‘I won’t ask permission to say what I want’
Lionel Shriver takes on the dreary conformism of contemporary culture.
‘It’s a clamorous world. To be heard, you have to be forceful.’ So says Lionel Shriver, who, thanks to her attack on the critics of cultural appropriation, has certainly been heard recently. In fact, it’s fair to say that she’s now a bête noire for much of the liberal left.
But it’s not her forcefulness that concerns me during our meeting in Shriver’s London home. It’s the absence of warmth. Not human warmth, but gas-fired warmth, the warmth of a piping-hot radiator. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Another interviewer had already revealed that Shriver saves on heating bills by wrapping up indoors. But still, seeing her sat across her kitchen table from me, swamped in a giant woolly coat, I began to regret my lack of layers.
Yet, even when enshrouded in assorted grey fabrics, Shriver is still able to command the room, her quiet, stern look matching the force of her conviction. ‘I don’t feel this way about everything I think, but to me, in this case, my perspective is so self-evidently true, that it’s not even worth having the discussion.’ She’s talking about the source of her recent infamy, the run-in with the right-on crowd, following her criticism of cultural appropriation, the idea that one shouldn’t use or adopt elements of another culture different to one’s own. Sitting in her kitchen, she defends her argument: ‘Fiction writing is a form of pillaging, happy pillaging, theft that doesn’t hurt anybody or take anything away from people. I saw on the news recently that Edna O’Brien is writing a book, set in Nigeria, which has a lot to do with Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the school girls. If that’s cultural appropriation, then good luck to her. Doesn’t it express an interest in other people’s problems? And one that she doesn’t really have to indulge? She could just keep setting books in Ireland. Isn’t it admirable that she has an eye on the wider world? And I would say that it’s admirable even if she falls flat on her face. I admire that impulse, getting outside your tiny garden.’
When Shriver spoke out against cultural appropriation at ‘a rather modest out-of-the-way literary festival’ in Brisbane, Australia, her contention that fiction is necessarily inauthentic, and that writers ought to be free to write about characters from a range of cultural backgrounds, initially met little resistance. It was only when a young activist walked out of Shriver’s talk, later describing it as a ‘poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance’, that Shriver’s comments suddenly became controversial. Since then, she says she has ‘got it in the neck for somehow not presenting my case the way I was supposed to’. But this doesn’t bother her in the slightest. ‘For the sake of sheer variety, someone needs to get a different perspective out’, she tells me defiantly.
I ask her if she’s worried about the lack of different perspectives, about the conformism of contemporary culture. ‘No. It bores me’, she says. ‘So I guess in that sense it worries me. I read a great many more books than I write and I feel a sense of investment in what people are writing because I want to read good books. And when they all hew to the same rules, it puts me to sleep. I think it is unfortunate that novelists, especially in the UK and the US, tend to stick to the same political ideology, which is left of centre. They all believe the same things. And I think that’s dreary. I deliberately expose my own politics in my new novel, and in some others, because my politics don’t hew to the current orthodoxy. And sometimes I’m punished for it.
‘Nobody else is writing about the stuff, I’m writing about’, she continues. ‘Everybody else is writing about transsexuals or being gay or being disabled. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with these things, that they’re all very virtuously minded on, say, race relations. Well fine, but it’s all of a piece. It’s all very predictable. It’s safe. And it’s often disguised as crusading in some fashion. But at this point in time, many of these crusades have already been broadly victorious and the work just isn’t interesting or provocative.’
The same cannot be said of Shriver’s own works, which, at the very least, are almost always intellectually shocking. Think of the dark maternal guilt of We Need To Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005. Or Big Brother: A Novel, which, inspired by her own heartbreak over the death of her brother, looked obesity head on, with disgust and love. Shriver, it seems, is almost attracted to the taboo, the beyond-the-pale, the heterodox.
She partially attributes this to her formative influences. ‘I grew up in a generation that was trying to push back against conformity’, she says, noting what’s different about the contemporary forces of conformism: ‘The people who were trying to shove various orthodoxies down your throat in my youth were the conservatives. You couldn’t have sex outside of marriage; you weren’t supposed to take drugs; there were very strict ideas of how one did and did not dress. It was really quite a long list of dos and don’ts, and these were all coming from the right – that was what it meant to be conservative, you had a sense of propriety and tradition. There were ways that one did things, and it wasn’t a choice. And in the Sixties, my generation said “screw you, we want to be able to do whatever we want”. Now it’s all flipped around, and it’s the left bossing people around and policing what you can and cannot do and say. To me that means you’ve lost any claim to liberalism.’
The anti-conformist urge is certainly present in her latest novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Set in a New York of the near future, and following four generations of the Mandible family, Shriver’s economic dystopia looks at what happens to families, and relationships, when an economic crisis hits the US, and slowly destroys life as people once knew it.
So why an economic crisis, rather than the usual dystopian fare of global warming or nuclear armageddon? As Shriver puts it, she has always been interested in the economy, and the 2008 crisis turned her interest into a fear. ‘2008 was a warning’, she says, ‘and I don’t think that the instabilities of the system have been fixed’. And 2029? ‘Part of it was an arithmetic sentimentality because of the collapse of the stock market 100 years previously. The book begins in exactly the same month, 100 years later, when the stock market collapsed. I liked the sense of foreboding that the date had – it did some heavy lifting for me.’
But perhaps most interesting is Shriver’s own personal investment in The Mandibles. ‘I was specifically interested in looking at what could still happen to me’, she says. ‘I calculated how long I could be around if I were…’ She breaks off and laughs. ‘I was about to say “if I was as lucky as my paternal grandfather”, but I’m not sure it constitutes as good luck to live to 96. I wanted to keep the book in the range that could still pertain to my generation.’
It soon transpires that Shriver, though seemingly fearless, is really quite afraid – not of falling out of favour in the literary world, or what some upstart thinks of her speeches, but of the future. ‘I’m very anxious about the future economically’, she admits. But she’s self-aware enough to know that her anxiety might have non-economic sources. ‘I planted some passages in the beginning of the book which warn the reader that old people can’t be trusted in their pessimism, because they can’t help themselves – they’re naturally bleak about the future because their own future is bleak. They can’t tell the difference between their personal future, and society’s future. They are near to death and therefore they project the nearness of their own death on to their environment. Your author is not any different.’
This foreboding, this sense of impending doom, saturates The Mandibles. ‘The book does throw in a lot of my other obsessions, one of them being the upcoming shortage of fresh water’, she tells me. The family is eventually reduced to wiping their backsides with cloth and washing in dirty water. ‘I’m very concerned about the rise in human population’, she continues: ‘I’m not blithe – that’s what frightens me the most. That’s the driver behind all of our problems, and it’s what makes solving them so difficult.’
Given that Shriver doesn’t mince her words, I don’t want to mince mine. I see humans as a solution to the problems of resource shortages or wealth creation. Shriver sees humans as the problem. This is apparent throughout The Mandibles. Florence, part of the third generation of the Mandible family, works at a homeless shelter, where the main problem is the fact that there’s too many people. Back at home, when the rest of the family falls destitute and has to move into the same house, the problem is the same: too many people. Even when the entire family ends up camping out in the park after being evicted at gunpoint, space is still an issue. Everywhere you turn in The Mandibles, space feels cramped, because there are too many people. Was the novel meant to be a warning against excess itself? As I’m asking this question, Shriver sketches me a graph of human population growth with her finger on the table, jabbing at the wood when the graph goes vertical. ‘Once you reach the 1900s, it is unbelievable’, she shouts.
Shriver might have a fairly negative view of humanity when it comes to the numbers, but this doesn’t necessarily match up with the rest of her political views. In particular, she defends individuality and true cosmopolitanism in the face of the You Can’t Say That culture. ‘We live in a motley world, which is part of the fun thing about today. It’s not just a problem; it’s also very interesting’, she says. But instead of challenging ideas and encouraging political debate, we’re ‘being told to be timorous, and respectful, and frightened – that’s what “respectful” really means: act frightened and apologetic’. At the heart of Shriver’s argument against cultural appropriation, identity politics and censorship is a defence of individuality – a defence of the human, a defence of our ability to transcend our backgrounds, to overcome obstacles. In this sense, identity politics denies our humanity.
‘[Identity politics] is a very restrictive way of thinking about both oneself and other people and I’m dismayed by the whole movement’, says Shriver. ‘I feel that it’s all going in the wrong direction. It’s encouraging us to think of each other in terms of stereotypes and little boxes. It’s also encouraging people to cling to disadvantage as a weapon. Never mind that it’s a weapon – that means that you’re clinging to your disadvantage. That’s not helpful. It means that you’re attached to it and you don’t want it to go away.’
Willing, one of the youngest of the Mandible family, and the hero of The Mandibles, is everything identity politics denies. He is, as Shriver puts it, ‘a libertarian hero’, who ‘takes apart the ideologies of other people. He’s my favourite character.’ Willing is the only character who continues to believe that the Mandibles can improve their lot. He is the epitome of everything that is great about humanity – resourcefulness, drive, ingenuity and dogged determination.
Yet Shriver’s writing is too acute and intelligent for The Mandibles to be one dimensionally pessimistic or optimistic. In fact, so attentive is she to tensions beneath the surface of contemporary social life that The Mandibles anticipates many of the recent issues now dominating US politics. The characters bemoan the downfall of reliable news outlets like the New York Times, echoing the current panic about fake news. Avery, Florence’s sister, is worried about ‘white folks’ becoming a minority in a nation in which the president is Latino and the dominant language is Spanish. And, perhaps most poignantly of all, the novel sees a decline in the world of academia. ‘In this primitive universe’, Shriver tells me, ‘the values change: you lose the intellect; you stop valuing the arts, universities start selling off their property and start shutting down’. This loss of ‘a Western civilisation that is going away in real life’, as Shriver puts it, is played out in The Mandibles when the family is forced to burn books in order to eat dinner. Identity politics, populism, media scares and political extremism – The Mandibles is scarily, and brilliantly, prophetic.
As I leave Shriver’s house, she assures me she isn’t downhearted about the fact that, in many ways, she’s on her own intellectually. ‘I don’t feel that I need to crawl on my belly like a reptile and ask permission to say what I want’, she says. Here’s hoping that more writers join Shriver in kicking against the pricks. ‘If I had acted frightened and apologetic, no one would have paid attention to me’, she says. I’m not sure about that. But in the current climate of hyper sensitivity, a little fearlessness certainly goes a long way.