Lionel Shriver and the Right to Write About Anyone You Want

Ann-Marie Cahill |
8 months ago

Lionel Shriver swore she would never to return to Australia, following the critical response to her infamous speech on “cultural appropriation” at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival in 2016. Yet there she was, arguing the same issues again, this time as a panellist on ABC Australia’s Q&A (Monday 2 September 2019).

The Q&A panel was a collaboration of three other groups: the Melbourne Writers Festival, Antidote at the Sydney Opera House, and the Centre for Independent Studies. As a live-broadcast television show, with questions from a large and diverse audience, Q&A is often a great indicator for the hot topics in the community. Previously, I wrote about Roxane Gay’s attendance in March 2019. For that broadcast, Gay brought the class and dignity we have come to expect of her – and which was sorely missing from others on the panel at the time.

Every other week, the usual Q&A panel consists of a few politicians, who dominate the conversation with plenty of spin and hyperbole. This week, the panel was filled with writers – fiction and academic – providing the opportunity for some deep thinking on current affairs. The one that really caught my attention (and many others, following the discussion on Twitter): ‘Whether writers have the authority to represent perspectives that are not theirs.’

Shriver’s fellow panellists included: Steve Coll (the Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism in New York); Benjamin Law (writer and social media campaigner); DeRay Mckesson (Black Lives Matter and civil rights activist); and Ruby Hamad (journalist and author of White Tears/Brown Scars).

The question regarding writers’ authority to represent was one question amongst many; however, its relevance dominated the conversation. Shriver’s views in 2016 on ‘cultural appropriation as a passing fad’ received widespread criticism, including from Book Riot. And rightfully so. Her views were seen as giving all writers a carte blanche to write whatever they want about whoever they like. There was no discussion about responsibility for the promotion of hate, or responsibility for sustaining historic inaccuracies and stereotypes. Shriver’s views have not changed over the last three-years; if anything, she doubled-down on her opinion of ‘fascistic’ identity politics.

“[T]o say that you are not allowed to project yourself into the minds of characters who have a different race or gender or sexual preference than your own is… it’s not only limiting for the author… it means that the fiction is going to be very narrow.” —Lionel Shriver on Q&A, 2 September 2019.

Watching her recent participation on Q&A, Shriver presented the view that there was no need for ‘own voices’; if a writer of a minority had a good enough story to tell about their experiences, then their writing would be good enough to be published.

For people like Shriver, it is very easy to say ‘authors of colour write their own stories, but people simply aren’t reading them.’ It’s easy to say because it lacks any effort from the person saying it. It’s easy, simplistic, and it’s wrong.

I know this because I did this. And I was wrong.

Working with Book Riot has really opened my eyes. Recently, I fell into the old habit and took comfort in my long list of classic sci-fi writers. I made the horrible assumption they were my favourite classics because they were the best. I have since reread them and some of them are really bad. I’m amazed at how bad. Especially when I am pointed to AOC in the same genre who are so much better. However, it can take a little more homework to find them. Why? Because there has been an extraordinary bias throughout publishing history – and yes, the bias has been to the advantage of conservative white males. As I said, I have learned so much from the team at Book Riot, a team of writers who work so hard to remind us of our responsibility to right the balance and look for a more diverse range of authors and characters.

The truth of the matter is, Shriver is partly right – fiction writers should be allowed some freedoms to be creative with their stories and be encouraged to include diversity in their characters. We need to have diversity in our writing to broaden the great sense of empathy one gains from reading fiction. And in a very broad, generalised sense, the majority of the panel agreed.

HOWEVER, in saying that, writers should also carry the responsibility to be honest with their portrayals. There needs to be some responsibility to consider the history of racist tropes and the dominance of white privilege in the publishing industry. As Priya Sridhar said in her 2016 response to Shriver: “Not everyone who writes well knows how to act decently.” And if they are appropriating a culture for their own creative purpose, then step up and support the #ownvoice movement to publish their stories too.

Where I felt Shriver’s argument took a particularly bad turn was when she tried to justify the story around her character of colour. Full disclosure: I have not read the book she was discussing, however, after hearing her description I have no urge to read it now. Shriver described a ‘black woman lead around by her family using a leash’. She defended the scene as being the family’s management of a deranged woman who would run away at the first opportunity, and without realising the danger. Shriver was describing this treatment as being how the story told itself; there was no indication of contextual empathy or acknowledgement of this being a bad portrayal. She defended her writing as being her right to write. And she defended it directly to a woman of colour (fellow panellist Ruby Hamad).

We have a similar situation currently before the courts in Australia. A football player used Twitter as a platform for his extremely offensive homophobic commentary. He later claimed he was allowed to because he was expressing the views of his religious belief. No, you were only expressing your views on homosexuality and then using religion as a defence because you knew you were doing the wrong thing. He knew he was being homophobic but he was afraid. Afraid of the people who would tell him he was homophobic. And so he hid behind a faux-defence of religious beliefs. His employer saw through this ploy and sacked him, tearing up his multi-million dollar contract. The loss of money was so upsetting for the football player, it is now before the Courts debating the defence of religious beliefs. The Australian Federal Government has stepped in, claiming the need for fresh legislation to protect us all from religious persecution – but not from homophobes.

Unfortunately, just like Lionel Shriver, the politicians have completely missed the point. It is not the dogma behind why you did it that concerns the average empathetic human being. It is what you said that starts this whole debate. The footballer is homophobic. Shriver is racist. Own up to it. Take responsibility. And if that title still feels icky on your shoulders (and it bloody well should), then take a step back and think about what you can do to make it better. Start with more diversity in published writers. Stop your patronising mantra of “It’s okay, we can write your story better for you.” No, your story will be different, not better. For example, do not write a racially insensitive scene and then hide behind the excuse of “the story needed that scene to make a point”.

It is absolutely fine if you want to write about characters of diverse races and cultures. But please, show your professionalism and do some research first. You want to share stories? Then try listening to those who have lived those lives; not just talking to them about what you see.

As Mckesson so eloquently explained on the same night to the panel: “I don’t want to hear you write about a gay black man as an intellectual basis; I want to read about someone who has lived it.”

It is not that we can’t aptly empathise with cultures other than our own; it is that the majority of writers don’t allow for voices from those cultures to speak up first. And that is our responsibility to change.

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