Creativity versus identity
News flash: At least two young, female, ‘non-white’ aspiring writers did not like Lionel Shriver’s opening address to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. No prizes for guessing what got them all browned off.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out of what she describes as Shriver’s ‘celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.’ Apparently it took twenty minutes before she twigged that Shriver gives short shrift to lefty literary angst over cultural appropriation, identity politics and political correctness. Yen-Rong, whose own genre is ‘discussing subversive women and Othered characters in non-Western societies’, managed to endure the whole event, traversing from ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘alarmed’ and finally to ‘shuddering to think where we might be if we all subscribed to Shriver’s way of thinking’.
These young women, who call themselves aspiring writers, couldn’t bear to listen to a successful author telling them that whoever or whatever they may be, they have no excuses for writing badly, or for failing to write at all. Being a ‘person of colour’ does not present a barrier to creativity. The only barriers to creativity are cowardice, laziness, vanity, and the many other universal weaknesses that make us human, and that make the creation of art a painful process. Lionel Shriver, as a master of her craft, knows that creativity entails hard work and sacrifice. One would think that genuinely aspiring writers would be interested in hearing what she had to say, and in learning about what it takes to be an artist, regardless of how they felt about Shriver’s politics.
Abdel-Magied and Yen-Rong complain that however hard it is to be a writer, it is harder still for their ‘non-white’ selves, because white people – especially straight, male, white people – have oodles of ‘privilege’ which allows them to dominate the literary landscape. It would be pointless to question their assumptions on what ‘privilege’ is, how it works and how it is distributed. The experts on ‘privilege’ are always those people who believe they have none of the stuff themselves. To argue with these supposed experts about the nature of privilege is to oppress them with your own privilege, apparently.
It’s true that many successful writers are products of supportive families and decent schools. While a combination of birthright and talent gives such ‘privileged’ writers a head start in life, that’s not all that makes them good at what they do. Their talent is refined through their admiration and imitation of their elders, and through competing with other young creatives for recognition. An aspiring ‘non-white’ writer would do well to resist Abdel-Magied and Yen-Rong’s siren song of victimhood and special pleading, and instead choose to view the supposedly more privileged writers around them as rivals, peers and potential mentors in the creative process. Flouncing out of lectures and whining about better writers ‘taking away our opportunities to share our authentic experiences’ achieves nothing.
By their moaning about ‘appropriation of the experiences of others’ Abdel-Magied and Yen-Rong have shown that they know little and care less about art, and all that really interests them is identity politics. As the (privileged, straight, white, male) writer Christopher Hitchens once said, identity politics is the refuge of the selfish and mediocre, who see it as their big chance at being somebody important. These two have done themselves a disservice by announcing to the world that they’ve settled for the mediocrity of constructing their identities around their ‘non-whiteness’, rather than identifying first and foremost as artists. Identifying as a ‘person of colour who writes’ is much easier than identifying as just another writer in a world of writers, because the ‘non-white writer’ can find so many convenient excuses for producing little more than complaints about authors more productive and successful than themselves, and calling it ‘speaking truth to power’. Genuine artists know that while some people may be more materially fortunate than others, the muse does not discriminate by trivial things like class, race and gender.
Both women were disturbed by what they saw as Shriver’s arrogance. As Abdel-Magied put it, ‘humility is not Shriver’s cloak of choice’. (What is it with the identity-obsessed and their passion for metaphor-mangling these days? I blame Stan Grant.) Again, this shows that while they know all about themselves and their identities, these ladies understand precious little about writing as an art form. Creativity requires conceit – in both senses of the word. The novelist creates a world, fills it with characters, manipulates them to tell a story and then, in an astonishing act of mad audacity, shows the story to other people. Of course Shriver is a bit arrogant; real writers have to be. If she fretted like a goose over her ‘right’ to speak in another’s voice, she wouldn’t get anything decent written at all.
Here we have two young women heavily invested in their ‘non-white’ identities. They profess to be unhappy that the ‘white’ mainstream does not, and cannot, understand what it is like to be them – but if a talented author were to convey something of their experiences through an invented character, they would be unhappier still. Rather than patiently hone their writing skills in order to convey their ‘authentic experiences’ in a readable way, they advertise their envy and immaturity, and their lack of both skills and patience, by carping online about the unfairness of everything.
Abdel-Magied and Yen-Rong do not hesitate to police other people’s identities whilst claiming an identity to which they themselves have no right. These two have no real business calling themselves ‘aspiring writers’, because they appear to care nothing for creativity; what they care about is control. It’s no wonder that they felt excluded from Shriver’s address to the Writer’s Festival. Lionel Shriver was talking to the readers who appreciate authentic and courageous art, and she was speaking for the writers who genuinely want to create it. Those writers may appear in a variety of colours and ethnicities and genders, but fortunately for all of us, they know what they really are.