Is free speech a fiction? In conversation with Lionel Shriver

Sunday 14 October, 16:0017:15, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

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Internationally renowned author Lionel Shriver isn’t afraid of speaking her mind. At the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival, she gave a speech which called into question the contemporary focus on identity politics. ‘I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad’, she said, infamously causing a young woman to walk out in protest. Since then, Shriver has been the go-to critic of identity politics in the arts.

More recently, Shriver was accused of racism for writing a column in the Spectator arguing that diversity quotas in publishing would mean ‘literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes’. Hanif Kureishi and other authors were outraged, arguing that Shriver’s article had brought out all the ‘knuckle-dragging, semi-blind suspects’. She was even dropped as a judge for a a writing competition run by magazine Mslexia, who said that Shriver’s comments ‘alienate the very women we are trying to support’.

Despite sometimes vicious reactions to her views, Shriver continues to argue that the concept of cultural ‘appropriation’ is creative poison, whereas cultural cross-fertilisation is fruitful for both artist and audience. In an interview with the spiked review, Shriver insisted that ‘fiction writing is a form of pillaging, happy pillaging, theft that doesn’t hurt anybody or take anything away from people’. Rather than joining the ranks of other authors who have hired ‘sensitivity readers’ to prevent offensive portrayals of characters, or who avoid going outside their own experience in fiction, Shriver consistently defends a writer’s freedom to use their imagination in their work.

As well as a staunch defender of intellectual freedom, Shriver is perhaps better known as a multiple award-winning author. Her most famous book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005 and caused rows over dinner tables worldwide about the difference between nurture and nature in parenting. After 13 books, including Property, published this year, what does Shriver think the future holds for fiction writers? How hard has it been to criticise identity politics in today’s oversensitive climate? Is diversity in the arts something to aspire to or do we need to focus on the content of what’s being published, rather than the writer?