Lionel Shriver Is Right

What fiction is really all about

Photo: Jose Maria Cuellar

I don’t know what your feelings are on the current (as of this writing, surely something else will have taken its place by the time you come to the end of the present parenthetical) controversy over cultural appropriation inspired by writer Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, but I’m sure whatever your opinion is it’s very good indeed. While I personally have very mixed feelings about many of her conclusions I have to admit that I am in full agreement with her when she says (I will paraphrase here) that all fiction is bullshit, it’s a joke, it’s just a bunch of crap that someone, more than likely someone awkward or unattractive or in some other way excluded by circumstance from having any sort of fulfilling or worthwhile life of his own, makes up because he feels like he has some sort of special wisdom about existence that is more highly refined than the average person’s and the people of the world will not be able to fully understand their own complexities unless it is explained to them by someone so overwhelmed with self-regard that he views it as his mission to interpret the everyday by telling stories about a bunch of people whose personalities and motivations are pure conjecture based around his very limited experience of life, plus he doesn’t want to get a real job because his precious voice must be heard.

Lionel Shriver is correct in her description (again, paraphrasing) of fiction writers as horribly self-involved monsters who purport to be revealing reality with their trite and terrible tales about the symbols and ciphers they have invented in furtherance of their goal of convincing themselves and others that their unique and vital views of the way the world is or should be are priceless pearls that deserve worship above the insights of those who are actually involved in living life rather than making up stories about it.

Furthermore, Lionel Shriver could not be more accurate than when she insists (to summarize) that it is the duty of fiction writers to appropriate the voices of others who are differently raced, abled or preferenced from themselves, because otherwise the bullshit they make up would be so completely insular and lacking in outside perspective or interest that we would wind up with a world where most books that received critical acclaim were written by Brooklyn writers who told stories about what it was like to be a writer in Brooklyn. I know this is an extreme and almost unbelievable example, but if we don’t let people who lie on paper for a living lie about the activities and perspectives of those outside of their own constricted circles this is very much a possibility we could face. Would you want to live in a society where all the accolades go to privileged people writing about themselves and their privileged friends and what brands they furnish their brownstones with? Of course not, it would be unbearable.

Now yes, some of the things that Lionel Shriver says here are the obvious complaints of someone who doesn’t want to take any heat for potentially misrepresenting peoples and cultures about whom she may not know very much but whom she wishes to manipulate in her stories to emphasize certain beliefs she may have about human nature, but that is not the aspect of the speech that I am talking about here, and there are plenty of other places on the Internet you can go for that kind of analysis. No, what I want to make clear to everyone is that I stand with Lionel Shriver when she declares that (in summary) fiction is pure mendacity composed by horrible, clueless people and we should all be very aware of how empty, false and useless it all is. Whatever your opinion on cultural appropriation, I hope we can all come together to agree on this, at least. Fiction is bullshit. Don’t be fooled.