his is the text of the Roger Scruton Memorial Lecture delivered by Lionel Shriver at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on October 23rd 2023, titled ‘When Cowed Creatives Capitulate: Conformity and Bad Art’.
We’re all weary of the word ‘woke’, and I’ll try to keep my usage of the tiresome thumbnail to a minimum. After all, even its mocking variations—wokerati, wokismo, woking class — are no longer amusing. Still, I’ve been struck by how difficult it is to address contemporary cultural conflicts and not employ that word — so pervasive, and invasive, has this rigid, joyless, tyrannical gestalt become. Like children piping up from the backseat, “Are we there yet?” countless audience members at events like this one have implored me to predict when this corrosive, killjoy ideology will be over. Because most of us are not nearly as sick of the word as we are of wokeness itself.
For me, a big disappointment of our dreary era has been the silence, compliance and complicity of so many of my fellow fiction writers. Novelists once had a reputation for being mavericks. They were eccentrics who heard voices. They tended to be antisocial, bathed too rarely, dressed unfashionably and drank too much. They were the clichéd different drummers, the weirdos in primary school who never fit in and finally learned to turn their quirks to their advantage in adulthood. No one understood where their phantasmagorical ideas came from. But now we know where most novelists get their ideas: from the New York Times and the Guardian. Nearly all my contemporaries are Left-wing. In terms of the times, they fit in all too well.
In the last few years, writers have been showered with new ‘rules’ — what we’re allowed to write, especially what we’re not allowed to write, and how we’re allowed to write it. I’m never sure where these edicts originate. Fair enough, when I was growing into my occupation, I appreciated being alerted to dangling modifiers, and — here I nod to my hosts — I learned that the ‘Oxford comma’ was an aid to clarity. But these newer rules never pertain to proper usages of the semi-colon. No, they’re moral mandates — all about not causing so-called pain and harm. Pain? Being ordered to mangle my prose by shadowy scolds whose authority I don’t recognise puts me in considerable pain.
Yet my colleagues never seem to scoff at an anonymous bossyboots on social media, “What do you meanwe’re now no longer ‘allowed’ to describe a character’s skin colour with words related to food? I’ve never heard anything more preposterous in my life! Besides, who made you president of the universe? Why do I have to follow your stupid made-up rules? In my novels, I am president of the universe. So if I want to describe my protagonist as having a ‘walnut complexion’, I’ll do so, thank you very much. Or an ‘Eton mess complexion’, if I’m feeling totally whack. So sod off, you mincing martinet. As Alice would say, you lot are nothing but a pack of cards.” No, I get the impression that most of my fellows just get with the programme: “Oh, it’s now officially unacceptable to write ‘coffee complexion’? Gee. I hadn’t heard that. So sorry. I sure hope I didn’t cause any pain or harm! I promise to never, ever do that again, and when other writers have Japanese characters with ‘eggshell colouring’ I’ll be sure to take them to task.”
For example, I was on a book festival panel not long ago with a prominent British novelist who announced to our audience that in his fiction he was no longer going to describe what his female characters look like. This was clearly a political decision, not an artistic one. Presumably you can’t make any reference to a woman’s weight anymore even when the woman is imaginary, and implying she’s sexy or not sexy could be fraught with danger either way. Still, why would this novelist want to publicly commit to tying his own hands at the keyboard? His characters are the fruit of his imagination; they belong to him; ergo, if he chooses, his characters can be fat.
There are merciful exceptions to these cowed creatives. Famously, J.K. Rowling has dared to make the formerly lame observation that there is such a thing as biological sex and aired the formerly self-evident proposition that putting men with functional penises in a rape crisis centre might be a bad idea. Margaret Atwood had the gall to defend due process during #MeToo. Kazuo Ishiguro has mourned the fearfulness and self-censorship he detects in younger writers, as well as rejecting the contrived taboo of cultural appropriation. Bret Easton Ellis may be my closest literary equivalent in merrily puncturing Left-wing pieties. And Salman Rushdie has paid a grievous price for defending freedom of speech. But the novelists who’ve stuck their necks out to protect our right to type whatever we damn well please have been depressingly few. In preparation for this talk, I found one video on YouTube titled ‘Anti-Woke Fiction’. No disrespect, but of the four authors interviewed, I’d never heard of any of them. Most of the heavy-weights are beating by joining, or keeping their own counsel.