Lionel Shriver visited The UnHerd Club this week to talk about sensitivity readers, the cowardice that’s infected publishing, and why she’s determined to keep offending people. Below is an edited transcript of her conversation with Katie Law, UnHerd’s Books Editor.
Katie Law: Why don’t you start by telling us what sensitivity readers are — what are your views of them?
Lionel Shriver: For the few of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, sensitivity readers started out being hired mostly in young adult fiction — a genre that, for some reason, woked out earlier than anyone else. The idea is that these people are self-nominated experts on whatever category of humanity they happen to have been born into. So I’m a professional American and a professional white person. They’re supposed to go through, line by line, and find anything in this book that could possibly offend anyone, especially their hallowed group. And unsurprisingly, that results in a much more anodyne, boring manuscript. Basically, you can’t win, because if you have a character do something that most people in that category wouldn’t do, then it’s inauthentic; but if they do things that that category of people are renowned to do, then it’s a stereotype.
I should make it clear that no one at HarperCollins has yet had the nerve to subject me to these people. And I object to the whole idea of it. There’s nothing wrong with being professional, being accurate. If the book you’re writing requires you to write people who are credibly disabled or black or Muslim or what have you, and it’s a realistic piece of fiction, then you should probably do a little homework. But it shouldn’t be against the law not to do your homework. If you’ve made glaring errors, then it’s the part of criticism and a responsible reader to notice. But it’s a very different thing — deciding to do a few interviews or a little reading on your own account — from having your publisher sic these self-nominated experts on your manuscript to tell you everything that’s wrong with it and everything that has to go. I won’t mention her by name, but a very successful novelist who I talked to recently was subjected to multiple sensitivity readers and they reduced her to tears.
What few authors understand is that they don’t actually have to take the advice of these interfering little people. But most authors think they do and therefore make these moronic changes. What the publisher is really doing is protecting themselves, so that if this book gets it in the neck, on social media or in criticism, then they can say, “well, she didn’t do what she was told”.
KL: How have these edicts affected you personally? Have you had any pushback from an agent or your own editors in your fiction writing?
LS: I have been subjected to very little of that kind of interference, but it’s not foreign to me. One of the things that now makes people extremely nervous is the use of accents. Now, I don’t generally like heavy-handed transliteration of accents in fiction. I think you can sometimes convey an accent with a few little touches. And those little touches can be very useful in creating the character. But even expressing the way people actually talk when, for example, English is not their first language is now considered offensive. And there are whole books, therefore, that would be cancelled for this very reason.
In The Mandibles, there’s a short dialogue with African immigrants, and I had used those little touches, and I had my British editor say that it was “othering”. I find that word so repulsive. And rather than take her head on, because I wanted to keep things cool and she had restrained herself in relation to a lot of other things, I obliged, except that I did so in an underhanded way. There was a way of changing the dialogue so that you did get the accent, but I expressed it with whole, legitimate English words. So you couldn’t quite say that it was transliterating and “othering”, but I still got my way.
There was another instance where I got myself into trouble with objecting to the concept of cultural appropriation. I had written a short story in which there was a girlfriend of a white character who was black. She was a very appealing character. She’s smart and very well spoken. And she’s upper-middle class and her mother’s rich — so not a stereotype. The story takes place in Atlanta, where there is a huge upper-middle class black population. So this was credible. But my agent suggested that I changed this person to a white character, because if we submitted the story to the New Yorker — eye roll! — and they rejected it, we would never know whether or not it was rejected because I was culturally appropriating, or the story just sucked. I always allow for that possibility. Sure enough, it was rejected, and I do not know whether or not it was because I culturally appropriated or this story sucked.
KL: Authors seem to sometimes apologise too quickly if they’re accused of a particular misdemeanour.
LS: Oh, I have never apologised in public for anything as a matter of principle. Once you go down that road, you have lost the battle, you have finished yourself. And the irony is that apologies don’t even work. They’re never accepted. You never apologise enough.
But it’s worth pointing out that transparent cowardice is not so much on the authorial but on the publishing level. As I wrote in a Spectator column, one of the reasons that publishing has become so timid, and frightened, and compliant, and risk-averse, is because it’s been taken over by women. I do not say that with any pride in my sex, and there are many exceptions, but women err on the side of being fearful. They also have, as a group, a fatal desire to please. What’s needed in this circumstance is balls, and I don’t care whether they’re literal or figurative.
KL: You won a prize in 2005, The Orange Prize. It’s now been renamed as The Women’s Prize for Fiction. At the time, did you think there was a good reason to have a women-only prize? And today, do you think we still need women-only prizes for fiction?
LS: I think at the time there was some good reason for it. There was a real historical disparity in the award of prizes, especially the big prizes, to women. We just weren’t getting acknowledged. Now, I was quite forthright, even at the time, about the fact that if I had my druthers, I would prefer to have won a prize that was open to both sexes. I have no problem with going head-to-head with men and I do not feel that I need special protection. But it was at a rather low point in my career, and I would take what I could get.
I have made a habit of not doing down the Women’s Prize. For the most part, it doesn’t do any harm, it’s just one more prize. It means that there are more people out there who have a little more money and a little more profile. But if you look at the statistics of who’s being awarded what now, if anything we need a men’s prize. We now have a serious reverse discrimination situation, whereby authors, especially debut authors, simply cannot get into print if they are straight, white males. And you know what, I think even the gay white males are starting to struggle.
KL: Do you put that down to the number of women running publishing? Do you think that they are wanting to push their own interests?
LS: It’s partly a matter of fashion. Publishing is utterly obsessed with diversity. And that means that they are not choosing books strictly on the basis of whether they’re any good. This is a huge, society-wide problem and it’s not just publishing — we have ditched excellence and even competence, and all we care about is what category you belong to — but publishing is the worst of it. Women are slaves to fashion, including ideological fashion, and have this drive to please, and regard talking about diversity all the time as pleasing because that’s what you’re supposed to do now. However, I do not think the problem is female readers. I sense no demand, from the ground up. “Listen, stop foisting these male, white writers on us. We only want to read books by people from Zimbabwe.” I do a lot of events and I just don’t hear it. The readership wants good stories and good characters, and also something with a little edge, which is where I come in.
KL: A lot of the management in publishing houses are terrified of their very young staff, who are calling the shots, who are feeling offended, who are feeling uncomfortable about JK Rowling’s views. Is that something you’ve experienced?
LS: Yes, which is bizarre. It’s just a complete inversion of who has the power. I mean, we’re dealing with an entire administrative class that doesn’t realise that they’re wearing Dorothy’s shoes. They have the power; they can fire all these people. Look at what happened at Netflix. They did a trim after the Dave Chappelle brouhaha, and the first people in the firing line were the people who’d made a big stink about the Dave Chappelle comedy special.
But in publishing there’s just this complete failure to exert control. I’ll tell you an interesting story. I hope Douglas Murray is cool with this. Douglas recently changed publishing company from Bloomsbury to HarperCollins. And by the way, HarperCollins, in the big picture here, has acquitted itself quite well. They’re my publisher and they have not given me a hard time, much less fired me. And they have been a refuge for a number of other authors who have fallen out with their publishers. But this particular instance of leaving Bloomsbury was interesting to me because of a twist. They were wrangling over the contractual details — they didn’t actually want to lose Douglas — believe it or not but they threatened Douglas with their younger staff. They used their younger staff as a weapon and said, “you know, you’re lucky: our younger staff hasn’t gone for you. The younger staff of all the other publishing companies wouldn’t put up with you. So we’re the only people who would have you.” It’s really underhanded, really creepy. And of course, it was a lie. Douglas didn’t have any trouble finding someone else to publish him. He’s very profitable. It was using the current political situation to get what they wanted in a much more mercantile sense, not in an ideological sense.
The real problem is that, in the elevation of these ostensible values of diversity, equity and inclusion, whole organisations and corporations forget what they are for. I got myself into trouble in 2018, after Penguin Random House sent round a declaration to all the agents of their authors that, by 2025, they were going to have both their authors and their staff perfectly reflect the demographics of the United Kingdom — it’s hard to say this without laughing — in relation to sex, sexual preference, ethnicity, gender ID, of course, race, and even class. Now, that’s a hell of an algorithm. I thought it was hilarious and I wrote about it for The Spectator — about how the purpose of a publishing company is not to perfectly reflect the demography of whatever country it’s selling books in, but to sell books. And somehow that column got twisted so that, according to the Guardian — they’re so creative there! — I thought only white people wrote good books.
KL: I’ve actually got the sentence that you wrote here: “If an agent submits a manuscript by a gay, transgender Caribbean, who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published whether or not it is incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible.”
LS: That line was endlessly quoted back to me as somehow terribly prejudiced. If you examine each element on its own, there are no pejoratives. There is nothing insulting in that line at all. But it is, in its composite, funny — and that’s a crime.
KL: You talked on the Today programme about what you had meant when you wrote that and why you’d written it. I think you defended yourself and acquitted yourself brilliantly — but I wonder how these things affect you, and whether you come away from it feeling bolshier? Or whether you ever fear you’ve gone too far?
LS: Well, so far, I’ve got away with it. So I don’t live in fear all the time. I realise that the era we’re living in is dangerous to me — the irony being, however, that it’s also been very useful to me. I mean, you are probably here not just because you like my novels, but because I have stuck my neck out politically. And therefore I have benefitted from wokeness more than I have suffered from it. And that makes me rather gleeful.
KL: And do you feel that you can harness it for your next novel?
LS: I really broke the rules in The Motion of the Body through Space, which came out in 2020. One of the secondary characters is an incompetent diversity hire. You’re not supposed to do that. And, of course, it was widely criticised. And that made it really fun. But I don’t want to become just an ideologue and I don’t want to just write books that are shadowboxing with the enemy. I want to write books that would be interesting beyond this moronic era.
I don’t always want my novels to be focused on the culture wars, but I have used the culture wars and more broadly, I have found the whole experience of the last several years informative, not necessarily in a cheerful manner. It’s been very discouraging — in the same way that I found the whole Covid era incredibly discouraging — and I think less of humanity as a result. But I find this time period illuminating in relation to any number of other political movements that I have known about in theory, but have not known in practice. It illuminates the French Revolution and Year Zero in Cambodia and Maoism and Stalinism, the whole package of authoritarian movements which have not always been top-down but have sometimes been ground-up — instituting an orthodoxy, which if you do not hew to it, you lose your job, your livelihood. That is what’s happening. I sometimes worry that it’s petty and I shouldn’t get that concerned with it, but on reflection, I don’t think it’s petty. I think it’s real, I think it’s important. If it gets much worse, we’re really talking about total dysfunction. We’re talking about countries just not working anymore.
KL: Have we reached peak woke, or do you think it’s just going to get worse?
LS: Everyone I talk to wants to know whether or not it’s started to subside. The real problem is that it has a life of its own, because it has produced this entire class of people whose jobs rely on this DEI nonsense. And you know that theory of the overproduction of elites? If you haven’t encountered it, basically we’re sending too many people to university. There are not enough jobs. And this DEI crap, it creates lots of little useless sinecures — often very well paid — for these overproduced elites to fill, and they’re going to cling to those positions for dear life.
For the organisations involved, or the companies, they’re a terrible drain but what’s happening is that these whole layers of management are being maintained as a protection. It’s a little bit like the sensitivity readers. They don’t cost that much and it’s good PR: “look at us, we have a whole department of 30 people who do absolutely nothing”. And furthermore, the ideology, which began in the universities, is still being promoted in universities. At places like UnHerd, we may feel we’re winning the argument because the essays are so good but that doesn’t mean that they’re teaching UnHerd essays in university, as they should do. I’m afraid that none of the people who need to be persuaded are reading this stuff. It’s a very atomised media situation.
I think there is a role to be played in preaching to the choir: the choir needs sermons. And we need to reach out to each other and to feel that we’re not alone and that there are other people who are sane. It makes you feel, in the current parlance, “safe”, because everyone is not crazy. And it gives us a sense of community, a much-misused word, but this is a community. You are actually physically here, and we are of like minds, though we don’t agree on everything — that would be creepy.
KL: If the woke tide is a youthful one, and more young people are coming out of universities and going into the workplace, then what is going to stop it?
LS: The problem is not only young people. And I have to say, I feel a kind of funny mea culpa in relation to my own youth. I grew up at the tail end of the so-called Sixties, which in truth lasted well into the Seventies. And this is where a lot of this stuff was born — and by the way, as a kid, I bought into it hook line and sinker. I would still oppose the Vietnam War, if I could go back, and I still recycle. But this whole obsession with self-criticism, which has an almost communist touch and feel, started back then. And I was very proud of being critical of the United States and being ashamed of the United States and being obsessed with all the terrible things we’d done wrong. People these days act as if we only started talking about slavery yesterday. No, we were obsessed with it in the Sixties, slavery and the genocide against the Indians. A lot of the stuff that you hear harped on now, we harped on, and I’ve internalised this stuff, and I was very proud of how ashamed I was. When you’re ashamed, you’re superior, because you know how terrible you are and everyone else is dribbling around in their ignorance, and they don’t know what evil they hail from.
That lasted well into my young adulthood, until I became a permanent expat. Even for the first few years of my ex-patriotism, when I was living in Belfast, I was ashamed of being American. I was a little self-conscious about opening my mouth with my accent and giving away that I was from this terrible place. And honestly, I’m not quite sure what did it. Maybe it was just living in Belfast, where I realised there are other terrible places. I grew up politically and I grew up personally. I came to resign myself to being American.
I didn’t choose to be born American. There are worse places to be from and I was not responsible for slavery. I didn’t kill any Indians. Everyone has to be from somewhere and actually, that shame is perhaps the main thing that I should have felt ashamed for. Because it is a false pride in being so illumined and it’s an empty pride. And frankly, from the outside, it is unattractive. We don’t really like people who are ashamed of where they come from. It’s a kind of betrayal and it’s a lie. It’s as if you can repudiate that which cannot be repudiated. It’s also a denial of fact, of physical reality. I was born in the United States in a little town called Gastonia, North Carolina: that is a fact. A fact, and I can’t live it down, and for me to feel that I have to is, well, shame on me.
So, I came round — but this self-hatred stuff goes way back, this very Western-centred, “oh, haven’t we done terrible things”. And it starts with my generation. The Boomer generation brought this stuff to life. And those are the people who took over the universities. So, it is not just a bunch of young people who got some stupid notion in their head. They got it from us.
KL: On that note, shall we take some questions from the audience?
Do you think that books like Satanic Verses wouldn’t be published now? Or that series of books called The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, which was beautifully written by an elderly Scottish professor, Alexander McCall Smith, but from the perspective of a black woman?
LS: Funnily enough I had a conversation with somebody in the upper levels of HarperCollins — they publish Alexander McCall Smith — and he was bemoaning the fact that if one of those books came in today, they would not publish it. And that’s HarperCollins, the refuge. The truth is that HarperCollins’s CEO is a Brexit supporter. Very conservative. And that helps explain why HarperCollins is a bit of an island politically. But even they would probably turn down The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, because it’s an older Scottish white writer with a main character who is female, black and African — which is, from my perspective, admirable. It’s an extension of imagination, of empathy. I’m far more interested in reading that book than I would be if it’s about a barely disguised older, white Scottish male who happens to be the main character and writes novels for a living.
You said a while back that the best way to fight this war on language was to either ignore it or to laugh at it. Do you still think that?
LS: That’s a hard one because, yes, my tendency is to laugh at it. I find these lists of words we’re no longer supposed to use, which get longer and longer, hilarious. You can’t refer to a “field” of study anymore, because it’s going to remind people of slavery. I mean, it is beyond satire. These people are doing our work for us in making a mockery of themselves. The trouble is that it does start trickling down. The Associated Press guidelines set a standard that is largely observed across the journalism industry, but now they’ve said that you can’t use the word “the”. Now, obviously, it’s in certain contexts, but honestly, they are banning articles. You can’t say “the disabled” because it defines a person in terms of a particular aspect of themselves. They even said you couldn’t say “the French”. The French got really pissed off!
For this lunacy to have filtered down to even the AP Stylebook means that it’s a little more serious than I would like it to be. I would like us to be able to laugh it off. But honestly, they have successfully made it almost unpublishable in mainstream newspapers to say “slave”; you have to say “enslaved person”, because otherwise we idiots are not going to know that we’re actually talking about a human being. They’re starting to endanger whole classes of words that pertain to people. Pretty soon we’re not going to be able to talk about me as being “a writer”, because I’m also a person. So, I have to be a “writing person” or a “person who writes”. It’s dumber than dumb, but at the same time, it is starting to have an impact on what is considered acceptable use of language.
My biggest sense of upset about all of this stuff is that I just hate bad writing. I hate the mangling of language. I hate stupid use of words and that’s what they’re promoting. They honestly have people on the news saying, “people living with obesity”. And again, this is funny, but there’s another level on which it is more insidious. It is denial of reality. I gather there’s a series called Goosebumps — I haven’t read it; it is for children — which is removing the word “fat”. I mean, first off, no matter how many references to the word fat you eliminate, it doesn’t change the fact that being massively overweight is bad for you. It also doesn’t change the fact that most people do not find being massively overweight attractive. If you eliminate the word, you don’t eliminate the prejudice against that state. And by the way, that’s a healthy prejudice. We don’t want to encourage everyone to be massively fat. So I don’t think we should stop finding it funny but we do also have to take it seriously. I use the word “slave” at every opportunity.
I wonder whether there’s any way of engaging with a lost generation of people who are completely captured by weird, weird ideologies?
LS: Fortunately, I don’t have to confront people who have swallowed this ideology whole very often. One of the problems with the ideology is the way it seals itself off. So that part of the ideology is a refusal to have a conversation, that it causes you harm to talk to somebody or listen to somebody with whom you disagree. It’s anti-education, which is why I find it incredibly ironic that this stuff originates in universities. Because it’s the antithesis of what real education is.
I think parents may have a role to play. I’m not a parent, but I wouldn’t give up on trying to talk to your kids. One of the things that dismays me is that a lot of the parents believe the same stuff. And so the kids are not entirely against the parents. What dismays me about younger people these days is: they don’t rebel. This is what they’re being told. This is what a lot of their parents believe. It’s not rebellion, it’s anything but: it’s conformity, total conformity.
Now, what is wrong with young people who don’t tell the adults that they’re full of shit? That’s what we were like. I bought into my parents’ liberal ideology, but I grew up and I overthrew it and started thinking for myself. My first experience of asserting myself was overthrowing my parents’ Presbyterianism. Both my parents were professionally religious, and I instinctively didn’t buy it. Now it turns out everyone else is the same way, so it doesn’t seem especially interesting, but it was risky in my family, to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to go to church anymore. I don’t believe this.” And it gave me practice for later, when I realised that I didn’t entirely buy their political ideology. I became an independent intellectual being.
What is wrong with younger people that they don’t go through that process? It is empowering, as we used to say; it is exciting and it’s fundamentally Oedipal. It’s overthrowing the previous generation and asserting yourself and growing into yourself, and deciding that you are capable, and that you can think for yourself. Why is this generation — and even to some degree, the previous one — not going through that rebellion and that self-assertion? I’m afraid that a lot of the self-assertion we do see is an assertion of weakness, so-called vulnerability, mental illness, feeling unsafe? It’s all soft. I would like to see a little strength.
As a sensitivity reader, I advised somebody to remove something because he was calling able people “blessed”, implying that disabled people are not blessed. But I felt bad, because at what point does it become self-censorship?
LS: I don’t think there’s any formula. There is such a thing as being edited well, and my editor occasionally calls attention to something that’s going to alienate people. I don’t mind having that called to my attention. I’ve been a little careless, or I wrote something in such a way that it could be interpreted in a way that I don’t want it to be interpreted. So, if you’ve got a line that seems to be dissing anyone with a disability and that’s not what you’re trying to convey, then you should fix it and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t believe in gratuitous offence. I sometimes offend on purpose, but there’s nothing wrong with having another perspective, and I’m always willing to listen. If someone can make a good case that I should cut a line or change a word, or whatever, I’ll listen to it and I will entertain it. And sometimes I’ll reject it, but sometimes they’re right. There’s always a danger of becoming so dogmatic in the service of anti-dogmatism that you close yourself off to information that actually is very useful to you. I sometimes have to watch that myself.
I’m left with the feeling that this is an era of even greater polarisation than I had thought. And perhaps what we’re missing is more of a voice for the centre ground and the middle ground. And I wonder if, to get through the era, that voice might be better than the two polars fighting each other?
LS: That’s what got us here, the centre ground! I’m afraid that the centre ground is now interpreted as Right-wing. Nothing I’ve said, 30 years ago, would have been faintly controversial. And now it is. It’s funny, I was just speaking with another audience member who said that she’s from my same generation and she started out a liberal, and she hasn’t changed any of her opinions and now she’s regarded as Right-wing. And that’s what’s happened to me. The irony of the position I find myself in is that most of the positions that I advocate for are expressing the views of the majority of the population. And the views of the majority of the population are no longer acceptable. And that bothers me. It shouldn’t be brave to say most of the stuff I say, and unfortunately it has become so.