Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

If Writers Can't Offend Then It's the End of Books; as We Launch a New Fiction Podcast, Katie Law Talks to Lionel Shriver about the Politics of Free Speech

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

If Writers Can't Offend Then It's the End of Books; as We Launch a New Fiction Podcast, Katie Law Talks to Lionel Shriver about the Politics of Free Speech

Article excerpt

Byline: Katie Law

LIONEL Shriver is used to causing offence. As a novelist she has always chosen difficult subjects -- from an ambivalent mother and her violent teenage son who carries out a high-school massacre in We Need to Talk About Kevin, to morbid obesity (based on Shriver's own brother) in Big Brother. She is already anticipating being accused of cultural appropriation in her new collection of short stories, Property, due out next month. Loosely based on themes of territory and conflict, one of the stories features a black character and Shriver's agent suggested she change the character's ethnicity to white. Shriver refused.

The issue of cultural appropriation came to a head 18 months ago at the Brisbane Writers Festival, when Shriver gave a speech called Fiction and Identity Politics. Vehemently opposing the idea that novelists drawing on cultures other than their own constitutes identity theft, she asked, "Are we fiction writers to seek 'permission' to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don't belong?" She might have got away with it had it not been for Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Sudanese-Egyptian-Australian journalist who walked out mid-speech and wrote an emotive piece in The Guardian, which described Shriver's speech as "a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension".

"So now, of course, my agent said, 'After you stuck your neck out on this cultural appropriation nonsense, anything you write is going to be heavily scrutinised and if I submit this story to a magazine and they turn it down, we won't know whether it's because you had the gall to include a black character'. The magazine in question, The New Yorker, did turn it down though they didn't give a reason why.

Crucially, the 60 year-old believes that accusations of cultural appropriation are stifling creativity and imagination. "It introduces a sense of self-conciousness. White writers in particular are now anxious about including characters from different backgrounds and races. If you do make a character, say, black, they are going to be scrutinised. They can't adhere to any stereotype -- that's not so bad, actually -- but we don't need the pressures of identity politics to get rid of stereotypes. We just need good literary criticism and original sensibilities. This sense that someone's looking over my shoulder when I'm writing is the worst thing that can happen."

She's the first to concede she is wilful.

"But I've never set out to offend people.

And I'm not going to pull back from a subject because it has the potential to ruffle feathers." She imagines there must be other more cautious writers than her -- not hard to imagine -- who are "self-editing up a storm".

Is it important to offend? "Yes. Take female genital mutilation," she says. "If you're going to stick up for the right of little girls not to have their genitals chopped into bits, you have to risk offending communities where it has been a tradition for generations.

"There have been so many instances of this right not to be offended deriving from Muslim communities, for whom it is profoundly against the law to insult their religion. Combined with the threat of terrorism, everybody is increasingly afraid to give offence, particularly to Islam and it just seems like asking for trouble. This movement is partly being driven by the diversity of western life. What we've been calling minorities -- groups of people with very different ways of thinking -- are becoming a large part of our society. It's especially a problem with the Muslim failure to integrate, which makes everything incredibly touchy, but is also increasingly leading to a general calcification of the public discourse."

Shriver, who grew up in a religious household in North Carolina, which "inoculated me against religion for ever" is not the first to argue that the right to give offence is one of the very foundations of freedom of speech. …

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