On Lionel Shriver and Diversity in Writing

I’ve started planning for my next novel. The world is forming up as I go. We’re talking political spec fic here: Australia in 2048. It’s a more diverse Australia across a number of aspects. And I want that diversity to be reflected in my characters.

And that got me thinking about Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival back in September. I’ve read that speech through a couple of times, as well as Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s emphatic response. And now that the dust has settled, with some trepidation, I thought I’d tell you all what I reckon.

As with many provocateurs of the “political correctness gone mad” school, Shriver sets out to defend a proposition that’s pretty much unassailable when reduced to fundamentals: that writers should have licence to write outside of their own lived experience. To do so, she constructs a straw man (or perhaps an LGBTQI straw woman of colour): namely that the PC brigade are on a quest to shame writers who try and write from any different perspective.

If the thought police are really trying to enforce such a prohibition, then point me in the direction of the barricades! But I’m not seeing anyone actually put that a fortiori case: that a man should never write a female character; that a person from one ethnic background should never be able to write from the perspective of another.

Abdel-Magied herself confirms this when she writes that “[Shriver’s] question was – or could have been – an interesting question: What are fiction writers ‘allowed’ to write, given that they will never truly know another person’s experience? …There is a fascinating philosophical argument here…

But Shriver never gets to the heart of that argument. And neither, I think, does Abdel-Magied. She writes: “It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story.” Instinctively I tend to agree. But if so, why is it not always OK?

Abdel-Magied suggests a reason: because “said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience [will] never be provided the opportunity.” I get the sentiment here, but I’m not sure it’s a compelling reason to discourage writers of all backgrounds from trying to write diverse literature.

If we look at the world as it is, do we really want to restrict the privileged – who do enjoy disproportionate access to publication – to writing only about their own experiences? Shouldn’t we be doing what we can to encourage and support variety – to develop a market for all kinds of writing, no matter the identity of the writer – in the hope of developing markets and tastes that marginalised writers can then leverage? Perhaps this sounds like some sort of ugly cultural trickle-down. Even so, I’m not sure that the risk of a (white male) author making money is the strongest argument that could be advanced in support of the proposition that writers should take extreme care when writing outside of their lived experience.

I think Abdel-Magied misses a more basic and fundamental risk that arises when we write characters with backgrounds different to our own: that the potential for bad writing is enormous. Just as I wouldn’t try and write a novel in a genre I don’t read without extensive research, how could I presume to write a character from another cultural background without doing the same? But the danger in the latter case extends further: If I’m writing, say, an indigenous character without having done my homework, I don’t know what I don’t know. And it’s entirely possible that my publisher and my readership (likely also not indigenous) might also fail to realise the misrepresentations and flaws in my depiction. I’ve therefore done my readers a disservice, and it also just seems wrong. It’s flat-out disrespectful. It is disrespectful. And that’s what Shriver glosses over.

So what’s a writer to do? Well, lots and lots of research, for one thing. Long discussions with members (multiple) of any group you intend to represent in your work. Feedback on early drafts from those same people. Everything necessary to avoid writing bad, unrepresentative, shallow tripe. That’s a start.

What I’m less certain about is the circumstances in which an author should seek permission from members of the relevant group. Shriver would ask: if a man wants to write a female character, to what peak body of women should the request for permission be addressed? But a more grounded counter-example would be: if I wanted to write an anthology of stories told by a particular Aboriginal group – say, the Pitjantjatjara – then of course I should ask for permission from that group before embarking. To do otherwise would be slimy. It would be cultural appropriation.

But what if I just wanted to create a character with Pitjantjatjara heritage, in a contemporary story set in a city and with no overt connection to Pitjantjatjara land, stories or dreaming? Would I need to ask permission to do that? What if the character sometimes spoke in their language? These are not easy questions.

I’d be interested in your thoughts. Do you think I’ve missed something here?

As for my new project, my protagonist is female, likely of Indian heritage. So I’ve got a lot of homework to do…