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OPINION - Lionel Shriver: ‘free speech doesn’t exist in the UK now’

Lionel Shriver   (Matt Writtle)
Lionel Shriver (Matt Writtle)

“If you’re writing something that doesn’t offend anyone then you’re probably writing bad work”, Lionel Shriver tells me. The New York Times bestselling author has made an art of saying what many others are too afraid to say, particularly in the years since her eighth novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, won the 2005 Orange Prize for fiction for its sympathising with the mother of a school mass murderer.

Shriver’s novels since then have tackled everything from terrorism to morbid obesity and elderly suicide pacts, earning her a host of high-profile non-fiction gigs for publications from The Spectator to UnHerd.

Her most provocative columns in recent months have riffed on: the idea that the publishing industry has a cowardly obsession with “race, gender and manic fairness”; that “the weather isn’t climate change”; and that the UK’s housing shortage is “overwhelmingly caused by high rates of immigration”, even though she is — as critics were quick to point out — an immigrant herself (she was born in North Carolina but has lived most of her adult life in the UK).

“If I’ve been routinely labelled insensitive, that’s news to me — but honestly, it doesn’t really bother me,” Shriver, 66, tells me from a noisy Brooklyn apartment, surprisingly perky for a woman who is famously nocturnal (she regularly goes to bed at 5am) and was this morning forced to set her alarm for an anti-social 10.30am. She and her husband Jeff Williams, a jazz drummer, live in Bermondsey, south-east London, but spend time in New York each summer because it is where her “favourite tennis partner lives”, so we meet on Zoom, her hair scraped back in a ponytail as she sits in front of a well-stocked bookcase.

We are here to talk about free speech, which the author of 17 novels believes has been lost altogether in the country she now calls home. “You don’t have free speech in the UK anymore,” she says, in a nod to the so-called cancellation of public figures like JK Rowling and the introduction of the 2010 Equality Act, which she calls a “catastrophe”.

If I’ve been labelled insensitive, that’s news to me — but honestly, it doesn’t really bother me

“What is especially embarrassing about the woke movement in the UK,” she adds at one point, “is it’s so imitative. It’s nothing that you came up with. This whole idea of decolonising the curriculum [for instance] and getting all the pale, male, stale authors off the curriculum; you didn’t make that! You just stole that from us!”

The daughter of a preacher and homemaker, Shriver never set out to be a free speech advocate. She wanted to write stories, preferably untold ones, and regards herself as a novelist first and foremost. Still, she regularly criticises society’s obsession with so-called “wokeness” and was one of the first public figures to dip her toe into the trans debate back in 2016 (she changed her name to Lionel from Margaret at 15 to reflect her tomboyish personality and says it’s entirely plausible that she would have been encouraged to change gender if a teenager today, but she’s glad she wasn’t).

Shriver might stand firm on both issues, but she is well-aware that her opinions fall on the unfashionable side of most debates. In fact, she’s writing her 18th book about exactly that. Mania, her next fiction novel due out in April, is set in an alternative recent past and is all about a life-long friendship that is threatened by a fictional culture war in which so-called “stupid people” cannot be discriminated against.

Mania has long been the word Shriver uses to describe the various culture wars she has seen in recent years, because it indicates the “unthinking quality” she thinks best describes them. “In the last 10 or 12 years I’ve seen multiple manias come and go,” she explains. “We’ve had manic obsessions with the #MeToo movement, that just came out of nowhere and suddenly was international. The Covid lockdowns also had a manic quality so that suddenly every government in the world which had never responded to a pandemic of this manner before: they all copied each other and suddenly locked everyone in their homes. That was astonishing. So, I was interested in coming up with my own mania.” Her fictional mania might become “especially destructive”, but “the whole intention was to construct a reality that is essentially one millimetre away from where we are now.”

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She continues: “I just find the whole phenomenon of social contagion — of suddenly everyone thinking the same thing at the same time and yet yesterday they didn’t think this — very disturbing.” Shriver, a proud contrarian, Democrat and Brexit-supporter, is also very interested in the specific culture war in her own industry: the pressure to use racial quotas and so-called sensitivity readers (people who read a literary work to highlight perceived offensive content, stereotypes or bias). Shriver admits she has little to offer in terms of anecdotes because her editors “know better” than to subject her to such “obnoxious” concepts, but she certainly finds it a concern for other writers, particularly first-time authors who might be too nervous to realise that they don’t have to take the advice “Look at a passage yourself,” she counsels, “does that seem offensive to you? Is there something wrong with it in your own terms? And if not, even if it might rub someone up the wrong way, then stick by your guns. That’s one of the things that a lot of writers these days don’t understand: the writer is still king. You can still say no, because it’s your book, your name goes on it... and you have to realise you have the power.”

Shriver believes she speaks for the majority when she voices unfashionable opinions on gender and immigration. “[On free speech laws], I believe that it should be illegal to incite violence — that’s kind of the end of it,” she says. She might be ferocious in her defence of free speech but she is also warm and self-deprecating, joking about her laziness in gathering original facts compared to writers like fellow US author Heather McDonald and happy to leave long pauses while she works out her take on morally-contentious subjects.

On the issue of legality and inciting violence, for example, she admits there is a grey area over whether people should be allowed to urge others to break the law. “I don’t think that’s a black-and-white issue because there are circumstances in which you want to urge people to break the law,” she says, clearly thinking out loud. “When Rosa Parks sat in the front of a bus she was breaking the law. If you had a gay relationship back when it was illegal to be gay, you were breaking the law. I have no blanket respect for law. Laws are often wrong, morally wrong. I’m even sympathetic with people who are vandalising these bollards protecting low traffic neighbourhoods. Or the cameras that have been vandalised for Sadiq Khan’s Ulez. That’s civil disobedience to a purpose and I’m sympathetic, so where do we stop? I’m not big fan of people saying ‘There’s nothing wrong with looting Fifth Avenue because it’s an expression of political opinion’... But again, I think it should be legal to say that,” she says. “As long as it doesn’t cross into violence then I guess you should be able to write that looting is good and a genuine expression of political outrage.”

She stays off social media and has a rule not to read the comments under her articles. Her legion of loyal fans are often quieter than the haters or what Shriver calls the “morality police”, who have accused her everything from cultural appropriation to “spreading racism and hatred” in recent years.

She has also lost friends over views and that hurts — but is also all the more reason not to back down now. Is she afraid of being cancelled? “It’s not a daily active fear but abstractly, sure,” she says, considering the prospect.

“I think that I have long been one of the people who would be vulnerable to a concerted attack, but I have survived more than one now and I’m still here.”

Providing being cancelled doesn’t come first — in which case, she would probably start her own Substack, like The Daily Dish blogger Andrew Sullivan — Shriver says she would only give up writing if she stopped having ideas or couldn’t remember her own name. “I have regard for writers who say: ‘I’ve said what I’ve got to say so I’ll stop.’ But you’ll notice that Philip Roth died very soon after he said I’m going to stop writing, and that doesn’t surprise me,” she says.

We want to draw on the experiences of a wide variety of individuals in our free speech inquiry. If you have a story to tell please email: freedomofspeech@standard.co.uk