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IS FREE SPEECH A FICTION? IN CONVERSATION WITH LIONEL SHRIVER


Sunday 14 October, 16:00—17:15, Cinema 1Keynote controversies



Lionel Shriver - award-winning novelist; novels include, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005 Orange prize winner), The Mandibles: a family, 2029 – 2047 and The Post-Birthday World; her first short story collection, Property, was published this year


Claire Fox – (interviewer) director, Academy of Ideas; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!


Lionel Shriver (left) in discussion with Claire Fox

The award-winning Lionel Shriver has recently published a collection of short stories, Property, in which she addresses the theme of property ownership and how, ironically, one can come to be owned by property. In one story, an adult son’s refusal to leave home leads to a standoff with his frustrated parents. Soon the conflict becomes part of a wider generational dispute.


Aside from her writing, Shriver is also a fierce critic of ‘cultural appropriation’, the idea that taking ideas, art or fashion from a culture different to your own amounts to a form of theft. University students criticised for wearing sombreros at a social event is an example of this. More recently, Jamie Oliver was criticised for making his chicken dish using a word from traditional Jamaican cooking. The problem for novelists is that it could restrict what they can write about; by implication this threatens the novel itself. At one previous talk a young journalist stormed out after Shriver hoped that cultural appropriation would prove to be a passing fad.


At The Battle of Ideas, Shriver is a little less optimistic. As an established writer she can write in The Spectator with a degree of security. For the next generation of writers who have a divergent view, they might find it hard to get their work published. Publishers now employ ‘sensitivity readers’ to ensure that the novel represents minority groups in a sensitive way. Presumably the novel will have to change if the characters are deemed offensive. Offence is inevitable, claimed Shriver, as there will always be someone who will get annoyed. In that sense her Spectator column is liberated by the certainty of complaint: Shriver has lost the will to navigate the offence landscape.


Most problematic is the effect upon art itself. If publishers feel that they have to censor and choose writers depending on diversity quotas, there is a danger that great art could be unpublished and not enjoyed. Shriver believes fervently that great writing comes from the freedom to be creative.


What was most alarming about listening to Lionel Shriver is pondering how bad such movements can get before they burn out. Will the next generation of writers only write novels about the culture which their identity represents? Had Charles Dickens been alive this would effectively mean that all of his characters would be the white bearded offspring of convicted debtors. How dare Dickens pen the character of Tiny Tim when he can stroll through Covent Garden unaided!


During the Q and A, one audience member asked Shriver whether his white, male friend’s new play about a black, middle class woman would be better submitted to theatres under the auspices of a black, female pseudonym? Shriver laughed. “I’d be interested to know the outcome,” she said. This could be the future. Novels, plays and poems written under the guise of a politically correct pseudonym. Brave new world!



Discussion questions


  • Does it matter if an organisation has an imbalance of ethnic groups, genders or other minority groups?

  • Would you support diversity targets to balance the way that people from different backgrounds are represented?

  • Should art have any boundaries? If so, when and why?

  • Are there any circumstances in which you would support the banning of a book or publication?

  • Should cultural appropriation be discouraged?

  • Is it a good thing if some artists deliberately set out to offend?