Bhavya Dore in Open Conversation with Lionel Shriver, author and columnist
AMERICAN-BORN, London-based author Lionel Shriver shot to fame with her seventh novel We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003), a book that probed a troubled mother-son relationship against the backdrop of a school shooting. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and after years of relative obscurity, Shriver suddenly became a well-known novelist. Her other fiction has explored a marriage in the world of competitive tennis (Double Fault, 1997), obesity (Big Brother, 2013) and life in a future dystopia (The Mandibles, 2016). Shriver also writes a column for the Spectator and has recently become increasingly known for her provocative views. These include: a rejection of identity politics, concern over the growing cordons on free speech, and a belief that the MeToo movement has gone too far. In 2016, she famously stirred up a controversy at the Brisbane Writers Festival with her keynote address on cultural appropriation, saying political correctness had hamstrung writing, and that novelists were no longer truly free to portray characters outside of their own identities. “[I]n the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply,” she said. “Use different races, ethnicities, and minority gender identities, and you are being watched.” That set off a series of rejoinders, and Shriver was critiqued for misrepresenting the concept of appropriation; a tetchy response, some said, to bad reviews of her book featuring a Black woman character. Shriver’s latest, Property: A Collection (The Borough Press; 336 pages; Rs 1,244) released earlier this year. Shriver was in Mumbai for the Tata Literature Live! festival. Excerpts from a conversation with a provocateur who tolerates no pieties.
How did Property come about, and why did you decide to take on the short story form after so many novels?
I’ve been asked to do short stories off and on, commissions from newspapers. And there have been a couple of really big short story prizes that have come along. I have on occasion used the deadline to write a story. It’s a form that I, like most writers, cut my teeth on when I was very young and then abandoned once I started writing novels, because I regarded them as practice for writing novels. I came back to short stories very late and with a renewed appreciation for the form, not as just something that warms you up for novels. They’re fun in their own right, and I also discovered the form of the novella. Property is bookended by two novellas. With a novel, you’re often going off on these tangents. There is this expectation that you have to explain where everyone is from, who their families were, and that can feel burdensome and it’s potentially boring. The novella is much more concentrated than that, and the short story even more so. You can mention someone is from Minnesota and that’s the end of it, you don’t have to get into their relationship with their mother.
“I think it’s important we maintain a sense of proportion and we don’t confuse someone touching a knee at dinner with being raped”
Do readers have a bigger appetite nowadays for short stories?
I think people enjoy short stories more than they realise. I am totally sympathetic with people who aren’t interested in them and my first choice as a reader is never a short story. But every once in a while, a collection comes along that really rewards.
Why set an entire collection around the idea of property?
I’m interested in the idea of territory. We are a very territorial species. I don’t think this necessarily speaks well for me, but I have always had a fierce sense of what is and is not mine. I find it very emotional. The word ‘property’ in English is usefully flexible, so I can talk about ownership of things as well as ownership of real estate. And anything to do with real estate, especially your house, is super emotional. You throw in the complication of escalating property values and people get upset about this stuff. I understand the generational resentment over property. I like the fact that we have a tendency to project ourselves onto the things we own, so your home is also yourself and the things you own are extensions of yourself. That’s why people have such an extravagant reaction to being stolen from. It isn’t just the stuff, but an emotional violation, a personal violation.
So much of your fiction deals with contemporary events, newsy stuff (such as school shootings, healthcare issues, fragile markets). Do you read newspapers hoping for ideas?
I mostly read newspapers for the news. Isn’t that weird? (laughs). But I always have eye out. Every once in a while I trip over something that has potential. Newspapers are great sources for fiction and help give me ideas.
Why did you foray into non-fiction and opinion writing? Not many fiction writers regularly do both.
I started doing comment pieces for The Wall Street Journal about Northern Irish politics because I was living in Belfast then. It wasn’t a decision I made per se. I was living on very little money and even small fees made a big difference. Being able to buy the week’s groceries or not, that was one of the main things that got me into it.
You’ve said the MeToo movement has gone too far. How?
Like most sane women I was on board initially with the intentions of that movement, but I think it has gone too far. If I’m going to perform a useful function socially and politically, it doesn’t help for me to bandwagon on how awful men are and how they have to be stopped from putting their hands on women or misusing their power in the workplace. While I believe all those things, what is going to be accomplished by my saying that at this point? So I’d rather be the voice of pushing against it a bit. Not that this is an awful movement and we shouldn’t have it and Harvey Weinstein should be reinstated and I’m inviting him over to dinner. But I think it’s important we maintain a sense of proportion and we don’t confuse someone touching a knee at dinner with being raped. My biggest problem with the way the discussion developed was it became too indiscriminate and it started making women sound whiny, oversensitive, weak and unable to handle themselves.
“I should probably watch myself more than I do because of the times, but I resent the times. I don’t like this hypersensitivity. I don’t like what it is doing to other people who are less bolshie than I am”
You’ve said you want to be able to watch Louis CK’s comedy. So how do you deal with the legacy or work of alleged offenders?
I’m mostly concerned about criminal behaviour, so I would like to see it pursued in the courts. It’s a question of whether those women want to press charges. We are all within our rights as consumers of arts products to not want to watch him and to not go to his comedy shows. I’d be perfectly sympathetic with those who made that decision. But I would like to be free to make that choice myself and I don’t want to be pre-empted by streaming services who have decided I have to be protected from this terrible man [FX cut ties with his company, and Netflix scrapped an upcoming special following revelations of sexual misconduct]. We can all participate in social boycotts of the arts, if we want to. I don’t happen to want to. I make a big distinction between the artist and what they make. So if someone’s written a really great book and it turns out they’re a shoplifter, I don’t care.
Do you think your columns and opinions are increasingly overshadowing your fiction?
I hope not. But I think there may be a danger of that. When I write an opinion piece that gets everyone stirred up, it’s usually a surprise.
I guess it’s happened enough times that all bets are off. I sometimes think if I write my address on a piece of paper, several thousand people are going to become enraged; a certain segment of the Twitter crowd. I’m not on Twitter, but my detractors are, and they keep an eye on me. So I am aware of the fact they are probably going to look at my columns to find something to get upset about.
But you enjoy being the contrarian or going against the orthodoxy?
A little bit, yeah. It’s not that I take on positions I don’t believe in, in order to be perverse and stir people up. I am willing to be vocal about what a lot of people agree with and I’m going to put it in print.
Has the way readers or reviewers read your fiction changed because of your politics?
There is some evidence of that. Critical reviews that are really just looking for sins against hard left orthodoxy. That’s not desirable and it’s not fair to the books. They are looking for Lionel Shriver being racist, for example, which has been thrown at me so much that I don’t give a shit. Everyone is a racist now. In the US, no one even uses the word anymore, they say ‘White supremacists’ and that’s a sign that ‘racist’ has been used so much to apply to everybody that it’s a term that doesn’t work anymore. The same thing is already happening with ‘White supremacy’ because it used to apply to real White supremacists, right? People who genuinely believed the White race was superior. It applied to a specific and tiny group of people who march around and share their Nazi shit on the internet. They’re a real phenomenon and now we’ve lost a word for them.
And the vocabulary of social justice, words like ‘privilege’ and ‘cultural appropriation’, have they also lost their meanings through overuse?
It’s all code. If I’m one of you and you don’t use the right lingo, you are not of the faithful. I don’t like jargon of any kind, I don’t like cliche, I don’t like the overuse of any word. Do I have time for the word ‘privilege’? It’s completely worn out. Now it has a very specific meaning which is all subtext. What it means is ‘Shut the fuck up.’ It’s used as a form of censorship. If you label someone as privileged, implicitly you have no right to voice any opinion about anything. I’m a big believer in the freedom of speech, so I’m not going to say that to any group of people, that you have no right to say anything.
So do feel you are censoring what you think or write as a result?
Does it sound like I’m censoring what I think? (laughs) I should probably watch myself more than I do because of the times, but I resent the times. I don’t like this hypersensitivity. I don’t like what it is doing to other people who are less bolshie than I am. And there are people who are keeping their mouths shut and simply won’t discuss certain topics, except perhaps with their very closest friends, and even then with care and anxiety.
Is it true that your Swedish publisher dropped you because of some of your views?
My book The Mandibles made the publisher uncomfortable. There is a sub-theme to do with immigration and it’s rather mischievous. It doesn’t have this polemical intention, but I think a couple of passages made the publisher anxious. It’s not authorial. That’s one of things I’m worried we are missing: the right to write about contentious issues from the perspective of characters that may or not may not have the same opinion as the author. That’s an important fictional device. You need to be able to read the character and not assume that everything the characters say the author believes. It’s important for characters to be able to be offensive. If all the characters in a book are the same, think the same thing and they are all good, I don’t want to read that. I’d really rather read the newspaper. In the newspaper people aren’t always good. In fact, they hardly ever are. (Laughs)
“I’m not on Twitter, but my detractors are, and they keep an eye on me. So I am aware of the fact they are probably going to look at my columns to find something to get upset about”
After everything that happened following your talk on cultural appropriation, would you change anything you said or would you give the same speech?
I stand by that speech, I think it’s a pretty good speech. It has a sense of humour. That’s one of the things that’s becoming illegal. Honestly, what gets me into trouble is not my opinions, it’s my jokes.
Since that speech, and the subsequent debates, how do you feel about writing characters with identities different from yours?
I can’t help but be a little more self conscious about it. It’s not a good thing. And that’s constraining. Though I am not willing to make all of my books White. This is one of those things where you are screwed either way. If we say ‘I don’t have a right to write characters of Indian descent’, for example, well then my characters all have to be White people. [I wouldn’t write other characters] without a bit of homework. It’s a matter of verisimilitude. It should be my right to write any character I want.
But surely no one is taking that away from you.
Of course they are not. That’s one of the things you have to remember. The times being as they are, you have to remind yourself, there are all these people telling you ‘You can’t do it.’ You still have the right to deny them the right to tell you what to do. We aren’t talking about the law. It’s not the government coming into my study and leaning over my shoulder and saying, ‘You made a Black character, you can’t do that, we’re arresting you.’ That’s where we’re headed (laughs), but we’re not there yet. It’s important to remember that these are self-appointed authorities. I spit in the face of that authority. I don’t have to let people tell me what I can and cannot write. But there are a lot of younger writers who came of age as writers in this environment and I don’t think they all realise these rules are arbitrary and being handed down by people just like them and they don’t have to recognise those rules. A lot of them are anxious, and that’s not how you want to write a book. It should be fun.
Is it for you?
It is, as long as it’s going well. There’s no way that writing badly is anything but miserable. I just wrote a chapter that was boring as shit. But when it’s ticking over and I’m making myself laugh, it’s fun.
How would you describe your politics?
I have identified myself as a libertarian for lack of a better word. I’m not much of an ideologue, more of a pragmatist, not a political purist. I generally believe we should be able to do whatever we want as long as we are not hurting anyone.
Which writers have you enjoyed reading?
Authors that have meant a lot to me are Richard Yates, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene. All three of those writers intersect with my sensibility somewhat.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel about the cult of exercise.