It’s a truth universally acknowledged – if rarely stated – amongst limpid-eyed indie kids everywhere that it would probably have, on balance, been best if Morrissey had died some time in the early 90s. Anywhere between the 1988 release of Viva Hate and his infamous union-flag draped Finsbury Park appearance in 1992 would have been fine. That way the strange, sad figure of contemporary Morrissey wouldn’t continue to haunt the headlines with his racist diatribes and poorly written sex scenes; more importantly still, he wouldn’t be threatening to replace the beloved, capricious, gladioli-swinging Morrissey who still lives in our collective memory. We want the witty man whose lyrics formed our internal worlds, not the one who referred to the Chinese as a subspecies.
Fans of The Smiths may ask themselves, “How did he get here?”. The truth is that the signs were there from the very start. There were other options, granted: he could have plausibly become a complete, J.D. Salinger-style recluse; or perhaps a self-important Green Party councillor somewhere, campaigning for vegetarian free school lunches. Maybe a second career as a minor Oscar Wilde scholar at one of the new universities. But you’re kidding yourself if you think it wasn’t entirely possible that the man who sang “England is mine, it owes me a living” would end up plumping for far-right fringe parties and railing against multiculturalism.
I have sadly similar thoughts about one of my sometime-favourite authors, Lionel Shriver, as I watch her traverse a Morrissey-like path, slipping more and more definitely from the provocative towards the gratuitously offensive.
I am – I have been? – an ardent fan of Shriver. I’ve read and re-read her books. She is one of only two novelists who have their own section on my shelf, neatly arranged by publication date (the other being the mercifully unproblematic Angela Carter). I read her columns in the Guardian, and for a time even braved ducking the Spectator’s paywall to read her there. ‘Big Brother’ is enormously affecting, and ‘The Mandibles’ is a strange, plausible, gripping dystopia, and ‘The Post Birthday World’ a tight, sad love story. Her books are wry and engaging and complicated, and I’ve never read one that I didn’t think was at least worthwhile.
But more than her writing, I was a fan of Lionel Shriver herself. She changed her name from Margaret to Lionel at the age of 16, taught metalwork, lived in an impressive array of countries, and in interviews came off as this serious, kind of scary, intense person who used a standing desk and went for runs in the middle of the night and didn’t care about your opinion, because she was a Serious Writer, which is something only men get to be; or, rather, something only men get to paint themselves as, imperious and craft-ly. She was scathing about Franzen and self aware about the “nasty” nature of her own books. I liked her; I wanted to be like her. But I’d be lying if I said the signs weren’t there, like the faint, rising drift of ‘How Soon Is Now’ at someone else’s aspirationally alternative house party.
At the very core of much of Shriver’s works is the same set up, the same central theme: nice, liberal people find it harder and harder to stay nice and liberal as the world around them suggests that this may, in fact, be a fool’s response. In ‘A Perfectly Good Family’, a will that deeds part of the family house to the ACLU splits siblings and causes chaos; in ‘Domestic Terrorism’, liberal parents become victims of their own forbearance as their thirtysomething son refuses to move out. Tolerance, forbearance, and bequests to the ACLU, Shriver’s novels suggest, are more closely related to how the hand-wringing middle classes wish to see themselves than to any ideas of morality. Shriver is a great writer, and she pulled off this conceit time and again with the wry sting of satire, and the sense that however cutting her descriptions, she felt the same “is this recyclable” ineffectual liberal angst as she went about her life.
A series of events – beginning with her now-infamous sombrero sporting appearance at the Melbourne Book Festival, where she used her keynote speech to decry the concept of cultural appropriation in writing as a nonsense – has sadly proved that Shriver is not critiquing from a position of pained sympathy. She is taking aim at the liberal middle classes from another direction entirely: the call is not coming from inside the house. She is no sniping observer but rather a full-on combatant in the culture war; appearing on Question Time and penning offensive columns in the Spectator (‘Why I Hate The N-Word’), transphobic columns in Prospect (‘Gender – Good for Nothing’), being roundly defended in Quilette (‘A Defence of Lionel Shriver: Identity Politicians Would Kill Literature If They Could’). My fave is, it seems, considerably more than problematic.
These days, as I flick back through the books that once so absorbed me, they are tainted. I am keenly aware of the withering, well observed scorn that Lionel would pour on me, her erstwhile fan, as I do a hackneyed liberal dance over “separating the art from the artist”. But the facts are these; art is political, it reflects the politics of its maker, and there is a reason Enoch Powell went on Desert Island Discs and chose 4 pieces by Wagner. Now I pick up Shriver’s books and all I hear are the loud warbles of ‘England Is Mine’ drowning out the wit and pathos. There is also an edge of something else; embarrassment, or maybe even shame, that having so patently done the reading I failed to spot the signs, or worse, let my eyes bounce over accusations that her books featured racist characterisations and swipes at trans people; that points about gun control and ethnic chips-on-shoulders read rather differently when considered in context.
Shriver’s most famous novel, ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’, features a riff about the narrator’s good natured, optimistic husband Franklin never failing to “round up”. Tip more, see the good, give the benefit of the doubt… When it came to Shriver, I was rounding up.
Franklin ends the novel having been riddled with crossbow bolts by his beloved son; as I consider Lionel Shriver’s upcoming evening ‘An Evening With Douglas Murray (Is Identity Politics Driving Us Mad?)’, I can’t help but feel she’s had the last laugh.