Lionel Shriver

When did fiction become so dangerous?

A critic’s job is no longer to review, but to ‘call out’ writers guilty of crimes of the imagination

When did fiction become so dangerous?
Text settings

The assignment of books for review has always been haphazard. Fellow fiction writers can be tempted either to undermine the competition, or to flatter colleagues who might later judge prizes or provide boosting blurbs. There are no clear qualifications for book reviewing — perhaps publication, but most of all, because reviewers are paid for their text but not for the many hours it takes to read the bleeding books, a willingness to work for atrocious wages.

Mitigating the gravity of this matter? Aside from the authors whose work is on the block, almost no one reads book reviews, and I say that as someone who writes a fair number. It’s a publishing truism that ‘reviews don’t sell books’ — although negative ones can un-sell books. With lose-lose odds like that, why books are ever shipped out for review is anyone’s guess.

The lofty New York Times seeks to prevent literary back-scratching by making reviewers swear on pain of excommunication that they are not friends with the author (the test being whether you’ve dined together). With young adult titles, Kirkus, an American trade journal that can influence library and bookshop orders, has raised the moral purity bar still further.

YA fiction reviewers must identify all characters by race, religion and sexual orientation. (Kirkus reviews are only 200 words. After all that ‘African-American, lapsed Buddhist, male-to-female transgender with a foot fetish’, I’m amazed there’s any wordage left.) Should authors have been stupid enough to include a ‘diverse’ cast, their books will be assigned to ‘own voices’ reviewers — that is, other African-American, lapsed Buddhist, male-to-female transgenders with foot fetishes — the better to ‘call out’ writers guilty of any crimes of the imagination on the burgeoning list of progressive no-nos.

Laura Moriarty’s American Heart is a dystopian tale about a white 15-year-old girl who meets an Iranian academic on the run and comes to realise that America’s corralling all its Muslims into internment camps is not very nice. Thus the Kirkus editor-in-chief assigned the book to a female ‘observant Muslim of colour’. The Muslim reviewer gave the novel an enthusiastic notice, which merited the coveted Kirkus star.

Something peculiar seems to have happened amid YA readers in particular. Even for our fevered times, the social justice outrage in this ‘community’ rapidly reaches a pitch that could shatter crystal. Crusaders on social media (most of whom hadn’t read the book) denounced Moriarty’s novel as promoting a ‘white-saviour narrative’. Kirkus took the review down. Asked if she would please like to reconsider her appraisal in light of the frenzy online, the reviewer rewrote her review to be more critical. Kirkus posted the new version. It retracted the star.

I’ll reach for an adjective grown painfully fashionable; maybe in an era of hyperbolic huffing and puffing, commentators welcome its ambience of understatement: troubling. This story is troubling.

The ‘own voices’ policy conveys to reviewers that their primary job is not to assess a book’s storytelling, but to rate its adherence to a left-wing catechism (the fairness of whose tenets is presumably self-evident), to identify authorial heretics, and to stick the apostates’ heads on spikes along the digital public highway. Reviewing for Kirkus is now a cross between penning literary criticism and joining a shooting party, a sufficiently athletic undertaking that it really should pay better.

I’ve despaired previously of YA publishers’ use of ‘sensitivity readers’ to screen manuscripts for politically objectionable content, of which this practice is an extension. Since reviewers sent searching for sin redeem their existence by becoming offended, what makes the American Heart story extraordinary is the fact that the original reviewer, a practising Muslim, thought a novel by a white writer, with a Muslim as a main character, was wonderful.

There’s no reason why sensitivity on steroids will remain restricted to YA fiction. Across the genres, the sanely self-protective response to this scrounging for sacrilege is surrender. For writers to create a ‘diverse’ cast of characters is not worth the risk. The YA author Justine Larbalestier has already bannered proudly online that she will no longer use ‘persons of colour’ as ‘protags’ — a usage alone so horrifying that it should really disqualify the woman from writing about anybody.

Written byLionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver is an American journalist and author who lives in the United Kingdom. She is best known for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005 and was adapted into the 2011 film of the same name, starring Tilda Swinton.