Sep 13, 2016

Brisbane Writers Festival knew what they were getting with Lionel Shriver

The Brisbane Writers Festival wanted Lionel Shriver to make a controversial speech. She did. Then the festival hung her out to dry.

Helen Razer — Writer and broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and broadcaster

Lionel Shriver

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.

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23 thoughts on “Brisbane Writers Festival knew what they were getting with Lionel Shriver

  1. archibald

    Ah, the Tales of Schmelen. Keep ’em coming.

    1. Draco Houston

      What Schmelen Fails To Grasp

  2. Mayan

    While it is true that people know their own experiences and thoughts better than anyone else, what happened to empathy?

    The problems with people blithely dismissing accounts from minorities are obvious. However, the dangers of dismissing empathy as a tool for understanding, and placing those accounts on a pedestal, where there is no opportunity for interaction with them, is also dangerous. Taken as competing forces, they displace the chance of understanding with the spectacle of opposites screaming at each other, with their fingers in their ears. That lessens us all.

    1. Jacinta Halloran

      Mayan, I agree. The issue is not whether writers write about experience and character outside of their own class and culture but HOW they do it. I’ve just been reading The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota; a much-lauded novel about Indian immigrants in Sheffield, UK. Sahota is himself of Indian background, but an educated British citizen, unlike the protagonists of his wonderful novel, who struggle daily to stay alive in both a physical and spiritual sense. Sahota’s lived experience is not that of his characters but this doesn’t in any way diminish his writing. Why? Because of the depth of engagement and empathy of his characterisation.

    2. dennis

      Thank you Mayan, top comment.

  3. AR

    MzRaz has been so sparing with her word count that she forgot to mention what her point was.
    Assuming that she had one which is always uncertain in her usual verbiage swamps but in this offering there was nowhere to hide so I guess that there was none.

  4. Marcus Ogden

    Well the Guardian has now published a transcript of Shriver’s speech, and it seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable defence of fiction writers’ right to make stuff up. Abdel-Magied’s response, which I read afterwards, seems to me to be narcissistic swivel-eyed lunacy. But ymmv

    1. Will

      Having read both too, I agree with you completely Marcus.

      Identity politics is not only leading the left nowhere, it’s turning into an absolute gift horse for the right. Just look at the all anti-SJW (social justice warrior) commentary spewing forth from the right online these days.

      And the problem is, despite its obviously intolerant and repressive motives, most such commentary comes over as reasoned and logical compared with the identity politics idiocies it so successfully denigrates and lampoons.

      What’s telling is that Ms Razer bypasses the substance of this debate and elects in here article here to instead go after the messenger. (That right – the event organizers, like her own erstwhile publishers, have no shame. What is that – some sort of ad hominem retort toward no-one by proxy?)

      Seriously though, isn’t Marcus right? If you follow Abdel-Magied’s “bright young” reasoning to it’s logical conclusion, won’t you enter the realm of self-obsessed madness, never to return? That’s not an emancipatory politics. That’s claiming victimhood from bogeymen. Ultimately, it’s just political muckraking.

      In the end I just have to ask: Couldn’t it just be that it’s simply not possible to reconcile a critique of economic oppression drawn from the material left with a critique of political oppression drawn from the cultural left, Helen? After all, one’s about emancipation and the other’s about feeling smug.

      1. jan jansen

        I think you should apply the Principle of Charity regarding other people’s motives. This is completely lost on both sides of the argument, but especially the left seems to have made it their war chest to defend every point with moral outrage and offensive labeling:
        – you are against open borders: you must be a racist/xenophobe
        – you object to (parts of) Islamic teachings: islamophobe
        – you think an inclusive nationalism is a necessary thankfulness to guard us against entitlement: nazi!
        More subtle replies of course elude to the existence of racism with some straw-man and focus on guilt by association. They might even be right in some cases. But the problem is: DON’T WE HAVE BETTER ARGUMENTS FOR IMMIGRATION, SUPPORTING ISLAMIC ORGANIZATIONS, ETC? Do we even care if someone else experiences these things as issues? Must we wait so long with caring for their concerns until these “deplorables” and “losers of globalization” organize themselves into clubs eager to bash the obvious virtue signalers? IS out pride now in the way of admitting that we might have been wrong on some issues ever since the eighties:

      2. Helen Razer

        If either argument could withstand analysis, I’d have applied some.

  5. zut alors

    Having read Shriver’s speech I still struggle to understand why the Guardian writer was so affronted she walked out.

    Perhaps the simple solution for those so easily offended is to beware reading fiction.

  6. mikeb

    I read the well written account by Yassmin Abdel-Magiede and can understand what she is saying. I don’t agree with a lot of it however. Yassmin complains of the “right to exploit the stories”, which of course implies that the author is using the experiences of others for no other purpose than for profit, either monetarily or socially. What about the author who has genuine empathy with the subject and wants to tell a story that the subject cannot? Is that exploitation? I don’t think so.

  7. Helen Razer

    Several hate noted here that I didn’t commit to either position in this argument. I wanted to explain why.
    I think both people were fighting battles that are already significantly won. Which is to say, the debate, when it unfolds in these terms, is largely pointless.
    I don’t think a world afraid of “trigger warnings” is in itself a real problem. But it is a bit of a problem. I don’t think a world that doesn’t reflect “authentic” experiences of all citizens in its art is in itself a real problem. But it is a bit of a problem.
    For mine, the “problem” is that serious conversation around inequality is often addressed in this way. We see battles that purport to reflect real inequality between different social groups or real freedom of speech issues, but they happen at nice events full of people who already have a voice. I don’t think a keynote address at a writers festival in a nice Australian town presented by a successful but, frankly, apolitical and middle-brow author of “quality” fiction is where the battle is playing out.
    As much as Greer can give me the irrits, I loved when she said a few years ago at the BWF that she didn’t see the point of attending, given that almost half the state failed a functional literacy test. And just as Shriver mentions in her speech (which did not become available until after I had written the piece) that a group of college students protesting inauthentic food is an example of privilege examining itself to no end, she does the same.
    I mean. By whom is Shriver being silenced? And, really, who is trampling on Abdel-Magied’s expression? That either of them are seen (I am not saying they see themselves this way) as emblematic of some great struggle about inequality is preposterous. I respect that these happen to be two women doing what they do; having a mildly interesting conversation along the way. I don’t take issue with either speaker much. (I don’t think either speaker has anything surprising to say, either.) But I get very annoyed that we see these people as heroes fighting some sort of good fight on our behalf.
    The truly voiceless and exploited, as Greer said, are not even present; not even able to access the terms of the debate. It’s like political protest at effing Biennale on behalf of asylum seekers. The middle class/knowledge class fights, whether for freedom of speech or against appropriation, largely to reflect itself. What do we achieve is either LS or YAM “wins” the fight? Nothing but a reflection of our liberal views.
    Whether or not such discussion take place in a nice hall for forty dollars a ticket in a state with the highest illiteracy problem in the nation is not the only point. The point is that in all these discussions about “freedom” and “rights”, there is a focus only on people who already have freedom and rights as we understand them. I mean to say. There is a huge market for moving first person accounts of authentic life, and I believe YAM has written one. I know another Yasmin (Nair, I’m a great fan of her work and quote it often) who writes on this matter extensively, and here’s an introduction to her thoughts about the first person industry The tl;dr is that Real People saying Real Things in Their Own Real Worlds is immensely popular and attuned to a particular cultural sensibility. So fighting for it, as YAM has done, feels like a false battle.
    Here is another great piece about “trigger warnings” and safe spaces etc and the damage that they do. The tl;dr here is a version of what I have attempted to say in this comment, which is that this “Freedom of Speech” vs “Right To Not Be Appropriated” is a false battle, and that some of us prefer to see the focus on politically correct language AND the focus on authentic language as positions that are equally apolitical.
    I mean to say. (And I have written about this many times before.) Do we really believe that the battleground for justice will play out at bookstores? Do we think real political problems can be addressed by walking out of an average speech or daring to make an average speech? Or in Hollywood movies, TV or elsewhere. This is what LS and YAM agree on: it’s really important what we see in the culture. It’s perhaps the most important thing. This culture all the way down argument is what gets me. We don’t fix problems, or increase literacy (thereby the chances of who gets to speak) by providing positive role models. But both these women believe that we do.
    I don’t see them as in significant opposition. I see this as another argument doomed to die, because it is entirely cultural, purporting to be political.
    It takes a really great mind to overcome the conditions in which it has produced its thought. It takes courage. For all Shriver’s presentations about being bold and an “iconoclast”, she is just doing the safe thing. Everyone is here, which is why I didn’t indulge either argument. Both arguments protect the territory of the knowledge class. Both arguments say “we do the important work”.
    I just wanted to make the point (and I think it I made it plainly) that very often, thought and work is commissioned to be controversial, and then the commissioning organisation hangs you out to dry. Say what you will about FODI, but at least this event does not (after the Uthman Badar affair) dump its speakers. Or shit on them in public. Personally, I don’t want to go and hear Andrew Bolt speak. If I want to know his dumb ideas, I can read them at the rate of about twenty a day in his embarrassment of a blog. But I do admire, as reported in Crikey by Margot Saville, the stubbornness of the event. That Bolt can sit there and assume this air of persecuted innocence (“people want to silence me” is ridiculous when said by a guy paid so much to write in our most viewed tabloids) is in itself the interesting thing about him. His ideas aren’t new. His fight for himself and his views is boring. That FODI has now acquired the sort of maturity that they can let that happen without making some sort of apologetic statement about it is good. I felt for Margot in having to sit through the nonsense. But to see such an influential dummy explain himself is really important. You see he has nothing to explain.
    And now, we can’t really see that LS has nothing to explain, because her view is seen as worth fighting against. And the BWF has endorsed the objections, even organised “right of reply” events to counteract it. Spare me. This means they weren’t doing their job right in the first instance.
    You really want to explore the topic of identity politics, BWF? There are plenty of people, some from CALD backgrounds, who are writing about this beyond the terms of “freedom” vs “authenticity”. I happen to be one of them. But hey, I prefer not to work for people who employ me to do something and then shit on me.
    (Again. The only point I felt I wanted to make about this whole sorry mess. Don’t shit on your culture workers.)

    1. jan jansen

      I, I and I.
      And the others write “hate notes” for disagreeing with me.

      But yeah you are right with the observation that it barely matters for these rich writers. The probably use the “outrage” to sell books or complain when they don’t sell as well as white males (i.e. Kim).
      However, Ms. Shriver gave some pretty good _concrete_ examples of the ways this new social justice lexicon is used in book reviews and university campuses. When on the other hand the SJWs are asked for concrete grievances they start becoming evasive, defensive (“you asking as a white male, that is aggression”) and dishonest (Payton Head on the KKK).

    2. Deirdre Smith

      I was in Albania (yeah, I know) when I first heard of this event via a Brisbane Writer’s Festival mail-out and noticed the careful use of language, saying that Lionel Shriver had not spoken to the topic, the BWF strived to be “inclusive”, which is a weasel word, and a Right of Reply would be organised. As I followed it up, I wondered why it upset me so much and you have been able to clarify it. And that’s what it was. How can a young (a privilege in itself, as nobody wants to listen to old people), expensively educated young woman, with the time, inclination and money to attend a Writer’s Festival feel so aggrieved? Sadly, in the whole debate, there was not one mention of class, or wealth, in the whole debate. She might be black (there, I’ve said it but how to explain it in anything less than a sentence full of adjectives?) but my cousins, who are poor, would be happy to swap their chicken-shop working, broken-down car, no-money-for-a-rental-bond lives with hers.

  8. AR

    Prolix Verbosity has just eaten itself – for MzRaz to append 1,250 words to explain her original article of half that length is surely proof that she needs to consider some endeavour other than writing.

    1. Helen Razer

      Here’s a deal. You get a hobby other than creepy surveillance of me. I’ll refrain from answering the good questions of intelligent readers.

      1. AR

        One cannot conduct surveillance, creepy or otherwise, on published pontifications.
        The pity is that you can write well yet, seemingly, choose not to.
        Why is that?

        1. Helen Razer

          Sure. Okay. Applying a word count, commenting at least twice on everything I write here, and sometimes elsewhere, with the same phrases and employing a “you can do so much better” drama teacher tone is not creepy at all. I’m the one with the problem.
          Maybe fly fishing?

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