On September 8, Lionel Shriver, author of such books as We Need to Talk About Kevin and So Much For That, got on the stage in Australia at the Brisbane Writers Festival and gave a keynote speech that made writers’ heads all around the world explode.
The festival organisers titled her speech: “Community and Belonging”, despite the fact that Shriver called it: “Fiction and Identity Politics”. The audience members who pitched up to hear about community and belonging got a bit of a surprise because Shriver came there to lay down the gauntlet and, as is her way, she did it like an elephant in a china shop. What Shriver had set her sights on was cultural appropriation and how it was being used to bully writers and, from her perspective, to censor them, or worse still to get them to censor themselves.
Writers on social media lost their minds, taking polarised sides. No one could stay neutral on the topic. Articles popped up on arts pages. Comment sections went insane. I am a fan of discussion, even discussions I do not agree with so I was happy about it all. In any case, there is a problem, though I do not think it is with writers and I do not think prescribing what writers can and cannot write will do anything to sort out the main underlying problem. The simplistic view to the complex problem, like all such simplistic views, will kill literature.
“If you do not allow fiction writers to write from the perspective of people different from themselves, there is no fiction,” Shriver told The Telegraph. “Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” I agreed with this. No one likes anodyne drivel.
Australian writer of Sudanese and Egyptian descent, Yassmin Abdel-Magied who was in Brisbane listening to Shriver’s speech, walked out of the talk and later described Shriver’s speech as: “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.” The full speech is online and anyone can read it, so you can decide for yourself.
Most fiction, as Shriver says, is stories about the other. Sometimes the other in time, but other times the other in race, ethnicity,
I have written about this before and referred to what I think is the best article about cultural appropriation and literature, Aminatta Forna’s article in The Guardian, “Don’t Judge a Book By Its Author”. In there she says: “All this classifying, it seems to me, is the very antithesis of literature. The way of literature is to seek universality. Writers try to reach beyond those things that divide us: culture, class, gender, race. Given the chance, we would resist classification”.
The real issue in all of this, the issue that is more important, is access to publishing opportunities for marginalised groups. Everyone knows white males get published more, get reviewed more, and win more literary prizes. Denied access means stories told from the perspective of those marginalised groups by those marginalised groups are not published and this is a big problem. I think black African writers also are forced into corners where the other side of the issue is revealed, where because you are in a certain marginalised group, you can only write the stories that appear to be for that marginalised group. Whereas, for example, white writers are free to step into all sorts of literary shoes. That is also a big problem.
I think both of these situations are created by gatekeepers, publishers and agents, who decide before a book is even a manuscript that a black African writing a novel about a white Jewish man in New York City, for example, just will not be believable so won’t sell. But a white Jewish man writing about a woman living in Nigeria is a book that will find readers. Publishers need transformation; it is the industry that must think differently about writers. Writers must just keep writing the stories that come to them.