Last week, I read this article by the novelist Lionel Shriver from the latest edition of Harper’s Magazine. At first, it seemed to me to be another cack-handed attempt by someone not well-versed in the current debates around identity politics and the #MeToo movement to rehash outmoded freedom of speech arguments.
The more I read, however, the more alarming Shriver’s choice of common causes became. I can understand, if not agree, with her belief that it’s a shame that ROSEANNE (the TV show), was forced into cancellation because Roseanne Barr (the bigot) went on a twitter rampage (though I suspect that Shriver wasn’t an avid viewer). When she goes on to lament “…once Bill Cosby was convicted of sexual assault, he was sentenced not only to three to ten years but to cultural near-oblivion,” however, I became decidedly off-board. Shriver’s implication, perhaps, is that a minimum sentence of three years for serial rape is not only a little harsh(!), but that it is an even more degrading inhuman punishment for people not really to want to watch his show when they learn the crimes he was perpetrating while making it.
While Shriver is dismissive of the “progressive orthodoxy”, it’s pretty clear that she’s falling into some of the simplifications and lack of nuance that she so bemoans when made on the other side. She collapses what, at least to me, are pretty important distinctions – between Cosby’s longterm history of vicious sexual assault, for example, and the case of Garrison Keillor – suggesting, it seems, that anyone, no matter what their crime, has a right for their artistic legacy to be maintained intact.
In a way, I can understand why Shriver worries about the curtailment of artistic expression – she’s a novelist after all. She fears that in the current climate, one careless, stupid statement could spell the end of her career and the loss of her readership. This must be a very pressing concern for Shriver in particular, as making careless and stupid statements has become such a habit for her.
For example, there was the speech in which she explained that as a white artist it was her right, nay, her duty, to undertake cultural appropriation (not exactly breaking the mould – it’s what white artists have been doing since the early modern period). Or the time she attacked Penguin Random House (that famous hotbed of seditious thought), for their dizzyingly ambitious goal of trying to make the books they publish more representative of the society that reads them. She writes: “we can safely infer … that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published.” [Translator’s note: that bit where she says “Caribbean”? She just means black.]
Of course, Shriver isn’t stupid. She might not even be racist (despite the good impression of it she often gives). She’s just really, really, cosseted. She’s privileged in every sense of that word. And, despite her love letter to being an artist, this privilege seems to have translated into a significant lack of empathy, a thing that, strangely, artists have traditionally valued.
Shriver writes in Harper’s –
For artists, the erasure of their work may be a harsher penalty than incarceration or fines. Eliminating whole series from streaming platforms, withdrawing novels from bookstores, and cancelling major gallery retrospectives constitute, for those in the creative professions, cruel and unusual punishment.
Seriously? The only person who can, with a straight face, fear the erasure of their art worse than incarceration is a person who doesn’t think they are going to be incarcerated any time soon. The only person who says that eliminating a series from a streaming platform is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment is someone who hasn’t had to face the cruel and unusual punishments of sexual assault or harassment, or the struggle to be seen as a secondary citizen in your own country, or the threat of deportation because you don’t have the right sort of papers.