If you’re not a fan of expensively marketed splatter fiction, you may not have heard the name Lionel Shriver until recent days. Not since her 2003 hit We Need To Talk About Kevin — think of it as Oedipus Goes To Columbine for the book club set — has the author made such news. It is reported, largely via the account of engineer and writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, that in a keynote address for the Brisbane Writers Festival, Shriver went too far in her opening address about political correctness gone too far.
Actually, this is not a faithful synopsis of Abdel-Magied’s reasonable and widely republished critique. This bright youngster did not say that Shriver “went too far”, but rather that she didn’t go far enough. Not intellectually far enough, according to Abdel-Magied and other observers interviewed on ABC radio, to exceed the worst analysis of Andrew “I’m Being Silenced For Endlessly Repeating The Things Bill O’Reilly Told Me To Say To A Large and Uncritical Audience” Bolt. It’s the Brisbane Writers Festival that has said that Shriver “took a right hand turn” and went too far.
While we can be fairly sure that the festival did not endorse Shriver’s costume — she was wearing a sombrero to make a visual point about sensitivity around “cultural appropriation” — we can’t be sure how far right Shriver veered. The festival has not yet appeared to make a transcript or recording publicly available, and they seem to have taken down the blurb for the keynote event, whose persistence in the memory of Google does seem to presage the Stop Silencing Me rot of just the type described by Abdel-Magied. Shriver, who said 10 years ago at the same festival that “it’s now correct to despair of political correctness“, was always going to talk about the “right” of the novelist to describe cultural experiences with which she had no direct experience.
The Brisbane Writers Festival blurb in full:
“Writer and straight-talking activist Lionel Shriver isn’t afraid of controversy. Her 13 novels, including We Need To Talk About Kevin, Big Brother, The Post-Birthday World and most recently, The Mandibles, have explored themes like motherhood, obesity, economic collapse, America’s health system, and terrorism – uncomfortable realities written from an outsider’s perspective. Lionel opens this year’s Festival with her reflections on why we identify with each other in communities, and how belonging to one group shouldn’t preclude us from exploring another. As a writer who inhabits unfamiliar and sometimes unlikeable characters, Lionel is a firm believer in branching out beyond the world she inhabits. With her trademark candour and dry wit, Lionel discusses breaking boundaries, and how writing about the unknown is a form of connection in itself.”
I should own here that I am not enamoured of “political correctness”, which I do believe has, like most orthodoxies, Gone Mad. But, I would say that those who “veer right” are just as fanatical as those on the purported left in claiming their petty distinctions — just try calling Cory Bernardi a racist, and he’ll outdo the proudest, boldest transwoman in his efforts to assert his right to be named correctly. I am not a fan. But, I am less of a fan of intellectually lazy debate on the very complex topic of how a subject may speak and even less of a fan of clients who hang a writer out to dry.
I once spoke to this woman (let’s call her Schmelen) who was commissioned by an online newspaper (let’s call it the Schmuardian) to write critically from the left about the left. She said they took her out to dinner and encouraged her to explore the tragedy of post-materialism in a welcoming environment. She said that they chose incendiary headlines for her work, bumped negative remarks, often made by peers who wrote for the publication, to “featured comment” status and stirred up social media debate, while reassuring her privately that she had full editorial support and a bright future. After telling me that this was a discrepancy she’d not have minded so much had she been paid a decent wage, she checked herself and said that this wasn’t the point. Her point was that some writers are actively encouraged to provide “edge” to a periodical or event, but not actively supported when that edge spikes anticipated vitriol.
Look. It’s not the worst professional problem to have. But it’s more of a scourge to “free speech” than the worst kind of political correctness. You don’t get anywhere as a writer if people keep setting you up for “controversy” alone.
Anyone who has bothered to read her knows that Shriver can be divisive and underdone and is in need of some direction. In interviews for her last work, The Mandibles, she comes across like Adam Smith meets The Hunger Games. Shriver speaks of her “strong feeling that if you do acquire a debt then you are obliged to pay it off”, and scales this strong feeling up to macro-economic analysis. She says that Greece should not have reneged on its promise, that creditors have rights too and,” if someone has loaned you money in good faith you’re obliged to pay it back”. Which is possibly the first time anyone has accused the troika of good faith.
This is a writer who often doesn’t think things through past the point of controversy. This is where an editor or curator steps in. These people exist to make us write and think better.
Festival director Julie Beveridge said to ABC Radio that Shriver, in whom she was disappointed, had offered, “an extremely individual and, some would say, extremely privileged point of view”. I am not sure what else one could expect from a privileged individual. We privileged individuals need guidance.
“Writer and straight-talking activist Lionel Shriver isn’t afraid of controversy,” said the festival on its now-deleted page for Shriver. Apparently, the festival wasn’t afraid of controversy either, right until the minute they caused it.
Shriver is, of course, perfectly entitled to court simple controversy. Abdel-Magied is perfectly entitled to decry it. I’m perfectly entitled to disagree with both of them. And our editors and curators are absolutely obliged to both extend us and keep us in check.