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The Wreckage and Squalor of Lionel Shriver’s Political Statements

By Linda Mannheim.

A lot has already been said about fiction writer Lionel Shriver’s tirade against Penguin Random House for its plans to address the bias that has favoured white, well-to-do writers and prevented other writers from having their work published.  I would like to say more about the intellectual squalor that her essay rests upon.

Yes, I had to read it to write about it, but my God it was hard to get through.  It included all the tropes used by a writer who is uninterested in actually addressing the subject.  There is the trope of  being privy to something no one else could see: Shriver has seen a “forwarded email …sent to a literary agent”! There is the trope of illogical panic: Greater inclusiveness means “Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books”.  And, finally, there is the trope of angry sarcasm: Will others who want to increase diversity, she asks, “resort to stereotypes” to do so – “broadcasting gangsta rap from lampposts alongside cycling superhighways, where pop-up snack stands hand out free chapattis?”.

Her resurrection of clichés is mortifying. As journalist and publisher Kit Caless pointed out: “she actually said the black lesbian disabled thing.”

Shriver’s assertion that inclusiveness will cause publishers to “eschew standards” brought me back to an earlier time and place. In 1999, I was teaching at the University of Miami, a palm-tree lined private university in the upscale suburb of Coral Gables.  Almost all of my students were from well off families—if not wealthy then comfortable—and about half were from a Latin American background, mostly Cuban, because in South Florida there is a large Cuban-American community.

The subject of affirmative action came up—this was an essay writing course where we discussed and wrote about issues of the day.  An assertion, which a lot of the students had heard, was that, with affirmative action in place, African American and low income students would forever be worrying that they only were admitted to a university because they were from a disadvantaged group.

I asked the students if they were aware that most universities had long given preferential treatment to children of alumni. They hadn’t been aware of this, but overall the class did not think the children of alumni who had had the admissions process tilted in their favour were less qualified to be there than someone with higher grades and test scores who had not gotten in.

Did they know that many universities also had a system in place to ensure geographic diversity among their students? I’d found this out when a white, middle-class friend who had gone to Columbia University told me, “I would never have gotten in if I was from New York.  Columbia gets way more applications from New York.”  I probably don’t have to tell you, and I didn’t need to tell them, that my friend did not spend her time at Columbia wondering if she was only admitted because she was from Minnesota.

I only recently became aware that both these systems were put into place in the early 20th Century to prevent Jews from being admitted to prestigious US universities. “Legacy” and “geographic” admissions systems not only gave preferential treatment to the well off and “established” for generations; they still do.

Shriver, like me, is from America—though the white, suburban America she writes about is foreign territory to me—and though she has lived in the United Kingdom for many years, she still refers to the United States as “my country” and her fiction is almost exclusively concerned with the societal mores of contemporary America.  Conversations like the one I had with my students were taking place at universities all across the United States at the end of the twentieth century, were the subject of popular nonfiction books, and commented on in newspapers and in magazines, yet Shriver seems unable to reference an exploration that has already taken place.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the structures in America that favour the white and well off, regardless of ability, are paralleled in England.  In fact, to an outsider arriving in England for the first time (which Shriver was, which I was), they are starkly visible: a university admissions policy that favours those who attend private schools regardless of their ability, a creative sector that excludes talented and gifted who can’t afford an unpaid internship, and reliance on informal networking that repeatedly excludes those who aren’t born into it.  I thought I knew about the unfairness and brutality of class stratification when I was growing up, but it wasn’t until I got to England that I really got it, could put my hand under the pump and call out water. Even coming from the United States, a country rife with racism and class stratification, England’s parsing and categorising, assumptions about what people can do and exclusion of them based on those assumptions, was a shock.

Shriver implies, repeatedly, that publishing contracts and leadership roles are disproportionately awarded to well off white people because these things are awarded on the basis of merit; she infers that the white and well off are simply better at what they do than others, more capable, and that challenging the hegemony of the white and well off will lead to a lowering of standards. I know she’s trying to appear like your boisterous Aunt Crabby, but we need to talk about an assertion that is essentially the same assertion made by Nazis and white supremacists, apartheid adherents and old school crackers.

I want Shriver, who has been given space to express her opinions again and again, to explain them. I want her to explain how a system that favours white well off people and for the most part excludes others is anything but intrinsically and profoundly racist. I want her confronted over the intellectual bankruptcy of the ideas she expresses in the column, want her to account for the lack of logic behind her fears, want her to address the lack of knowledge she has about the history of the country she comes from as well as the country she now lives in.  I wish I did not have to add that asking for this is not censorship, but a demand for accountability, a demand that a writer and public figure acknowledge the meaning and impact of a public declaration she has made.

Many have asked why Shriver is being given air time. She has, indeed, inserted herself in a conversation no one invited her to (the email she cites wasn’t sent to her) and The Spectator can rely on her to provoke without having much interest in the usefulness of that provocation. Is the purpose of a provocation to initiate a discussion, to challenge ideas with new information?  What do you do with a provocation that ignores discussions on the subject that have come before and ignores responses that come after?  If you fancy yourself a provocateur, is your next step to walk off into a corner, refuse to engage with responses, and complain about how everyone is being unfair to you?

Toby Young, Shriver’s fellow columnist at The Spectator, felt he had to stick up for her. “The problem with Penguin’s new, virtue-signalling inclusion policy is that any BME, gay, trans or female authors it publishes from now on will worry that they haven’t been chosen on merit, but because they tick a diversity box,” he claimed.

If you don’t live in the UK, you probably don’t know who Young is.  Or, if you know him at all, it might be because of the film version of his memoir, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. The public persona he tried to cultivate is that of a “lovable loser.” The opportunities he is offered again and again in spite of his cock ups are part of the joke rather than a result of a social structure that rewards the child of a prominent family regardless of his accomplishments.

Young, famously, was able to attend Oxford even though he’d been rejected because he received an admissions letter in error (as well as a rejection letter), and, though both Young and his father realised the admissions letter was sent in error, his father managed to persuade the admissions tutor to admit Young based on this error. Young wrote about this for The Spectator:

I was a cock-a-hoop and went round telling everybody. It wasn’t until the following week, when I received a letter from the admissions tutor himself, that I was brought back down to earth. ‘Dear Mr Young,’ it began. ‘I am very sorry that the College has not been able to confirm its conditional offer of a place on the reasonable condition of three grade Bs.’

Clearly, the first letter was a mistake, but my father insisted on calling up Harry Judge to ask what was going on. Incredibly, he happened to be in a meeting with the PPE tutors at the time and, after a bit of back and forth—my father distinctly heard the phrase ‘a bit of a balls up’—they decided to offer me a place.

I’m going to admit to not just a weariness of hearing about the lives of the white and well off again and again, but also to frustration with the kind of solipsism that deems stories of middle-class suburbia (or, more recently, hipster cities) the norm. I grew up in a mostly Latino section of Manhattan; comedian Marga Gomez, who is from the same neighbourhood, defines it as “a sort of suburb of Harlem.” Though I’m white, the world around me was not, and for the first 20 years of my life, I rarely saw the world I lived in depicted anywhere. In the MFA programme I went to in Massachusetts in the 1980s, I was asked repeatedly why I kept writing about refugees (both my parents were refugees).

By the late 1980s, American publishing, though far from inclusive, had shifted and there were more Latino authors on the shelf. I remember the thrill of finding books by Abraham Rodriguez, Sandra Cisneros, Cristina Garcia, Aurora Levins Morales, Achy Obejas, and more. For the first time, I felt the possibility of writing about the place I came from instead of mimicking stories about sad suburbia (a place I didn’t know anything about at all). And for the first time, I believed there was a possibility of being seen.

In the years when these writers were first published, when Americans began to talk about “diversity” and what widening the canon would mean, I was not yet aware of university admissions policies that explicitly fostered homogeneity, explicitly raised barriers for people who were unlike the people who had gone there before.  I had an inkling about “legacy” admissions, but not the “geographic” admissions policies that relax requirements for applicants from certain regions of the US.  And I wasn’t aware, until I began doing research for this essay, of someone else who might have benefited from those policies—a Columbia graduate from North Carolina—Lionel Shriver.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linda Mannheim ‘s most recent book is Above Sugar Hill (Influx Press), stories of a one time New York City landmark that became known for its high homicide rate and heroin trade. Eimear McBride wrote that: “Mannheim’s restive tales of her desiccated stretch of New York provoke and abide like a slap.” Linda’s work has appeared in Ambit, Catapult Story, Litro, and Alfred  Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Her stories “Ghosts”, “Trigger”, and “Noir” have been released as Kindle Singles. Linda is one of the founders of Why, Why, Why: The Books Podcast, which asks writers why they wrote the books they wrote, editors why they decided to publish the book, and readers why they picked the book up and read it. Originally from New York, she is based in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 15th, 2018.