Lionel Shriver Doesn't Care If You Hate Her Sombrero

The author of We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Mandibles pulls no punches when it comes to race, sex, or economics.


When Lionel Shriver took the stage at the Brisbane Writers Festival this fall, her speech was billed as a talk on "community and belonging." And in a way, it was. Modern writers, she argued, have been put in an untenable position. In our age of "super-sensitivity" about identity politics, we insist that novelists populate their books with diverse casts of characters, while simultaneously warning that writing a character from a different background than their own may carry the taint of "cultural appropriation." Shriver raised the specter of being "obliged to designate my every character an aging 5-foot-2 smartass, and having to set every novel in North Carolina," which would surely make for dull reading. "We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats," she said in closing.

She then produced a sombrero, popped it onto her head, and left the podium.

Shriver has made a career of writing about things she's not supposed to write about. Whippet thin, she chronicled her sibling's morbid obesity in 2013's Big Brother. Childless, she explored what it means to dislike and fear your own offspring in We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005 and was subsequently made into a chilling film starring Tilda Swinton. In 1994's Game Control, she sends her white protagonist to Nairobi with a modest proposal to deal with overpopulation. Her most recent book, The Mandibles, is a near-future dystopia in which the United States has finally, and catastrophically, defaulted on its debt.

In a mode that is reminiscent of Ayn Rand, the characters in The Mandibles claw, bite, squabble, and sulk over the economic and political world where they find themselves, struggling with what they are allowed to say—and what they are allowed to think—about the people they live with and among.

In October, shortly after the Brisbane speech, Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Shriver about gender politics, the likelihood of economic collapse, and coming out as a libertarian in The New York Times.

Reason: Talk about why you wrote that New York Times piece—rather brutally titled "I Am Not a Kook"—about, essentially, being a libertarian.

Shriver: Out of frustration. Because I think there are a lot of people that don't regard themselves as libertarians who, if you take their views apart one by one, belong in that camp. But because the word has become associated with some rather strange views, and even stranger people, a lot of the people to whom it would naturally apply disavow membership.

This whole business with being fiscally conservative, preferring a more effective but less ambitious government that takes a smaller piece of the national pie, but also being socially liberal, so I have no problem with gay marriage, I want abortion rights, I would legalize recreational drugs rather than have a war on drugs that doesn't work and puts a lot of fairly harmless people behind bars, many of them minorities—I just think there are a lot of people who have those same views. And the truth is that the libertarian rubric of "You should be able to do whatever you want as long as you don't hurt anyone" is the core concept of the United States of America, and something that we should be proud of.

So every time a national election comes up I get frustrated, and I think I have a lot of company in that frustration. Because the Democratic Party meets some of but not all of my liberal social agenda, but it's still the party of taxing and spending. And yet the Republicans are nuts, and very religious, which I am not.

I was absolutely shocked that every single one of those 16 candidates that ran originally on the Republican primary ticket was anti-abortion. And, OK, some of them talk a good game about restricting the size of government and keeping taxes short of confiscatory, but I can't vote for their social agenda.

In your professional universe, the more literary end of your spectrum, do you find there are other people who share your views?

I definitely find fellow travelers, and constantly have people come up to me quietly after events and say, "I agree with everything you say."

Lionel Shriver. Photo by Michael Birt/Contour by Getty Images.

When you're working on a book like The Mandibles, how conscious are you of saying, "I want this to be something people write think pieces about"? Or is it more just a literary exercise?

I don't think it's very profitable to think how people are going to receive you before you have even written the book.

I am first of all trying to tell a good story, and in this case a plausible one. I wanted to put together a sequence of future history events which made economic sense. The focus of the novel is the implosion of the economy as a consequence of overloading of U.S. sovereign debt.

I am never deliberately controversial. It just turns out that way. I'm often dumbfounded by what people find controversial these days.

You favor putting cocaine in vending machines and people say, "Ah, that's an interesting idea." Then you say at the Brisbane Writers Festival, "I think maybe I should be allowed to write Hispanic characters sometimes," and everyone loses their minds. How do you account for why one is so shocking and the other isn't?

I have a hard time. I thought the point I was making in that speech in Brisbane was tame to the point of boring. I worried that I was taking on a paper tiger, because the concept I was addressing myself to had so little merit, it was so easy to knock out of the water, that it was a little bit, to mix our metaphors, like dealing from a stacked deck. Maybe I should have taken on something more challenging, like legalizing drugs.

My only regret with the way it became this international incident is that I worry in the very act of dismissing a concept with no merit, I helped to perpetuate it. I heard from lots of writers and people in publishing who were very supportive of me, as they should be. But I worry that we have given "cultural appropriation" more legitimacy in the very act of proclaiming too loudly its illegitimacy.

That said, there is a larger issue. This is just one more [instance of] chipping away at freedom of speech, and one more assault on our ability to say and write whatever we want. And I do feel strongly about that, and I will go to bat for that, and on that point I am not regretful.

I'm afraid that freedom of speech is under such ceaseless assault these days that that is a battle that we're going to have to keep fighting. It's getting to the point where if you're not among your closest circle, you just don't open your mouth about anything along these lines [of race or gender]. There is a long list of subjects that you feel like you can't talk about anymore, and that depresses me.

Do electoral politics have any impact on how this trend develops?

I certainly am not going to pretend it doesn't matter who wins the American presidential election, in this election of all elections. Yes, it matters, but what we're talking about is not so much to do with which party is in the White House. What we're talking about is much broader than that and is not just a matter of laws but also a matter of self-censorship, which is being installed in the culture on a very deep level.

The stakes are often very high. It's not just a matter of someone not liking you. I learned this term recently, have you heard this? It's being denormalized.

What does denormalized mean?

It's not just saying you can't speak at this college because we don't agree with everything you think. It's putting word out that you are not acceptable anymore anywhere. And it's effective. Especially in academics, because universities are cowardly and don't want to invite trouble.

"I am never deliberately controversial. It just turns out that way. I'm often dumbfounded by what people find controversial these days."

Do you think that's happening to you? Do you fear that it will?

I haven't before, but I have to say that after having a few encounters in Australia…Groups of people who become pumped up with their own righteousness have a mob character and are anything but self-examining. And I think some of them could be capable of physical violence in the name of virtue. People who believe themselves to be good make me extremely nervous.

Let's return to the economic world of The Mandibles. In particular, I was struck by the idea that complex systems collapse catastrophically. Is our economy such a system?

I think so. It almost collapsed in 2008. We think that we went through a catastrophe at that time and we didn't. We propped everything up. But I think that there are all kinds of signs that we have simply—the British use this expression incessantly—kicked the can down the road. I think that the bullet we dodged in 2008 is still whizzing around the planet and is going to hit us in the head.

When the currencies aren't worth anything and the stock market is crashed, what's left?

Are you tempted to draw policy proposals from these insights?

I'm glad it's not my problem to come up with solutions. [But] I am very anxious about quantitative easing and I would stop it. This whole thing of pumping the world full of money is not going to end well. It's going to be one of the things that drives the world economy over a cliff.

It just seems out of control to me, in the same way that the nature of government is out of control. I was talking to my husband about this at dinner just the other day. I think it is in the nature of government to infinitely expand until it eats its young.

I am charmed by this vision of your domestic life—you and your husband sitting at the table delivering libertarian manifestos to each other.

I've been criticized, especially in reviews of this book for the fact that I have people sitting around the dinner table talking about economics, which some critics think is artificial. But that's the way we talk in this house every night, so it seems totally normal to me.

As a teenager, you changed your name from Margaret Ann to Lionel. If a young person in 2016 said, "I'm Lionel now," do you think that would be received differently than it was in your case?

Yes, that is well-observed. I hadn't thought about that.

I never much liked my given name. I took my first alias at 8 years old. I decided to be called Tony. So there was a certain pattern of preferring male names. And then my family moved from Raleigh to Atlanta when I was 15 and that was my opportunity. I assumed the name of Lionel, and nobody knew me as Margaret or Margaret Ann so I got away with it. It was a nice clean break, and I have not looked back.

What's more interesting is what it would have meant nowadays.

I have a young daughter and I can guarantee if she showed up at school tomorrow and said, "I want to be called by a boy's name," the cascade of intervention would be epic.

Well, I'm relieved to have been spared the cascade of intervention.

I published [an essay in Prospect magazine] this year. That was the one that I thought was going to get me shot. I said that I was a tomboy, I didn't like wearing frilly dresses, and I didn't especially identify with the female world. And then I called myself Lionel, and my parents, if this were today, probably [would have ended] up taking me to see a therapist and possibly putting me on hormones. I might have been a candidate for gender reassignment, and I am very glad they didn't.

I don't think that I've been significantly more unhappy, because where I have tended to move toward is a sense of myself which is beyond gender, which is fundamentally androgynous. Which doesn't mean I don't nowadays still enjoy wearing a dress. I'm really impatient with our obsession with gender now, and the whole thrust of that essay is that we're going backwards culturally. When I was growing up, women's liberation as it was then being called was all about getting away from gender as a way to understand yourself, and now we're busy stuffing [people] into pigeonholes.

And isn't it interesting that the thing that created a tempest around you is not that thesis? Wearing a sombrero is what did you in instead.

I'll tell you, I was commissioned to do two speeches while I was in Australia, and the bigger one was for Melbourne. I gave the closing address and I used the Prospect essay as the basis for that talk. And I was braced for really getting a lot of shit for that one—that was the one I expected to get me into trouble, and the Brisbane one was kind of a sideline. I wrote [the Brisbane] speech very fast, and I had no idea that I was saying anything that wasn't self-evident.

"Maybe the left has been too successful.…Maybe they're giddy with their own power."

Do you think your experience tells us that people are more freaked out about talking about race than about sex and gender?

No. I think it was a sheer accident. I think it just so happened that there was one indignant audience member who decided to make a stand, who kicked the whole thing off [in Brisbane]. And I might have been similarly unfortunate in Melbourne…but as it happens, the dice rolled otherwise.

Do you think of yourself as a contrarian, or do you think of yourself as someone who says sensible things that other people react to weirdly?

I'm afraid that sensible me is becoming contrarian because I'm contrary to the culture. But I didn't start out that way, and it isn't the way I think of myself. Maybe that just means I'm getting old and crotchety, but I feel that someone has to hold the line for common sense.

I am dismayed that the left in the West has abandoned freedom of speech and the only people who are sticking up for our ability to say what we want are conservatives. It's a weird swapping out that has taken place over my lifetime, but it's the leftists who are now the enforcers of conformity. I just don't get it. Maybe the left has been too successful. They've prevailed on race and gender, they've won a lot of the culture wars, and maybe they don't have enough left to fight for, or maybe they're giddy with their own power.

Do you think free speech is important for its own sake? Or do you think the value is pragmatic?

Oh, I'd definitely say it's both. Certainly it's important in principle. It is one of the reasons the U.S. was founded [and] I think we underappreciate how easy it is to lose. There aren't that many examples of places that truly embody and encourage free speech.

But there are practical benefits, and I think there are vast intellectual benefits. I prefer to live in a world where people disagree with each other over practically everything and they are willing to say so. I like a sharp-elbowed, rambunctious public square.

I think that language, both verbal and written, is a safe outlet for emotion and opinion and ideas. It means we're not beating each other up. So it's really important for us to be able to disagree with each other in print or across the dinner table, and even for the argument to get heated, as long as nobody hits anybody. And I'm even against the whole codification of hate speech because I believe if something is truly hateful, or truly encouraging hatred of whole groups, then it looks bad self-evidently and these people hang themselves.

Let them sound like racist assholes. I would rather let them tar themselves, so we know who they are and what they think, than have them self-censor and keep it to themselves, and then it just becomes more poisonous.

I kept hearing [Trump's] supporters talking about, "Well, at least he says it how it is." And they clearly have found it a great relief to have been given permission to vent and to express opinions that they've been prevented from airing. Now, maybe not all those opinions are great, but it's better that they feel free to express them than for it to turn into this stewing, violent resentment.

I do have one final thought: We have lost sight of that old schoolroom chant, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me." We have entered a cultural universe where we think words are injurious and therefore dangerous, and equivalent to acts of violence. And that is unfortunate.

This interview has been edited for style, clarity, and length.