Lionel Shriver on Free Thinking

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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.

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