I have never once been disappointed by a writer who I admire when I have seen them in person at a book event and Lionel Shriver was no exception. She is very direct, fearlessly clever and funny. I think that may be because the best writers are very much themselves in their work. If you admire what they write you are almost sure to admire them. I think that We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the great modern novels and it was a real pleasure to be able to tell her so and hear her thank me before answering my question at the end of the talk.
The event, at Books by the Beach, Scarborough Book Festival, was to promote her new collection of short stories, Property. They have been written over a period of time with that same loose overarching theme, each time a commission came in where the theme could fit, and they are now drawn together into a collection. We began with a reading from one of the stories which was sharp, witty and perceptive. Of all the writers who I have heard read their own work I think only Jeanette Winterson did it as perfectly. The narrator is describing what it is like to be “hated” and face the constant feeling of being criticised- to not fit in. “What do you do about an annoying laugh? Stop finding anything funny?”
The discussion which followed was interesting and wide ranging. One of the stories is long enough to be a novella and this is a form that she admires. I can see why as it is much like herself. No tedium. more direct- one good story with no diversions. There were some poignant thoughts related to the books theme. as the magic of having things for long time was remembered via a clockwork donkey and she pointed out that what we care about is not always what we are told is valuable. Losing money hurts more than never having it. We do not own our own lives, other people experience our life in their own ways and it isn’t possible to draw a perimeter around it.
There were some interesting thoughts about fiction in general following from a past controversy where Lionel Shriver spoke out against the idea that “cultural appropriation” was wrong. We need a well rounded, healthy, enjoyable intersect between cultures, a taboo on writing outside your own culture is wrong headed. All fiction is fakery, a matter of what you can get away with. Anyway, as she pointed out, “I don’t want to be told that I may not do it”. Any writing is either convincing or it isn’t. That is what matters. The only form of censorship for a writer which is acceptable is self censorship. Hate speech laws shut down opinions which should be out in the open to be expressed and challenged.
She said that she markets herself as a “purveyor of pessimism with humour” and it was a delight to have the opportunity to sit and listen. Going eyeball to eyeball with her from the front row to ask my question was challenging but in a way that made me feel more alive and engaged rather than threatened. If I were ever to have a full conversation with her I have no doubt at all that I would have to up my game. I liked her a lot.