Features, Politics

A Defence of Lionel Shriver: Identity Politicians Would Kill Literature if They Could

Saul Bellow once described the experience of reading the literary quarterlies of the fifties and sixties, after their takeover by the academy. He recorded feeling “first uncomfortable, then queasy, then indignant, contemptuous and finally quite bleak, flattened out by the bad writing.”

If you have followed the events and aftermath of the recent Brisbane Writers Festival, you may have experienced a very similar emotional reaction. In this essay, I hope to arrest that sense of bleakness, but first, a brief summary is in order.

To put it uncharitably, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a sensitive plant, had a tantrum during the keynote address by Lionel Shriver. Her ire was caused — or triggered, as the kids say — by what is a very conservative notion nowadays: writers of fiction can write about whatever they damn well please.

Shriver took aim at the devotees of identity politics, who occupy and conquer today’s university campuses. Recently, they have no-platformed controversial speakers, carved out intellectual “safe spaces”, and have now kicked off a panic about “cultural appropriation”. Shriver explained:

Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” — ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability — are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

A fantastically stupid idea, yes, and one that betrays a reactionary contempt for a cosmopolitan and humanist ethos. It has real world implications, too: sushi is off the menu in the university cafeteria; there is a prohibition on the white man’s donning of a sombrero; and, worst of all, severe restrictions on the writing of fiction, which relies, unsurprisingly, on the author inventing, inhabiting and stealing the experiences of others.

No longer, however. Today’s moral puritans dictate that you may only tell a story if it is your story to tell. Literary segregation, in other words: white characters for the white authors, and gay experiences for the gay writers, and, well, you get the idea. Step across this line and you invite the charge of gross insensitivity at best, bigotry and racism at worst.


Award winning author, Lionel Shriver accepts none of this, and rightly so. Hers is “a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best” she declared.

Her speech was a masterly takedown of the latest left-wing lunacy.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied was less than impressed, storming out of Shriver’s speech in the first few minutes. And for the professionally outraged, a thought unpublished or unexpressed is a thought wasted, and, lo and behold, her hissy-fit was transmogrified into an article at The Guardian.

Now, I know there has been a lot of criticism at Yassmin’s expense, and I won’t take more than my ration. In fact, I shall focus on the positives: her essay is nothing less than a masterwork of petulance and stupidity. One seldom finds the chaotic mindset of the social justice crowd so neatly encapsulated.

There is, of course, the complete unwillingness to engage with viewpoints that she finds disagreeable: “Mama, I can’t sit here,’ I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards. ‘I cannot legitimise this.'” A dramatic exit was a moderate and sensible policy, given that “the stench of privilege hung heavy in the air.”

Unlike those damn fiction writers with their imaginations, Abdel-Magied is the model of writerly etiquette:

I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.

And with this, she welcomes the annexation of literature by identity politics. Abdel-Magied even goes so far as to argue that Shriver’s style of disrespect “lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.” To avoid this, we must trade in our right to free expression and unfettered literary creation.

This literary kerfuffle signals the arrival in Australia of the new style of identity politics, imported from the USA. I had thought, with a bit of luck, we could have avoided the worst of it. After all, the fate of fiction is at stake, and that’s not too grandiose a way of putting it. Those who whine about cultural appropriation would kill literature if they could get away with it, or at least leave it sterile and unreadable. The social justice era will not produce a memorable novel, play or poem, unless it’s a satire at the movement’s expense.

Literary criticism, or what’s left of it, would suffer, too. The American writer Joseph Epstein used to tell a story about Allen Ginsberg, a story that I will unashamedly appropriate. At an award ceremony, the MC spoke at some length of the great work the Beat poet had done for the gay rights movement, and how he had made it easier for so many to come out and identify as homosexual. Ginsberg took to the microphone and remarked: “Thank you, but after that introduction, I’m not sure whether I am getting this award for my poetry or my cocksucking.”

I rather like this story, for it has a serious point: here is the dreary style of literary evaluation that will remain to us. Identity, as ever, will do the work of imagination and plot, but it will also corrupt and degrade critical standards, which would be based upon political whims and fatuities rather than artistic or aesthetic guidelines. Let us not risk entrusting literature, or anything else for that matter, to these vandals and fools.

Keep this in mind when you hear someone inquire: What, then, is permissible for fiction writers to write about? The answer should come in the form of a rebuke. What a contemptible question! It is a question asked by the censor, the theocrat and the bore, and we must cultivate our annoyance with all of them.

This should go some way towards making cultural appropriation not only a “passing fad”, as Lionel Shriver hopes, but an embarrassing and inconsequential one.


Timothy Cootes has written for various online magazines, including The Big Smoke, Quadrant and Writer’s Edit. You can read more of his essays and reviews at his website.


  1. John Vakintis says

    As advertising and society in general has gone the way of focusing on the individual with “i” this and “you” that followed by product X. So to has self serving activism.Were once it was about how you could sacrifice yourself for others, now it’s like any other product you acquire to show off to your peers and in return bask in the warm afterglow of thinking you have changed the world.

  2. Gail Tredwell says

    Brilliant essay. Essentially then, all murder mysteries should only be written by actual murderers, right?

  3. “What a contemptible question! It is a question asked by the censor, the theocrat and the bore,” Love it, wouldn’t it be great to trot this wonderful put down to the madness of cultural appropriation?

  4. LFP2016 says

    Nailed it, nailed it, then nailed it again.

    The juvenile infatuation with simplistic and divisive identity politics is preventing the US Left from becoming the political force it should be — and thus Trump.

  5. Enquiring Mind says

    Solipsism rises, or declines, to an art form.
    Personalization of experience and expression mean the decline of dialogue, replaced by soliloquy.
    If the only voices allowed are those from within a defined community, does that not imply a certain degradation toward hallucination?
    The Yassminites may as well become Quakers, or similar self-referential cults, where they may mull over and restate to their heart’s content.

  6. What applies to fiction applies to reality, a fortiori. This simply reinforces the thought – the stratagem – that only those who have the respective “lived experience” are able and allowed to say what’s real. Inconveniently, when it comes to oppression, there are at least two people involved. So this needs an addition: only the oppressed person, not the oppressor, may determine,reality, past and present. Which gets slightly ridiculous when the task at hand is to determine who oppresses whom, in reality. That’s the moment to start talking about “historically disadvantaged groups”. Guess who gets to voice that narrative.

  7. Martin says

    Would Yassmin Abdel-Magied read this, or would she balk at the title and toss her iPad across the room?

  8. Jennifer N. Curtis says

    Neither of you are exactly right. Amandla’s video is awesome. Two issues:
    1. It is the very nature of high fashion/couture to reflect the influence/dominance of emerging cultural trends. It has never been the responsibility of the industry, which has always explicitly catered to the powerful and rich elites, to decode what they consume. You may think they SHOULD, but…well…good luck with that; it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry. If you want it to change, convince Beyonce and other wealthy POC not to wear the brands.
    2. What Mark said WAS stupid, and offensive, that is, about not “seeing” color. Point taken. He got schooled.
    What I think happens is a dialectic. Throughout history, dominant culture is challenged by new, often more enlightened thinking about how we are to be in the world, and I think there is much to recommend the reframing of culture from the perspective of peoples-of-difference. The dominant culture is forced to engage with the challenge, and from that we enter a dialectical process. Neither “side” “wins” – and we are all changed. I think that largely, only good things can happen from this. But it has also been true throughout history that the reactions against dominant cultures can become in and of themselves abusive (e.g. French Revolution; post-WW2 anti-communism, etc., etc.). It’s just not simple.

    • Sorry, but no. If the “dominant culture” being “forced to engage” with challenges involves essentially telling writers and artists what they can or cannot do? Fuck that and fuck these people. The fact that this is very clearly in the service of an identity politic which seems to inherently favor the illiberal idea that races need to be separate is another reason – no wonder the alt-right loves switching around the logic of SJWs to favor whites.

      I honestly, truly do not think people need to think about it much beyond that. Shriver’s completely in the right and it’s overdue. I feel like people are getting the nerve to speak up in these blunt terms and it’s welcome.

      More of a thought than a reaction to you: if people want to feel better about this stuff, look at the comment section on The Guardian in response to the Shriver piece and to the hysterical overreaction to it. The former was viewed as a breath of fresh air, while the other one was mocked and deservedly ripped to shreds. My only hope is that the backlash to this stuff is more classically liberal than the kind of white identity politics we’re seeing online.

  9. Jerryskids says

    I started to read this essay but then realized that I have no idea if the author is a middle-class middle-aged straight white male like myself and felt it might be culturally-appropriative of me to be reading something written by someone from a background different from my own, attempting to gain some knowledge and understanding of the author’s viewpoint without being capable of being properly appreciative of the author’s intent due to my middle-class middle-aged straight white maleness that prevents me from knowing and understanding any viewpoint other than my own. Whew! Dodged a bullet on that one!

    • Yeah, Jerry, that was culturally insensitive of you. You *are* supposed to *read* it, but not interpret it. The fact that the author doesn’t clearly indentify his* exact class-matrix is a compounded microaggression and possibly undue appropriation of (readers’) attention.

  10. Smarter maybe says

    Just after Shriver’s address I saw some lovely writer folk on twitter taking screenshots of writers who agreed with Shriver’s talk in order to list them up and encourage their followers not to read such monsters. Mind you, none of these people being recorded for posterity (infamy) were agreeing wholeheartedly with Shriver, and none of them were denigrating the other side. This, however, earned them the title of racist and a spot on a blacklist. That was all that was needed to convince me that Shriver was 100% right.

  11. Joseph says

    The whole PC social justice warrior nonsense will soon be facing a huge backlash I predict; in fact, it’s already starting to happen with the rise of the “alt-right” and people like Trump. But Trump is not even the worst of it, many of his supporters are becoming even more extreme than he is.

    The PC left has become too authoritarian. It has been backed by the media and many political and corporate institutions. Authoritarianism, however, is extremely uncool and there will always come a time when they face a rebellion that throws all their shit back at them full force. This is how the pendulum swings.

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