Lionel Shriver Has a Point About Cultural Appropriation. So Do Her Critics.

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Lionel Shriver at her home in London. Ian Teh / Agence Vu for Newsweek

When a writers’ conference makes news, you know that things got real—too real, probably. Earlier this year, there was essayist Gay Talese musing on female writers in Boston. Now, it’s the novelist Lionel Shriver drone-striking political correctness and cultural appropriation.

Speaking in Brisbane, Australia, Shriver, who is American, called identity politics stupid and said that if a white guy like me (they don’t get much whiter) wants to write a novel from the perspective of a blind Micronesian violinist with severe back acne, he has the right to do so. She illustrated this point by wearing a sombrero.

Other people, conversely, are pissed because some people were pissed about Shriver being so pissy about cultural appropriation, which is in part some people being pissed about white people with dreadlocks (rightly so). One person present, the social scientist and engineer Yassmin Abdel-Magied, walked out of Shriver’s speech and later wrote about it for The Guardian, calling it a “poison package.”

Breitbart in turn called her op-ed “the worst article ever written by anyone in the history of the universe,” though I might argue that the impassioned Teutonic scribes of Der Stürmer did a little more harm to the human race. Breitbart, by the way, is the right-wing outlet largely responsible for the rise of Donald Trump. Previously, the extent of its literary criticism consisted of bashing some 14-year-old in Georgia who wrote a poem about white privilege. That’s speaking truth to power, guys.

Anyhoo...

First, let me say this: I am against the wearing of sombreros in crowds. I fear the brim could poke someone in the eye. For the same reason, I am against umbrellas—all umbrellas, in all situations, even Seattle, because they are fundamentally anti-social—which some say is the most controversial opinion I have. (Seriously, get a friggin’ raincoat.)

But now, to the more important issue of whether people should be allowed to write about people who do not look like them, who do not eat the same foods, who do not love the same, who live in a place that 73 percent of Americans think is actually the name of a Game of Thrones character. Provocation wasn’t Shriver’s only point. She wanted badly to remind the sanctimonious members of the literary tribe gathered before her that it is impossible to create art without appropriating something from someone. Writing, she argued, “is a disrespectful vocation by its nature—prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best.” She concluded that if you’re unwilling to appropriate, you might as well just write a memoir. And we need memoirs like we need rising greenhouse gases. I support a limit on both.  

I hesitate to fully endorse Shriver’s argument, only because I don’t really know what it’s like to be a member of a maligned minority, and neither does she. It is therefore incumbent on us all to acknowledge the offense taken by someone like Abdel-Magied, who was not alone in her outrage. It is an outrage easy to mock, disconcerting to truly hear.

“In making light of the need to hold onto any vestige of identity, Shriver completely disregards not only history, but current reality,” Abdel-Magied wrote. “The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place.”

Shocking reveal: Those of us who are platinum card–carrying members of the white patriarchy are not immune to offense, even those of us who haven’t been placed in a basket of deplorables. As a Russian immigrant, I confess to an unease about the writing of Anthony Marra, who has made a career of fictionalizing Chechnya and the Soviet Union in his two well-reviewed works of fiction. How could he possibly know what it was like to live in Leningrad in 1986? Or to fight in Grozny? How dare he... My discomfort with his intrusion into my experience closely approximates (in quality, if not in scope) Abdel-Magied’s complaints about Shriver’s stance.

But here’s the beauty of the Western, market-based system of cultural production to which Shriver and Abdel-Magied both, broadly, contribute: It will neither censor nor censure them. They are free to write op-ed and books, to wear sombreros (as Shriver did) or a hijab (as Abdel-Magied does). In some sense, their argument about cultural appropriation is beautifully pointless, because nobody is going to keep writers from cultural appropriation or force them into it. They might as well argue about whether donuts are better than bagels. I worry, though, that such arguments paint the literary world as a group of self-absorbed snobs. We are of course just that, but must we announce it quite so loudly?

The one judge we have is cruel, relentless and utterly without any ideological or ethnic preference: the market. In the end, the consumer will decide, the browser walking down the aisle of some bookstore looking for a summer read. She probably cares about cultural appropriation as much as she cares about Croatian banking reform. She will read a novel, and she will tell others to either read it or disregard it. And she will make her decision by answering the only question worth asking about a work of art, the question to which all others are subservient: Was it good?

The most effective means of silencing a bad novel about an autistic West Virginia ramp forager who has nearly proved Goldbach’s conjecture is to write a great novel about an autistic West Virginia ramp forager who has nearly proved Goldbach’s conjecture. And the greater novel will transcend Appalachian lore and prime number theory to say something that is true in both Morgantown and Ulaanbaatar.  

Ralph Ellison ends The Invisible Man with what I think to be the finest last line in all of literature: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” This is a case for radical universality, especially remarkable for coming from a black man in 1952. He was writing as a member of a race thoroughly maligned by many white Americans, yet had the remarkable courage to tell his readers, many of them white, that they should see themselves in him. The question Ellison poses is far more compelling than the question of cultural appropriation. Not Can I write about you? but Can I write for you?

Appropriate. Or don’t. If you nail the landing, nobody should care.