Lionel Shriver is Wrong

Will Lionel Shriver please stop.

I'm tired of hearing about how oppressed she is and how it's offensive to criticize her work.

Let's step back for a moment.

Joyce Carol Oates published a novel in 2015 titled "The Sacrifice". Now Oates is one of the most acclaimed writers of her generation, she's an immense figure with dozens of books in all different genres. This is a novel that has a lot of black characters, it's about racism as it plays out in the investigation and aftermath of a crime. She has every right to write such a book. No one has ever argued against that. No one did argue against it.

Here's the thing, though. When the book was reviewed, more than one person called her out for being so clueless and lacking in empathy and understanding, that the book is racist. Or that it's just racist, depending on how much sympathy they grant her.

In Roxane Gay's review in the New York Times Book Review, Gay argued that "To write difference well demands empathy, an ability to respect the humanity of those you mean to represent." Gay cites instances in the novel where Oates was very perceptive, for example the thought process of a black person being pulled over by the cops. Now some of Gay's criticisms could be described as simply a dislike of the style and approach that Oates used, and I think that Gay would agree, but her issues with the novel go far beyond that.

For example Gay points out that "Some of the black characters speak in a dialect vaguely resembling African-­American Vernacular English, but inconsistently and seemingly without syntactic rules." There are plenty of other issues Gay points to including the n-word being used "flagrantly, as if this were a Quentin Tarantino screenplay, often without plausible context." She argues that the word "nigra" was not something either white or blacks would have used in 1980's New Jersey and "Then there are the physical descriptions; this novel contains a lot of dark skin and nappy hair."

(As an aside, I've never quite understood the strange ways that mostly white writers will describe their black characters skin color. Sometimes it's weird and sometimes it's just creepy. Also they so rarely - if ever - talk about white people's skin color.)

But I digress...

None of those critics said, you cannot write this, but they all said, this is racist crap. Joyce Carol Oates can write and publish what she wishes, but she is not immune from criticism. Writing something and having a good heart doesn't mean that it's not ignorant or even racist.

Hell, Joyce Carol Oates wrote into the Book Review to protest the review. The book, as far as I know, is still in print and available. Plenty of people have reviewed it form various racial and cultural backgrounds and some liked it and some loved it and some hated it and some went meh.

Interestingly enough, Shriver in her recent series of talks and interviews has complained about the review of her recent book in the Washington Post, which she claimed “groundlessly accused her book of being ‘racist’ because it doesn’t toe a strict Democratic Party line.”  Ken Kalfus, who wrote that review, has some issues with that argument.

He argued that the book does contain some troubling racial characterizations but also that one of the two African-American characters speaks is the only character who speaks in what he called "sub-standard English." Shriver doesn't try to capture the ways that we all speak in detail, not pronouncing letters and skipping words and colloquial expressions, but does for a character explicitly described as black.

One could of course argue that Shriver is not going after people of color, she's just making this single character dumb and ignorant and she happens to be black while every other character speaks in grammatically perfect, enunciated English. But that's odd and it does require why this one character in the novel speaks differently than everyone else in the novel. Okay, let's say that it is obvious and somewhat unfair to say that it must be racism. It's not an unreasonable assumption, though.

And if this does make white writers or writers from other backgrounds to stop and look at how their characters speak and think about it, well, I'm not going to say that's bad. It's one thing for everyone to speak with an accent, with the dialogue rendered in the vernacular, but if only some characters are, then it is something that the writer should look at and think about why they did that and consider if they are assigning less intelligence, less humanity to those characters and what that might mean. A novel contains thousands of little choices and this is one people should probe.

Of course there are cases where people went overboard with trying to be "politically correct" which are obnoxious and over the top and laughable and offensive. People go too far. I think that's human nature. But if your response is, well, to avoid going too far we just shouldn't try at all. We should just allow racism and sexism to flourish because it's a slippery slope.

This is like the argument where white people say, being called a racist is horrible and offensive and the worst thing. And people of color say, um, actually there are plenty worse things being called racist...we can give you a list.

Hell, if you really believe that everyone is wrong and the characters are not racist and your work isn't racist, well, okay. Guess what, maybe next year or next century people will read it and reconsider it. People today read Conrad's Heart of Darkness differently than they did when it was first published. Sometimes writers end up distancing themselves from their older work because they see that it contains stereotypes and racist attitudes.

Lionel Shriver is making an obnoxious argument.James Patterson and Dan Brown don't give whiny interviews where they claim to be great important figures who are oppressed because critics fault their prose style. Some people have said that Lionel Shriver isn't a great writer and she's angry about it. I don't really see how this is about anything more than that.

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