Books,  Freedom of Expression

The Unread Guards

So there’s Lionel Shriver mischievously addressing the Brisbane Writers Festival about cultural appropriation through the sillier examples of sombreros and sushi and, more seriously, making the old cry for artistic freedom and the play of the imagination. Although what she said was not startling it did inspire performance art. One was from Yassmin Abdel-Magied who staged a walk out and whose article on why she did so the Guardian cruelly published. She was duly minced in the comments.

What did Shriver say in her keynote that could drive a woman who has heard every slur under the sun to discard social convention and make such an obviously political exit?

Her question was — or could have been — an interesting question: What are fiction writers “allowed” to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?

No, it’s not an interesting question, if it’s not as old as Sumerian cunieform, it’s as old as Plato about lying for the purposes of art.

Shriver’s ideas on identity are “the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide. “

I do remember the days of cultural exchange, when we thought it was a good thing to broaden our minds by sampling foreign foods, foreign dance, and how this was meant to undermine the foundations for prejudice etc…. And genocide – wasn’t the European Holocaust a good deal to do with a culture embracing its own purity, uncontaminated by outside forces?

Her last paragraph is genius in its lack of self-awareness:-

The opening of a city’s writers festival could have been graced by any of the brilliant writers and thinkers who challenge us to be more. To be uncomfortable. To progress.

She was challenged and she was uncomfortable and made her progress across the floor to the exit.

It’s mean to make fun of Abdel-Massied’s histrionics. So I’ll make fun of someone else’s histrionics instead, one Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Her tone is a cross between a Red Guard kicking a professor for incorrect thoughts and a Victorian Evangelical deploring novels that depict impure subjects.

Reading a tweet account of Shriver’s speech was enough to throw her into a rage:-

Over the next 24 hours, Shriver’s speech – advocating cultural appropriation and publicly sneering at those who ask for consultation and sensitivity in the telling of others’ stories – is all any writer on the festival circuit can talk about. When we’ve tired of dissecting Shriver’s keynote speech, we talk about how desperately Shriver wants to be talked about. Then we stop talking about her at all.

(“Dissecting” with no actual corpse to cut up as Clarke had neither heard nor read the speech. )

Sensitivity? A good quality in any writing. Consultation? From who? I imagine something like a planning permission notice.

Proposed erection of novel set in Edinburgh and Glasgow constituting approximately 400 pages, 23 characters, 4 of who are of a Muslim Pakistani background, 3 Catholics of Irish descent, 2 gays (one camp, the other not). Objections should be lodged by 3 April 2017.

Anyway like those blokes in Bradford who burned The Satanic Verses, Clarke did not need to read/hear the offensive material in order to react to it as blasphemy. She confronted Shriver.

How dare you come to this country and behave like that?”

“When I come to your country,” Shriver’s chin is raised now. Her voice is strict, as if she’s speaking to small children. Though she’s shorter than I am, she somehow still manages to peer condescendingly down the bridge of her nose. “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.”


“You don’t even know what I said,” Shriver repeats, raising her voice slightly.

I can feel my blood pressure rising. “The entire Australian writing community has a fair idea of what you said,” I scoff. Then softer, in disbelief, almost under my breath. “You’re a disgrace.”

I love that Clarke is speaking for “the entire Australian writing community”. Did she consult? And a “writing community”? How does that work?

(By the way both Clarke & Abdel-Magied go for a setting the scene, dramatising style, which is slathers of icing on insubstantial cake.)

Clarke was outraged by Shriver’s hauteur, the hauteur any writer worth her salt would display to some individual who had not read/heard her work before sounding off about it. Of course Shriver treats with disdain philistines responding to something they hadn’t read.

Also how righteous and certain Clarke is, like a Southern Baptist preacher denouncing sin. The idea of “cultural appropriation” is established and unquestionable for some, it seems.

Clarke’s last sight of Shriver is her sitting alone, which she thinks is a terrible indictment. She has her own cultural blind spot, for aloneness against a bunch of group thinkers shouting “blasphemer” raises Shriver’s stature considerably in Anglo culture. Clarke has appropriated for Shriver the gaunt icon of Orwell standing alone against the Stalin-worshipping group think of his own day, and Shriver, though she calls herself an “iconoclast” doesn’t really deserve it as about half the opinionated population snorts at sombreros and sushi and being told what you can and can’t say.

A third respondent, Suki Kim, did hear Shriver through and is calmer in her response, though she misrepresents Shriver’s ideas:-

Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” She tempered what amounted to a right-wing case against affirmative action and political correctness with a paean to cultural exchange, proclaiming, “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad,

Shriver said nothing against affirmative action or even political correctness when it comes to ordinary human interaction, and her words about identity were identity for the purposes of fiction, i.e. it is not enough for a character to be the Gay person, the Deaf person etc – they have to be other things as well, like kind or selfish or troubled.

In a diatribe that has since become notorious, she proceeded to enumerate the various ways in which cultural appropriation—the idea that white artists and communities have stolen elements of minority cultures in ways that are oppressive—was harmful to people everywhere.

What elements? How can you “steal”* elements of minority cultures by portraying members of them in fiction, writing haikus or dancing the tango? There are things you can steal, loot, treasures, eg those Maori heads that were eventually returned to their home or you can steal the royalties for a song that someone else made up (The Lion Sleeps Tonight for example). But intangibles? She should have named these “elements”, which would have exposed the general wrongness of this idea.

Kim spoke on a panel which was a Right of Reply to Shriver’s address:-

Afterward, once I finally finished my own book event and walked into what was known as the Artist’s Den, a private hotel room the festival had rented out for the writers to relax with drinks, several writers congratulated me on my performance. No one was referring to the one I did for my book…

I had been invited to the Brisbane Writers Festival as a writer, but now I was here, foremost, as an Asian. This was yet more proof, if it was needed, that Shriver was spewing nothing but nonsense: Some of us have no choice when it comes to identity.

Kim has the usual writerly irritation that people preferred to talk about her discussing Shriver’s thoughts rather than her own book. Writers – Martin Amis, Gore Vidal – have frequently complained that interviewers would rather ask them about their “views” than the thing that they wrote. She is reasonably pissed off at being the “non-white” representative, the substance of whose work is ignored however she has no qualms about treating Shriver as a white representative, whose opinions are treated as racial arrogance and which she has distorted. Kim can write about who she likes – WASPy bankers and black rappers if she can get away with it, i.e. do it convincingly and so can Shriver.

The examples Shriver gives of the chilling effect of the cultural appropriation movement on her own writing are being taken to task by reviewers and an internal nervousness that she will be vilified by people whom she thinks are wrong-headed and won’t have read her work. That is hardly the government censor or the publisher indicating to Thomas Hardy to lay off the sensuality in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. So her complaints seem over the top as far as the writing profession goes – she sells, she is speaking at the Marlborough Literary Festival this weekend.

You write well, you write badly, you write courageously, you write timidly. Our two great humane, and humanist, novelists – George Eliot and E M Forster – were great cultural appropriators, Eliot in Daniel Deronda, a plea against antisemitism in her portrayal of Jewish pawnbrokers, artists and proto Zionists, and Forster in A Passage to India, the most anti-imperialist of English novels with its Muslim and Hindu Indians. They both took pains, researched, asked insiders about their accuracy. Then they imagined and wrote. And by their works we know them.

*(I filched this point from here.)