Abominations: Selected Essays from a Career of Courting Self-Destruction, by Lionel Shriver, The Borough Press, 304 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0008458621
Contrarianism is a tired old journalistic tactic – no? “I dare to say what no one else will” – well good for you! But I’m sorry: somebody somewhere out there is saying it too, no matter how supposedly outré it is. Thanks to the internet, we now possess a rolling gazetteer of political opinion which we can consult at any hour. Watch them scroll by, all possible shades of dissent, all possible varieties of edgelord smirk, all possible takes hot and cold. In such a political ecology, actually saying you’re a contrarian marks you as a rube. OK, boomer! The true politics of our time is the politics of the troll: lob a fake opinion and laugh at the outrage of the literalists.
Lionel Shriver is not a troll. For one thing, she has no sense of humour – at least, none that is evident from her work. For another, she is indeed a boomer – self-described. And for another, she enjoys thinking of herself as a contrarian. “I came to journalism through the back door,” she writes, in the introduction to Abominations, a book of her nonfiction prose. “I needed to augment meagre earnings as a novelist.” She is speaking here of the period between 1987, when her first novel was published in America, and 2003, when We Need to Talk About Kevin became a global bestseller. Between 1987 and 1999 Shriver lived in Belfast. During this time she published seven novels, none of which gained real commercial traction. She also “recorded three-minute editorials for BBC Radio Ulster” and “was also point woman for op eds on the Troubles for The Wall Street Journal.” Writing journalism, she found that she “especially relished supporting views that were underexpressed, unpopular, or downright dangerous”. So she kept it up, once Kevin had rescued her from financial and reputational penury.
Her introduction conveniently adumbrates some of her unpopular, indeed downright dangerous, opinions. Shriver “supported Brexit, dislikes affirmative action, opposes lockdowns for the suppression of disease, abhors soaring national debts, defends free speech even when people use it to say something unpleasant, and resists uncontrolled mass immigration”. We might note that these opinions are not so much unpopular as mildly right of centre, and that all of them continue to find frequent articulation in mainstream journalistic outlets. But in a sense the whole point of the contrarian opinion-monger is that he or she writes for mainstream journalistic outlets: the true rebel, like the true crank, finds a world elsewhere. Shriver’s pieces have appeared in The Spectator, Standpoint, Harper’s, Prospect, … her dangerous opinions, it would seem, have not exactly sent her to Siberia, or even Coventry.
It is difficult not to read Shriver’s laundry list of supposedly out-there views without being reminded of another Lionel’s phrase about mid-century American conservatives dealing not in ideas but in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” (From Trilling to Shriver: The Decline of the Liberal Imagination). Irritability underwrites Shriver’s political opinions just as it underwrites, or perhaps I should say overwrites, her prose. Supporting Brexit, opposing lockdowns: these are not ideas. Rather, they are views which might arise from ideas, or which might, just as plausibly, arise from emotions of various kinds. Since Shriver does not give us a coherent account of the political ideas from which her views derive (the best she can do in this line is an essay describing herself as a “libertarian”), we must perforce treat those views as, precisely, irritable mental gestures. Which raises the question: with whom is Shriver irritated? Ah, there’s the rub.
Her ostensible target, in Abominations, is “the wokescenti” – contemporary leftists who enforce a toxic strain of “illiberalism” aka a “new Puritanism”, largely via social media, which Shriver does not use. “We live,” she writes, “in a dour and censorious age.” (Shriver’s glass is always half-empty.) She also arraigns “the preponderance of my literary colleagues” who “lean far to the political left” (though she is unclear about precisely how far to the left these literary colleagues do lean –where precisely they might sit on a scale that ran, say, from Ed Miliband to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin). “[I]n the last several years,” she writes, “holding the line on a range of issues has achieved a sense of urgency.” Well, quite. But what line, precisely? And with what consequences?
“Downright dangerous”. To whom? Well, perhaps most immediately to Shriver herself. Three of the pieces collected in Abominations brought, she tells us, “hell and damnation down on my head”. She means social-media opprobrium – angry tweets chiefly. It is tedious to revivify the culture-war battles of the recent past, but since this is largely what Abominations is interested in doing, honour requires that we comb through the controversies again – or through one or two of them, anyway.
The first of Shriver’s “hell and damnation” pieces is “Fiction and Identity Politics”, delivered as the opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016. Shriver had been asked to speak about “community and belonging”, but warns her audience, in the piece’s opening paragraph, that “inviting a renowned iconoclast to speak about ‘community and belonging’ is like expecting a shark to balance a beach-ball on its nose”. (This vaguely Australian-themed bit of imagery was presumably designed to win over Shriver’s shrimp-on-the-barbie Brisbane audience; it is the sort of goofy thing that Shriver likes to do in prose, and she may be under the mistaken impression that it constitutes a joke. Later in Abominations, she speaks of “ideological baggage so overstuffed that it wouldn’t fit in an airplane’s overhead compartment” – but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
In “Fiction and Identity Politics”, the renowned iconoclast argues that “ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all”. She cites the 2016 “tempest in a teacup” at Bowdoin College, when students wearing miniature sombreros to a Mexican-themed “tequila party” were supposedly accused of “cultural insensitivity” (subsequent reporting suggested that what was actually at issue was a pattern of racist behaviour among white students at Bowdoin; according to Snopes.com, the incident was “nuanced” and was described inaccurately by, among other outlets, the conservative National Review).
For Shriver, the sombrero incident, or at least the version of the sombrero incident that took hold in the media ecosystem back in 2016 and has not since been seriously challenged, has a message for novelists: in the new “climate of scrutiny”, “cultural appropriation” is verboten and “self-censorship” threatens the writer’s sacred freedoms. Which sacred freedoms are those? Well, among them is the freedom to steal:
Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnaper? […] Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts? The fiction writer, that’s who […] This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous.
It’s canny of Shriver to depict the novelist as a grubby outlaw, respecting no bourgeois pieties. It reminds us of the genre’s semi-reputable roots in hoax, impersonation and journalism, and makes a claim for fiction’s power to speak across boundaries. But it’s also one of her standard moves. Actually, in many ways, it’s her only move. The novelist (that is me, Lionel Shriver) isn’t going to play by your rules! I’m going to say the shocking thing! I’m going to reject your left-wing cant! I’m an iconoclast!
That something you might call “wokescenti” cant exists is not in doubt; that “identity politics” has in recent years changed the way many people think about the ethics of writing fiction is also inarguable. But our duty, surely, is to respond to these phenomena by trying to work out what might be good or useful in the new ways of thinking about fiction; what might be good or useful about certain strains of latter-day progressive cant. (Or we might just troll the literalists; choose your own adventure.)
A more immediate problem with “Fiction and Identity Politics” is that Shriver’s argument hinges on an event that she has read about in biased venues and has therefore not properly understood; and that she has extrapolated from this event a whole ideological climate that, even if it existed in the crude way that she describes, would require, to say the least, a more nuanced engagement than she affords it here. When, at the end of the Brisbane speech, Shriver put on (or “donned”, as she would have it) a sombrero, she was making a point about the novelist’s right to “wear many hats”; she was also engaging in a bit of blasphemous theatre – medium-effective as these things go – in the great tradition of the mainstream contrarian. It was another irritable gesture. Its intellectual content verged on the nugatory.
Shriver spends quite a lot of Abominations defending the freedom of the artist. But it is an open question whether she is really interested in art at all. Certainly she does not appear to be particularly interested in the novel, the art form she practises. Abominations includes no literary criticism, unless we count a piece called “Quote-Unquote”, which argues that “fiction without quotation marks is harder to read”, and invokes various novelists, from Cormac McCarthy to WG Sebald, only to dismiss them for crimes of typographical idiosyncrasy. When Shriver gets up on her Op Ed horse to fortify artists against wokescenti cancellation, it isn’t fellow novelists she defends. Who is it?
In “Cruel and Unusual Punishment”, originally published in Harper’s in 2019, Shriver writes about a contemporary moral climate in which “A single unacceptable sentiment, a word usage misconstrued, or a sentence taken out of context suffices […] to implode a reputation decades in the making and to trigger McCarthyite blacklisting.” Her examples include Roseanne Barr, whose ABC sitcom was cancelled after she tweeted that Valerie Jarrett, a mixed-race adviser to Barack Obama, looked like what would happen if “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby” (sic); Louis CK, who regularly masturbated in front of younger female comedians without their consent; and Kevin Spacey, who currently faces trial in the United Kingdom on four counts of sexual assault.
Shriver does not really go into the question of whether racist tweets or incidents of sexual assault constitute “unacceptable sentiment”, “word usage misconstrued” or “a sentence taken out of context”. What she says is this: “I’m faintly open to the idea that Kevin Spacey may present a workplace safety issue, but he’s still not been convicted of sexual assault. Please, couldn’t he have been allowed on set under guard?” Of Roseanne’s tweet, she comments: “at this point, who doesn’t realise that putting the word ‘ape’ anywhere near an African-American is social suicide?” (Contrarianism, as a mode, tends toward moral nullity, which is often heralded, in prose, by a swerve into failed facetiousness.)
What’s actually at issue for Shriver, in these cases, is, it would seem, not a political principle but her own rights as a consumer of popular entertainment. Without Kevin Spacey, she complains, House of Cards is now rubbish: “I want my protagonist back. I feel personally penalised for Kevin Spacey’s peripatetic prick.” The alliteration here betrays her basic lack of seriousness.
“I worry,” Shriver says, “that requiring artists to be perfect means either no art or bad art.” If this is your point, why go out of your way to defend Kevin Spacey? Or Louis CK? Or Roseanne Barr? Makers of bad art all. Can Shriver not tell the difference between, say, House of Cards and an important work of art? If she wanted to do some actual thinking about how we might view the relationship between the artwork and the artist, she might consider devoting more than a single sentence to Junot Diaz, the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), whose literary reputation has not really recovered from a series of sexual misconduct allegations made about him in 2018 by, among others, the writer Zinzi Clemmons.
What makes Diaz’s case worth thinking about is that he was exonerated by an independent review, leaving behind a fog of accusation and rebuttal, and that his fiction is both very good and often largely about predatory male sexuality. This should be fruitful territory for the essayist. But Shriver isn’t really an essayist. She isn’t really a novelist either (more on which anon). What she is, if she’s anything, is a polemicist – an Op Ed writer. She trades in “Opinion”, the most debased currency in the marketplace of ideas.
All writers are in the business of persuasion. Polemicists, who seek to persuade you of the validity and coherence of their opinions, are an especially acute case. If the polemicist is to be convincing, we must glimpse, beneath the opinions, a deeper coherence – the coherence, that is, of sanity (comprising, roughly, self-knowledge, emotional stability and contextual nous). If this deeper coherence isn’t there, the polemicist is stuck with style – that is, with tricks of rhetoric. The incoherent polemicist, therefore, must be a virtuoso of style. (Bernard Shaw might be a handy example here.) But Shriver is no virtuoso. She is by turns flippant, clumsy, shouty, preachy and glib. Under such conditions a tone of desperation rapidly obtrudes. The reader feels hectored. The reader grows annoyed.
Shriver’s prose therefore exemplifies the risks of opining unsystematically. Striving for plainspoken vividness, she ends up with a dog’s breakfast. She draws on two chief registers. On the one hand, a self-conscious populism: “folks”, “hoity-toity”, “jouncing”, “foofaraw”, “doozy”, “huffy”, “twaddle”, “goofball”, “lowdown”, “bandwagon”, “smart-ass”, “a goodly chunk”, “bugbear”, “skint”, “no-no”, “tippy-toe”, “nay-saying”, “brass-tacks”, “skinny-ninnies”. On the other, prissy newspaper jargon: “donned”, “bemoaned the fact that”, “pushback”, “morphed into”, “ring-fenced”, “in short order”, “counterbalance”, “no little horrified”…
The Op Ed writer lives in a world of extreme cases; the essayist (and the novelist) in a world of nuance. But nuance, also known as context, is not Shriver’s thing. In a piece called “Writers Blocked”, from 2018, she complains that “The tetchiness and public shaming of ‘call-out” culture” is
making many writers reluctant to include a diverse cast. Does the edict to eschew stereotypes mean a black character can never be a drug dealer? (So much for The Wire, then. Or Clockers.)
The Wire, of course, tells you why its black characters are drug dealers; this is, indeed, literally the whole point of The Wire (and of Clockers, the 1992 Richard Price novel adapted into a 1995 film by Spike Lee). Shriver has watched The Wire; but she must have missed the line delivered in Season 5 by the veteran news reporter character Gus Haines: “You need a lot of context to understand anything.”
As a novelist, Shriver sort of understands this, and sort of doesn’t. Her novels are about Op Ed issues: school shootings (We Need to Talk About Kevin, 2003), America’s healthcare system (So Much for That, 2010), obesity (Big Brother, 2013), euthanasia (Should We Stay or Should We Go, 2021). These books pile up contextual data, or seem to – they are meant to feel like dramatised debates, well-researched, in stern pursuit of the balanced view. But in fact each novel tends to make one point, exhaustively; the use of contextual data, in every case, turns out to be a feint.
The bulk of We Need to Talk About Kevin’s 477 pages are devoted to a comprehensive survey of Kevin Katchadourian’s social background and childhood misbehaviours, as tallied by his mother, Eva. It feels like context, as you read it – now consider this; now this. But when the story is over, it dawns on you how relentlessly Shriver has kept her thumb on the scales. Kevin appears to pose a moral question, to wit: is Kevin’s monstrous crime his own fault, or is it Eva’s? Was Eva, as a mother, so cold, hectoring, and judgemental that it warped her son irreparably? Or is she just another victim – a parent experiencing the parent’s worst nightmare? But what the novel actually shows us is a Kevin who starts off cruel and stays that way; like Aaron in Titus Andronicus, he might say, “I have done a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly, / And nothing grieves me heartily indeed / But that I cannot do ten thousand more.”
The moral thrill offered by the novel is the thrill of dismissing its antagonist as unfixably evil; the shock ending, in which Eva prepares to welcome Kevin back to her home after his release from prison, will properly shock only those who do not have children or who have never imagined what having children might actually be like. As a two-dimensional fable about the terror of parenthood – What if my child is the Devil? – Kevin is potently realised; as a novel about “serious issues” it’s empty.
Shriver herself articulates the problem with her fiction. She may not mean to, but she does. In an essay, nominally about Alison Bechdel, called “Your Gym Routine is Worthless,” she writes about her own 2020 novel The Motion of the Body Through Space:
The purpose of my project was to examine what in God’s name is propelling this latter-day preoccupation with fitness and whether the trend is a force for ill or good. (Answer: both. Now you needn’t buy the book.)
The postgrad jargon (“The purpose of my project”) and the glibness are the least of it; what makes these sentences so amazingly self-defeating is the complete lack of interest in thought itself. “Answer: both.” Issue solved! Novelists, God knows, aren’t obliged to be intellectuals. But they are obliged to think about the novels they write in terms more nuanced than those you might use to frame a 700-word “thinkpiece”. Otherwise, why write novels at all?
To be fair to Shriver, it is worth asking: what makes someone a natural Op Ed writer, as opposed to a natural novelist? Well, to sustain a career as an Op Ed writer, I think you have to have an argument that you’re making – an argument that you’re making all the time. Your commitment to this argument can’t be faked. It must be real; it must be passionate. You must be ready to leap into print at a moment’s notice, hackles raised, trump-card bullet points to hand. With whom, or what, is Shriver arguing? With whom, or what, is she arguing all the time? The wokescenti? Hardly.
Abominations is both suggestively titled and suggestively arranged. The word “Abomination” is biblical – in the King James Version, it appears multiple times in Leviticus, Daniel, Psalms … Shriver knows her Bible. The first long piece collected here – the piece that tells us, inadvertently, what sort of book we’re reading – is a sermon, commissioned by the Manchester Literature Festival and delivered in Hallé St Peter’s Anglican church in October 2013. In a brief preface Shriver notes that she was a “Preacher’s Kid” – in fact, her father, Donald W Shriver, was a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, and her mother, Margaret, was “an executive in America’s National Council of Churches – and Shriver is rather proud of her ability, when delivering her own sermon, to employ “that full liturgical tilt in all sincerity” (a characteristically infelicitous phrase there, but never mind).
Not that Shriver is religious. Rather the opposite, or so she says. “In recent times,” she writes, “secularism has become a standard default” (has it?) “and no longer seems especially rebellious […] But in my childhood and adolescence of the 1960s and early 70s, pushing back against the indoctrination of organised religion still required guts.” No doubt it did, especially if your father was a Doctor of Divinity. Shriver’s “resistance to religious dogma began at an early age”. Attending church in early childhood, “I was mostly bored”, but “by prepubescence I was furious, and spent the whole interminable hour seething in my pew.”
It would be facile to suggest that Shriver is still seething in her pew decades later – that she is still prosecuting her argument with her parents in the pages of Harper’s and The Spectator. But there is a point to be made here. We all need to emancipate ourselves from our parents; if your parents happen to be deeply religious, it is a fairly standard move to turn against religion in toto, and to find in the classic ideas of Enlightenment liberalism the tools of your manumission. Thus, the apostate child cleaves to reason; dismisses the message of the Gospels as superstition; calls attention to the power structures that churches perpetuate; values the individual above the group …
“[R]eligion represents to me,” Shriver sermonises, “an earlier evolutionary stage. It is a calcification of our forefathers’ efforts to explain the world with magic[.]” In their war against faith, Enlightenment liberals leaned, and still lean, pretty heavily on the fact-value distinction – a fact, unlike an article of faith, being that which is amenable to empirical proof. Also useful, if you are seeking to extricate yourself from organised faith, is the concept of “freedom of expression”, usually understood by the liberal as the freedom to be heretical, to transgress taboos.
For the self-emancipated secular liberal (OK boomer), “freedom of expression” and the fact-value distinction are therefore, in a sense, constitutive of the adult self – the self that has leapt clear of superstition and parental dogma. Small wonder, then, if a certain sort of liberal gets pretty touchy when these ideas seem threatened. A signal move of contemporary progressives – Shriver’s “wokescenti” – has been to use the fact-value distinction against liberalism itself; to assert, for instance, that to change the way we use language is to change the values we hold. To the old-school liberal – fact-bound, individualist, rebellious – this feels like heresy. And I use the word advisedly.
It is, by now, a cliché to observe that contemporary left-progressivism has some of the hallmarks of religious faith. But every politics has some of the hallmarks of religious faith – faith being something like the DNA of our communal life, the instructions by which we operate together as thinking creatures. A liberal like Shriver – and no matter what she says to the contrary, a liberal is what she is – has restaged the Enlightenment in her own life: that is to say, she has switched her faith from Faith to Reason. Confronted by the new faith, she fights the old battles again. Shriver is not really wrong to perceive “the wokescenti” as irrational; where she goes wrong is in perceiving herself as rational.
Shriver is not really very much fun to read – her invariant hectoring tone palls after twenty pages or so. But as an example of what has happened to liberalism in the early decades of the twenty-first century, she bears thinking about. Largely unable to defend itself except in tones of haughty irritation, glibly ready to forfeit moral and emotional complexity in the name of Reason, and largely uninterested in the humanist part of “liberal humanism”, liberalism is in trouble. In a way, however, it’s in the same kind of trouble that it’s always been in. The problem isn’t Reason, or Secularism, or even the sort of Op Ed moral simplicity that is Shriver’s stock in trade. The problem is Individualism. Because we’re not just individuals – solitary heroes of the rational. We’re in this together. We always have been. That’s what I mean by “context”.
Kevin Power’s The Written World: Essays and Reviews (The Lilliput Press) includes several pieces that first appeared in the Dublin Review of Books.
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