Why Lionel Shriver's attacks on greater diversity in publishing are wrong – Laura Waddell

Lionel Shriver is playing to an audience of conspiracy theorists and those frustrated that they are average, rather than talented, writers, argues Laura Waddell

Why can’t Lionel Shriver let her books speak for themselves without the relentless anti ‘identity politics’ rhetoric, asks Laura Waddell (Picture: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)
Why can’t Lionel Shriver let her books speak for themselves without the relentless anti ‘identity politics’ rhetoric, asks Laura Waddell (Picture: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)

Watching professional contrarians at work feels like witnessing chain emails circulate. Their traction depends on an ever-replenishing resource of gullibility, decades after the basic scam has been debunked and its operating model revealed, guts on the table. For all that propaganda is now technologically sophisicated, often the underlying principle is the same: trust is won over by appealing to fears, ego, and prejudices already there, ready to be exploited.

Author Lionel Shriver – known best for her 2003 novel We Need To Talk About Kevin and, latterly, her political views, which she self-describes as ‘brutal’ and which include passionate Brexiteerism and scepticism about both the #MeToo movement and the coronavirus lockdown – has a new book out.

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On the publicity push, an interview with Ariel Levy in the New Yorker reminds the reader that in 2018 Shriver wrote in the Spectator, “If an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published.” This is simply not how publishing works in reality, but it proves scapegoating others isn’t only a well-worn political tool, but a cultural one too.

Shriver’s comments play to those with no insight into publishing, but keenness to feel validated in their prejudices against diversity. They think they’re on to a conspiracy while missing their own susceptibility to what is fairly obvious culture-war themed marketing.

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These stinky sentiments are reheated leftovers from the anti-PC reactivism of the 1990s and 2000s, sprinkled with new garnish – an extended repertoire of identities to mock, with trans added to the mix – and restyled as “anti-wokeness”. The clock appears to have stuck in the era of Shriver’s big breakthrough.

Reactionary baiting, which we see all over opinion pieces and social media, generally falls into two camps. The first is calculated gambit; there will be controversy, but a particular target audience will respond positively and the attention beneficial overall. In cases of career controversialists who pop up every time there is an opportunity to deny climate change or staunchly defend some madcap right-wing view, they’re certainly profiting financially, and from the weakness of ‘bothsidesism’ news structure.

The second camp is rooted in insecurity about one’s own position in the professional world, and a sense of being left behind as it changes. This can be seen in the desire to suck up to a stale model of power, the white male change-maker who held court when the controversialist’s career was on the up. Mocking others is an ingratiation attempt, showing they’re in the same camp, fighting newcomers who dare think they deserve a place at the table. But it is always easier to trick oneself into believing advancement of others has resulted in one’s personal persecution, than come to terms with being average among the competition.

Sometimes anti-diversity views are posited as a critical or intellectual stance in opposition to the ‘sentiment’ of identity. Of course, there is good writing and bad writing on every theme; but any argument that rejects a subject outright isn’t interested in the substance. The perception that logic is more valid than emotion has always been used to dismiss women intellectually, and demean art about women. Sometimes women themselves use this argument to bash others. Rarely does diversity-panning engage with the material reality of the art world and how the business of it works. If Shriver believes interest in identity is quashing literary quality, why can’t her books speak for themselves without relentless anti “identity politics” rhetoric, always in search of a rise?

It’s a hackneyed sexist and racist trope to equate minorities with lesser quality, but it also makes little sense to conclude literature is at risk from a wider pool of writers competing for publishing contracts. Nor does examining and undoing the closed shop of yonderyear damage standards now. Undoubtedly, we have already missed out on so many great writers. That – and how the industry is challenged financially – is where earnest concern lies.

In fact, we know from recent industry self-examination on diversity that authors published, as well as publishing workforces, lag behind demographics of the general populace (either in UK or the US, the biggest English language publishing centres), never mind favourable. And actually, the interest in diversity has bloomed only recently and only after literal centuries of exclusion and in many instances outright hostility to women and minorities of all kinds in literary culture. Even now, favouritism towards white male writers is easily provable in statistics of who reviews or is reviewed in the literary press; the same is true of prizes. Those like the Women’s Prize for Fiction, once called the Orange Prize, were set up to reward writers who are demographically statistically overlooked in mainstream prize culture, and while the benefits include the publicity that a prize brings, there are also well-considered drawbacks to being separated off. Shriver won the £30,000 Orange Prize in 2005, noting in her acceptance speech that she had written seven unsuccessful novels before We Need To Talk About Kevin hit it big. I imagine the critical recognition was helpful to her at the time.

The most common reactionary trick of all is disingenuously claiming interest in freedom of speech. I wish I had a pound for every declined author who self-aggrandisingly aligns themselves with revered writers of the past claiming they wouldn’t be published nowadays either, that we just can’t handle their raw truth. (Often their example is Nabokov, ignoring that copies of Lolita were once banned from entering the country and now can be bought in every bookshop.) Sometimes they blame feminism or “social justice warriors” for bad fortunes. Twenty years ago it was the PC brigade, and in 20 years it’ll be called something else.

In reality, the problem is not the existence of others – it’s just not being good enough. The world is just a little less likely to reward them for it.

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