Author Lionel Shriver On Cultural Appropriation And The 'Sensitivity Police' NPR's Scott Simon talks with author Lionel Shriver about her outspoken views on cultural appropriation and what she feels is oversensitivity of the left.

Author Lionel Shriver On Cultural Appropriation And The 'Sensitivity Police'

Author Lionel Shriver On Cultural Appropriation And The 'Sensitivity Police'

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NPR's Scott Simon talks with author Lionel Shriver about her outspoken views on cultural appropriation and what she feels is oversensitivity of the left.


Lionel Shriver's made a lot of news over the last year or so, some of it for "The Mandibles," a well-reviewed new novel, some of it for opinions around the topic of cultural appropriation. She told a big-name writer's conference she worries that fear of cultural offense and an over-consciousness on the left threaten to diminish an author's right to be creative and challenging. She most recently wrote in The Guardian against sensitivity readers in publishing, which she calls similarly stifling. Lionel Shriver joins us now from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

LIONEL SHRIVER: Oh, it's a pleasure.

SIMON: Did we get that right? Did I summarize what you believe correctly?

SHRIVER: Yes. I think we should all be free to borrow from each other's cultures. And I think we should be advocating that we use evermore diverse populations of characters in fiction. And the super sensitivity that is developing is discouraging writers from doing that.

And this whole business of editors sending out manuscripts to be read by so-called sensitivity readers to make sure that they don't offend anyone, that they don't promote stereotypes, that does inhibit creativity. And it does discourage writers from using characters from specially-protected groups. If you include a black or a Chinese character in your cast, then you're going to be specially scrutinized. And it's - naturally leads to a kind of fictional apartheid.

SIMON: What about a sensitivity reader, though, that catches potentially a major mistake, an error that you yourself would want to avoid?

SHRIVER: That's called copywriting.

SIMON: I don't mean proofreading. I mean inadvertently using some kind of racial phrase or detecting stereotype where maybe it had escaped you.

SHRIVER: You know, I'm not saying that one shouldn't be scrutinizing one's own work for being lazy. And I think that stereotypes are often laziness as much as prejudice. But we're talking about something that is institutionalized on the part of the publisher. And that's where I draw the line.

SIMON: Very inexact analogy, but I remember writing my first sex scene and showing it to my wife, who said it was hilariously misinformed.

SHRIVER: (Laughter).

SIMON: I just wonder if in this day and age when people are set to go off, like, explosive alarms, might an author welcome this kind of counsel?

SHRIVER: I wouldn't be critical of authors who sought out that counsel. But this is not really up to the author. This is being done routinely with books written for children and young adults. And I am anxious about it spreading to fiction written by grown-ups and for grown-ups. And it does blur into political censorship.

And, you know, I'm not - I'm often misunderstood. I'm not promoting gratuitous offense. I don't believe in, you know, using racial slurs, for example, just for fun, to get away with it. But I do want to protect the ability of my characters to use racial slurs, and for my characters to be bigoted. And I'm worried about losing that freedom because if the characters can't act out, then fiction is dead.

SIMON: Aren't we living in more volatile times, in any case, where maybe you can say a few years ago, somebody - a group of readers might be able to roll with the word and not find that it caused them offense, but now we're living in a world where it seems like a lot of people are being truculent and speaking in an intemperate manner, and offense is exactly the idea?

SHRIVER: Well, the odd thing is that we seem to be breaking off into two different universes. So that on the right, we've got an almost anything goes situation. And then on the left, nobody can say anything. And somehow they're driving each other in extreme directions.

SIMON: Isn't a certain amount of ugly and uncomfortable confrontation a part of learning, though?

SHRIVER: Absolutely. I always advocate a robust debate, a public square where as long as we're not hitting each other (laughter), we can have disagreements. The schoolyard rhyme I grew up with, I never hear anymore. You know, sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you. We don't say that anymore. And I want to go back to that.

I want to at least concede that there's a different kind of injury between somebody who punches you in the nose and somebody who says something you don't like. And I also would make a distinction between someone saying something that you disagree with and someone's using language that you find offensive. And I think that that often blurs.

SIMON: Lionel Shriver, she's the author of many novels, most recently "The Mandibles." Thanks so much for being with us.

SHRIVER: I enjoyed talking to you.

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