn't getting any sympathy from us about the sheer tedium she endures explaining why to almost everyone she meets. I've known her for around 30 years and always greatly admired her obsessive dedication to her trade and the cold, curious, unsentimentally honest, sardonic eye she casts on reality.
All she ever wanted to be was a writer of fiction and she persevered through many years of grinding poverty. It amuses her more heartless friends that having hit the jackpot with her seventh novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, from sheer habit she still cycles everywhere, keeps the central heating off, and buys clothes in charity shops and cheap vegetables at closing time in the local market.
Anyhow, she deeply offended engineer and activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who wrote tremulously of her terrible experience at the Brisbane Writers' Festival. Shriver, she explained, spoke in her (fine) keynote speech of "a recent incident in the US, where students faced prosecution for what was argued by some as 'casual racial and ethnic stereotyping and cultural insensitivity' at a Mexican-themed party."
'"Can you believe,"' Shriver had gone on to ask, "the students were so sensitive about the wearing of sombreros?"
'"The audience, compliant, chuckled. I started looking forward to the point in the speech where she was to subvert the argument.
"It never came."
For Abdel-Magied, the horror continued. She listened to Shriver insisting on the right of fiction writers to write stories outside their direct experience and spewing "vitriol" at the expense of those who worry about cultural appropriation - thus epitomising "the kind of attitude that led to the normalisation of imperialist, colonial rule: 'I want this, and therefore I shall take it.'"
(I can almost hear the arrogance dripping from William Shakespeare's voice as he announced his next play would be about a melancholy Prince of Denmark.)
Shriver then actually queried what was wrong with a white man writing about the experience of a young Nigerian woman if he did a "decent" job, thus, apparently, celebrating "the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction."
Abdel-Magied had reached breaking point."The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my 'place", in the world."
What was a girl to do?
"We were 20 minutes into the speech when I turned to my mother, sitting next to me in the front row. 'Mama, I can't sit here,' I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards. 'I cannot legitimise this …"
"My mother's eyes bore into me, urging me to remain calm, to follow social convention. I shook my head, as if to shake off my lingering doubts."
So off she went, followed reluctantly by her unfortunate mother, who had the gall to suggest that "perhaps I was being too sensitive. Perhaps… Or perhaps that is the result of decades of being told to be quiet, and accept our place."
As I begin my next satirical crime novel - which will be a lot about contemporary politically correct idiocies, I revel in this kind of stuff and emailed Lionel: "I am enjoying this nonsense from your Australian trip".
"Up to a point," she replied. "But I'm getting tired of it. I am flummoxed why saying something so obvious would cause such a stir, and I'm annoyed that this Yassmin person is getting so much attention simply for being rude."
And this Yassmin person has certainly got a hell of a lot of attention, as have many others who have come in on the argument globally amidst an uproar of social media squawking.
As victims go, this highly attractive 24-year-old seems pretty cheerful in her publicity material. "First and foremost, I am a Muslim, Alhamdulillah (Praise be to Allah)," she tells us. Born in Sudan and raised in Australia, she's the Founder and Chair of Youth Without Borders, is a mechanical engineer "with a passion for adventures, football, boxing, and motorsport" who "works with community": "endless philosophy discussions (sprinkled with terrible puns) and debates on international relations are also pastimes that keep me happily occupied." She's given a TED talk ('What does my headscarf mean to you') with "1.5 million views", appears on TV and radio, claims to "thrive on feedback and discussion" and rejoices in having "the blessing of associating with multiple identities".
Shriver has spent her life travelling (living in Belfast for 12 years as well as Nairobi, Bangkok, Tel Aviv; she is now based in London and New York). The worlds she's examined as a novelist include anthropology, immigration, the Northern Irish Troubles, demography, inheritance, spousal competition, terrorism, high-school shootings, morbid obesity and motherhood. She is eloquently and amusingly fed up with being told that henceforward she must ask permission to borrow anything from any culture other than that in which she was reared.
I asked if she'd like to comment on this fracas. "I am dumbfounded," she emailed, "that in this day and age asserting the, you would think, self-evident truth that 'we should all be allowed to write fiction' has stirred such indignation. There's hardly a paucity of real problems in the world to talk about right now - the civil war in Syria, the increasingly tight presidential race in the US, the continued precariousness of a debt-heavy international economy. Sure, I had a speech to give, which took up about as much time as this issue is worth. As the fallout continues, however, I cannot believe we're even having this conversation, unless we are busy addressing fake problems because we feel powerless to do anything about the real ones."
Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22