Lionel Shriver is the acclaimed writer of novels including ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, ‘Should We Stay Or Should We Go’ and ‘The Mandibles’. But her latest book, ‘Abominations’ (The Borough Press), is the first collection of her non-fiction writing – a ‘best of’ some of her most compelling, entertaining and wonderfully argumentative articles as a latter-day cultural commentator, always ready to poke holes in 21st century orthodoxy.
SDPTalks: You write in ‘Abominations’ of a time in which an article of yours was misconstrued, subsequent attempts to make your point clearer only seeming to dig the hole a little deeper. And that you learned from that experience not to attempt to explain ever again. Has that stood you in good stead?
LIONEL SHRIVER: I was referring to a phenomenon which has become all to common now by which you write something or say something which is entirely discernible to the vast majority of your audience but the people who disagree with you distort it into what they wish you had said, all the better to attack you. The mistake I’ve made in the past and no longer make is to try to explain myself better – as if the problem to begin with was some kind of obscurity about the initial statement. Well, no… The initial statement was perfectly clear and wilfully distorted by people who can’t take you on in the terms that you were speaking or writing. There’s no defence against that.
SDPTalks: And that’s a problem for our discourse right?
LS: That’s a problem anyone writing about sensitive subjects faces because no matter how much nuance you try to bring to a subject like, say, immigration, it’s going to get twisted. If by any chance you suggest that immigration ought to be slowed a tad, you’re going to get called a racist. It doesn’t matter how you explain yourself – it’s completely pointless. This is a danger for all writers – and for that matter for anyone who ever says anything to anyone – because when what you say can be maliciously distorted into what you didn’t say then there’s no point saying anything right? Words then are no longer functioning. It’s a constant problem. When I write a column I make an effort and hedge against what I don’t mean, but it’s a complete waste of effort because we’re dealing with a highly polarised environment. I’m interested in writing about subjects that are difficult, sensitive, that risk being misinterpreted and sometimes I’m dismayed that it’s seems so pointless. The people I write for largely agree with me anyway so you have that ‘preaching to the choir’ problem. And the people who disagree with me don’t read what I say.
SDPTalks: Isn’t it social media that gives this deliberate misinterpretation its potency?
LS: Social media is a great facilitator because it makes it possible to cut and paste lines out of context, which seems like a small sin but is actually enormous in its ability to distort – and in fact you can completely change the meaning of a line if you lift it just willy-nilly out of a paragraph. There’s no quality control – only it seems on misinformation, which is itself now a highly politicised concept.
SDPTalks: You say in ‘Abominations’ how in the US you’re considered to have these rather “kooky” viewpoints. But presumably that’s just about the left-leaning….
LS: My kooky positions, which I think we could now summarise as ‘anti-woke’ – and I know that’s a boring label but nobody has come up with another one – have actually become more legitimised. I can’t say we’re better organised but we [anti-wokesters] are more numerous and have more outlets through which we can push back. I think it’s the woke brigade who are the real kooks – you know when you put yourself in a position whereby you don’t believe in biological sex, I think that kind of puts you on the fringes. The weird thing is that I give expression to what are largely mainstream views, even on subjects like affirmative action, which I’m vociferously opposed to. That has majority opposition even among black Americans – they don’t like it, because discrimination to eliminate discrimination seems absurd and ends up creating as much injustice as it seeks to solve. It’s had all kind of pernicious effects, creates the impression that minorities need help – and that’s a horrible prejudice to encourage. Likewise mass uncontrolled immigration – [which] creates a sense of chaos, that there’s no distinction between your country and the rest of the world, that you’re this porous blob with no coherent identity. Most people [agree with that assessment], including a lot of immigrants. Most immigrants don’t want a flood of people from elsewhere who are not integrated easily and who initially are likely to be heavily dependent – this is another normal view but positions that are no longer acceptable on the left. They’ve become demonised. Normal people pick them up and become sensitive to the idea that you’re not supposed to say certain things anymore so keep their mouths shut. So I open my mouth for them. But I’m not an extremist. What’s odd is how these mainstream views have come to be thought of as kooky.
SDPTalks: You’re well-established as an important voice in fiction. Is your relatively late flourishing as a commentator a surprise to you?
LS: I think I am surprised. It just wasn’t my ambition starting out to be a commentator on current affairs. I wanted to be a novelist and was very single-minded about that. It was only in the 90s when my earnings as a novelist became pitiful and I needed to supplement my income that I started participating in journalism, initially on a radio show in Northern Ireland and on Northern Irish affairs – as one of the only American unionists on the island – for the ‘Wall Street Journal’. And little by little I found that I wasn’t just doing it for money but actually enjoyed it. Living in Northern Ireland re-politicised me. I was very political as a teenager but it was the tail-end of the 60s so hard not to be – I was very much the left-wing Democrat. But when that era passed I was mostly involved in the pursuit of fiction writing and went through a good decade of only sporadically reading a newspaper. I didn’t watch the TV news – and now I’m addicted to it, I’m embarrassed to say. But politics was the lifeblood of Belfast so I got stuck in – up to my neck – and in some sense never got out. And yet I never set out to be a commentator. But if anything survives of my work it’s going to be my novels. I work harder on those. I think they make more of a cultural contribution.
SDPTalks: What do you get from writing comment pieces that is harder to achieve through fiction?
LS: I like the immediacy of it, that being in the moment. But I think in ways one of the my most controversial articles in ‘Abominations’ isn’t so time-based and that’s the one on taxation, because it talks about what it feels like to have most of your money taken away, in a given year, when, in my case, my single windfall year was actually the culmination of my entire career. That was something I’d been working towards my whole life – and then it turns out that actually you’ve been working for other people. It creates resentment and a resentment you’re not allowed to express, which is the most poisonous kind. Tax authorities think they can pass any laws and people will just get with the program but actually this is emotionally incendiary and when you cross a certain statistical line in terms of confiscating people’s earnings you motivate cheating, because people think it’s unfair, and actively disincentivises work. Treasuries never want to believe that no matter how much they take from you there isn’t a point where you’ll just fold your arms and say ‘alright, I’m not going to do it anymore’. But I did experience that. I refused to take journalistic gigs just for the money – it needed to give me an opportunity to say something I wanted to say or I wouldn’t take the work. Life is bigger than politics thank god – and in some ways I’ve allowed the political to take up too much space in my life and I’m probably not the only person who feels that, but it has been such a strange period.
SDPTalks: You’ve spoken of the tendency for political commentating now to be necessarily stripped of humour or playfulness in order to further dodge the misconstruing we’ve already spoken of. Does that bother you?
LS: Well I keep making jokes. It’s just compulsive. The most valuable thing about my latter journalistic career has been that I can be funny in print and editors don’t take all the amusing lines out. When I was younger and had very little clout and had to subject myself to heavy-handed editors – the ‘Wall Street Journal’ was especially vicious about taking out anything frivolous, or playful – nowadays I get to speak with my full voice. And I love that. I’ve always found that when an editor takes out all the fun stuff I can no longer identify with the article. I no longer have any feeling for it. That alienation from your own text is an ugly process.
SDPTalks: Do you feel it’s getting easier to speak your mind without fall-out, not just for you as a writer, but in general?
LS: Saying the unsayable is getting easier – slightly. The best test of that has to be transgenderism. That’s a fad that has done nothing but grown more disturbing for me, both for individuals and for society at large, I think it’s decadent and a dead-end for young people trying to find out who they are. I’ve never found my sex particularly informative about who I am or how I should spend my life. It’s a technical factual detail that doesn’t interest me. And it’s become possible to say these things in public, but when this craze first hit – in around 2012 – the tsunami of documentaries and celebratory articles came with the conceit that any kind of criticism would be career death. You’d be a ‘transphobe’. Now you can publish whole books critical of the ideology and that’s a change for the better. That latitude helps expand the latitude we should extend to other topics too.
SDPTalks: Do you ever feel like you’re gambling with your livelihood?
LS: That’s the danger. That’s the gamble – that I may publish the one column that does for me, that makes me unpublishable in fiction. I don’t think that’s a calculated risk on my part. I don’t want to be intimated out of writing non-fiction. But I don’t want to back off from it because I’m scared. It’s easy for me to say I’ll risk being cancelled because what I’ve got to say is so bloody important because I haven’t been cancelled. I’ve come close to becoming persona non grata, but it hasn’t happened yet. And if it did I’d feel that grievously. I think I’d feel stupid.
SDPTalks: You’ve spoken of your habit of catastophising. So is it all that bad?
LS: Well I can’t let go of my biggest concern – and it’s not climate change. It’s money, the global financial system. We’re closer to global financial meltdown than ever. If you have these super debts and a realisation that nobody is going to pay them back, then currency doesn’t function anymore. And that makes me extremely anxious. But the impulse to catastophise only grows more intense as I get older. There’s a passage in ‘The Mandibles’ about how old people are by nature apocalyptic because they’re facing a private apocalypse. They instinctively project that onto the rest of the world. And there’s a sub-section of those people who like the idea of taking the rest of the world with them. But catastrophising is a narrative entertainment. There’s a certain kind of ending in fiction in which everything blows up. And it’s a cool, satisfying ending. I’m attracted to that kind of narrative. It’s orgasmic…