Why Talking’s Not Enough

Question: Why do you write?

Lionel Shriver: I think writing -- the impulse to write  -- comes out of a failure to communicate by any other means.  I think most natural writers are socially incompetent.  And I would include myself generously in that category, especially as a child and in my early adulthood, and yeah, often as not at parties I still feel like a 13-year-old fish out of water, would prefer to crawl off in the corner with a book. 

Talking only works so well.  And you know that feeling of having had an encounter with someone and later you think what you should have said.  Well, writing is all about being able to rewrite history and get at what you should have said.  And it’s a way of writing subtexts, that’s the thing is that with social interaction, it’s always got more than one layer, and that’s very frustrating.  And with people whom we are trying to be intimate, we’re always fighting to get down to the layers.  And it seems that no matter how many layers you go down, there’s another one that you haven’t really tapped.  And writing is an effort, and sometimes a failed effort as well to get down to the bottom layer. 

Question: Who are your favorite authors? 

Lionel Shriver: I’m a big fan of Edith Wharton.  I love the way she writes elegantly without being fussy.  She writes beautiful sentences, they’re well constructed and balanced.  But they’re never just beautiful sentences.  They always say something.  To me that’s the essence of a beautiful sentence.  It’s not just pretty in its language, but it gets at something, some kind of truth or essence that is revelatory and she embodies that for me.  She is also a great storyteller and writes wonderful characters. 

I’m also a huge fan of Richard Yates.  I feel I have a real affinity with his perspective on the world, which is a little bit sour, but also has a sense of humor.  And I love the way he writes characters– in a lot of ways he’s taking the Mickey out of them, as they’d say in Britain.  That is, he’s exposing them.  But he’s exposing them in a way that is short of ridicule.  Yates still has a tenderness toward his characters.  Even characters that are being used a bit for laughs, or maybe shallow or pretentious, but there’s always something poignant about that and sympathetic.  And I like that.  I’m not sure I always managed to pull that off into my own work, but when I do I really feel I’ve achieved something because as much as it’s satisfying to expose people’s foibles, it’s most satisfying to do that in a way that is empathetic with those foibles which sees them from the inside and how they’ve come about and has an element of forgiveness in the portrait. 

Question: Do you have a specific approach to the work of writing? 

Lionel Shriver: There’s nothing occult about what I do.  It is very ordinary.  I’m often asked at literary festivals, for example, how many hours a day do you write?  And when do you write?  And do you have a set number of pages that you write?  And the answer is, it varies enormously.  I used to be much more insecure about my capacity to generate a manuscript and so when I first started out, and I’m sure a lot of writers will recognize this, I started at a particular time, I had to write three pages a day.  Now I’m not like that at all.  Maybe some day I’ll write nothing, and another day maybe I’ll write 10 pages.  The secret is just to keep at it and put in the time and it doesn’t matter what the time of day is.  It’s a very work-a-day, plodding profession, especially writing books.  You’re better off not waiting for inspiration.  I find inspiration is something that you demand of yourself that will arrive in due course if you sit in front of a computer long enough, you just have to concentrate. 

So, I get up in the morning, have a whacking big cup of coffee, read the newspaper.  I have to say, that’s an important part of my life is keeping up with current events.  I am especially attentive to the little articles.  I think for a writer, those little sidebar articles are the jewels of the news day; tiny little incidents that are usually on a more individual level and not like peace talks in the Middle East.  And I love those.  And I’m somebody who fanatically clips those articles.  I’ve got whole files full of bits and pieces from newspaper. 

And then I answer my email, which takes an atrocious amount of time, and finally I get down to work.  I guess on an advice level, the only other advice I dish out is that the one counterpoint, important part of my day is getting a lot of exercise at the end of it because it’s such sedentary profession that otherwise it’s enervating when you get enough exercise, it keeps your energy levels up.  So, anybody out there who writes should also learn to run.  

Question: Do you ever use ideas from those news clippings?

Lionel Shriver: Occasionally.  I don’t use them as much as I think I will, or I should.  I think they more function along the lines of giving me a sense of narrative possibility.  All the weird little plots.  I mean, reality is stranger than you could ever make up and I like to be reminded of that. 

Recorded on March 12, 2010

The author's impulse to write stems from her feelings of social incompetence.

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    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.