Lionel Shriver and her flawed imagination


A friend of mine once called me a fag hag. She meant it as a complement, but later decided to upgrade me to a ‘diversity whore’, which was also, I think, meant as a complement. I am a fan of diversity. I like to hear about and speak with people who are quite different to me doing their own things. I think I was pretty complacent about being ‘on the right side of things’ with this view for quite a long time. I was a teenager in he 90’s, and things did feel like they were getting a bit ‘better’ then. Over the last year I have seen the onward march of racism and, well nazis, with mounting horror. Here’s the thing, we on the left bare some not insignificant responsibility for that. We were quite happy to ring our hands about the situation of people with less privilege or opportunity than us, and have lengthy intellectual conversations about the causes of such things. But I don’t think we ever tried to understand, at all, what these things felt like from the perspective of people actually living that disadvantage. Frankly we ignored it unless it made for good dinner time conversation, and smugly reassured each other that we knew the truth of things.

A lot can happen while you are busy drinking chardonay. I now feel rather more humble, and try much harder to understand the actual experiences of people who are different from me. I have left wing friends who are still content to smugly brand anyone who voted for Brexit a moron, and that isn’t helping anyone. Which brings me to Lionel Shriver. It surely speaks to my own prejudices that I still manage to be horribly disappointed when some one who has written at least one book that I liked (and I did very much like We need to talk about Kevin, although I couldn’t settle into her later books) turns out to be very comfortable saying bigoted things. First she took aim at ‘cultural appropriation’ without appearing to even try to understand what the issue there is because FREE SPEECH. This week she set her sights on the new diversity policy of Penguin (for some more intelligent comment on this see this article by Amrou Al-Kadhi). The publisher is, in a long over due but laudable overhaul of it’s employment policy, trying to enable people from more diverse back grounds to both work there and be published by them. I think this is great. Lionel Shriver, not so much. In fact she said this:

“Thus from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some.”

Racism, abilism, homophobia, classism. I mean she really packed those isms into this one didn’t she? It can be so enjoyable when you think of a witty put down. I get that. But this isn’t really that clever. Shriver here gives something away. She is so pleased with herself for her own nasty brand of verbose put downs that she fails to notice that she has also told us something about herself. Embedded in this statement that drips with isms, is an assumption that a ‘gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter’¬†could not possibly write a good book. If you didn’t go to university (and have all of the privileges that this frequently entails) how could you possibly write well? This shows a staggering lack of imagination. If you can’t even imagine that people very different to you are capable of amazing and brilliant things maybe you might want to spend some time reflecting on that. Frankly if you can’t do this then why be a novelist? Maybe she has indeed run out of ideas and so has done a ‘Martin Amis’ and just started spouting controversial retrograde stuff to stay in the news.¬†They pay shock jocks well these days. I don’t know. But in the future I think I’ll be looking for an abundance of imagination in my novelists, where ever they may come from. I’ll be leaving Shriver on the shelf.