On Lionel Shriver and cultural appropriation in fiction

In a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, novelist Lionel Shriver said, “I am hopeful that the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a passing fad.”

Shriver listed a number of instances in which students on college campuses were offended by acts they deemed to be cultural appropriation. You are probably familiar with at least some of these examples; they’ve been employed ad nauseam by pundits and Facebook posters who want to rail against “coddled millennials” or “PC culture run amok” or whatever it is they’re mad about today.

Suffice it to say: college students have always experimented with the idea of what it is to be an adult, and adults have always yelled at college students for being young. That adults are now yelling at college students for erring on the side of sensitivity says more about the failings of adults, to my mind, than it does about the failings of the students. If you’re arguing against an inclusive world, if you’re calling for less empathy in the universe, you’re wrong.

I have no doubt that some students have been so eager to create safe spaces that they inadvertently called for censorship. And censorship, even in the context of safety, is bad. But there is a difference between “demanding censorship” and “requesting that people be more considerate of others’ feelings,” and critics are too quick to confuse the latter for the former. And even when a student does go too far, using that student as an example of why a whole generation is bad and worthless does not contribute anything to the conversation.

Anyway, Shriver argues that the kids these days, with their sensitivity toward cultural appropriation, are hurting fiction. And then she finally gets to the ax that she wants to grind:

My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white”. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family. I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics.

While reading this essay, I was very confused about why Shriver was so upset until I got to the part about The Mandibles, and then it became clear to me: novelists will go a fair distance out of their way in order to pick a fight with a critic who they believe has wronged them.

Anyway, to hear Shriver say it, if she made a character in The Mandibles bisexual or a “transvestite,” that would “distract from my central subject matter.” In other words, anything that is not straight or white would be a distraction. So by Shriver’s math, if you want to publish a story about a serious issue, you’d better make your protagonists straight and white. Otherwise, those characters will taint the story with their otherness — their race, their sexuality — and distract you from making your point about economics or macramé, or whatever it is you really want to talk about.

This is an argument from a place of unexamined privilege: when you are categorized in society’s default position, every other position is an inconvenience, or a distraction, to you. Shriver warns that novelists might eventually become afraid to write about other perspectives:

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful.

And she says the conclusion that writers should do a good job of representation is facile, and it’s asking too much of writers: “Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given. But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying.”

The funny thing about this part of Shriver’s speech is that it very nearly rubs up against another common complaint against Kids These Days: the alleged “Everyone Gets a Trophy” culture that’s turning Kids These Days into Oversensitive PC Crybabies. Any novelist asking to be exempt from criticism should earn a raised eyebrow in response. Why wouldn’t a critic point out an author’s awkward approach to race, or gender?

The truth is, there are plenty of writers out there who write about people from cultures other than their own, and many of them do it well. In her comic Ms. Marvel, Seattle’s G. Willow Wilson, a white American woman, writes about a teenage Pakistani-American superhero, and that character has become a beloved icon in real-life Pakistani-American communities. This is because Wilson did due diligence: she talked with people who shared a background with her character. She engages them in conversations, she listens to them, and she reports back on what she hears in her stories.

Good fiction always has an element of journalism to it. Most good novels spring from an author’s curiosity. What’s it like to do that job? What was that historical figure like in real life? What would happen to the Earth if the moon exploded? What if an astronaut got stuck on Mars? Authors should always wonder what it’s like to be another person. And good authors do more than just imagine: they ask. They research. They talk. They learn. Novels are engines of empathy and to create them, writers have to be more empathetic than most.

So say you’ve done all the research you can do. Say you’ve talked to people who are unlike you, and you’ve done your best to represent them in your book. And say someone doesn’t like your book. Say they complain about it in a review. Or they ask you about it in a reading, or on Twitter. Say a few people agree with their complaint. What then?

Well, I guess then you’re a writer who wrote something that someone doesn’t like. That’s okay. There are plenty of those in the world. It happens. Other people get to not like your writing, and they even get to tell other people about it. It’s called freedom of speech. As a writer, you should celebrate it, not spend thousands of words whining about it at a keynote address in Brisbane. But then, I guess that’s your right, too, isn’t it?