Lionel Shriver at the Melbourne Writers Festival


I’m almost reluctant to write about Lionel Shriver’s closing address on Sunday night at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Reluctant because her speech was dense with insight, sound-bites, and stuff to make you really think hard, and I’d hate to misquote or misrepresent her in any way.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear Shriver speak, do next time she visits your neck of the woods. She is, without question, one of the most compelling and powerful authors – no, people – that I’ve ever heard speak.

Shriver’s closing address was on the topic of gender, and its importance within the concept of personal and social identity. Much of what she spoke about was originally published in an article, Gender – Good for Nothing, earlier this year. However, as is the case whenever I hear a presentation, there were a few messages that stood out.

Shriver opened with talking about the process of developing characters, noting that one of the of the very first decisions an author makes about a character is their gender. She went on to say that she would like to think that her characters would be the same, even if the character’s gender was switched. Using the examples of Willy in Double Fault, (an ambitious, detached female), and Shep, in So Much For That (an empathetic, emotional man), Shriver noted, “The experience of ‘being’ is the same. The crucial elements of a character are gender less.”

“We’re all made of what we can change and what we’re stuck with.” The stuff that we can change is fodder for fiction writers although in reality, Shriver said she sees very little transformation in people – “Metamorphism is fantastical.”

Discussion about characters provided a segue into the guts of her thesis – that the ‘self’, the inner being, is in fact genderless.

“So I am far more interested in heading in the direction of who-cares-what-gender-you-are than in painfully parsing which kind. This issue is inextricable from the nature of self. In general, identity comprises a set of external facts and the subjective experience of being. Confusingly, self is both something we are born as and something we make.”

Shriver is fascinated by the concept of “feeling” like a woman – she doesn’t, she just feels like herself and was clear about the fact that being either a woman or a man didn’t matter that much to her, “I’m not being insincere or glib when I say I don’t understand what it is to ‘feel’ like a woman. My gender is not central to my identity.”

To emphasise her point, Shriver challenged the audience to ask any person who was disfigured, or obese, or anorexic, or without a limb, if their body and their ‘self’ were one of the same? “Gender has grown destructively hyper-significant.”

In closing, Shriver returned to writing characters – “Interior being, in the hands of a good fiction writer, can triumph over body. The elements of character – bravery, empathy, resourcefulness, compassion – can visit anyone, regardless of gender.”

13 responses

    • I certainly agree on this point but she did wander into some transgender territory that made me feel a little wary – you never know until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes and all that! Regardless, the audience seemed very supportive, which compares to her opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival yesterday that caused some walk-outs!

      • Yes, oddly, RN gave air time to one of the people who did but they didn’t play the opening address first, so it was just a one-sided rant against Shriver, not very edifying. Maybe I can find it online somewhere and see what I think for myself.

    • I should have qualified my comment about how good a speaker she is with the fact that I like listening to her because she is so challenging. Lots of what she says makes me pause and think “Do I really believe/feel/think that?” I liken Shriver to having a massage – if you want to go and have some feathery, light ‘relaxation massage’ sure, do it. But if I’m on the table for an hour, pummel me – it might hurt at the time but I’m better off for it. Shriver is the author-talk equivalent of the pummeling.

  1. I’m not persuaded. I couldn’t imagine being a woman, and why do so many women refuse to read books with male authors and female protagonists if not because most men make a hash of imagining what it is to be a woman?

    • She had a few separate points (that are a little contentious, so not what I necessarily believe!). Firstly, she said that when she’s going about her day she doesn’t ‘feel’ her gender (unless she has her period!) – she feels neither female or male or anything in-between, she’s just ‘being’. It’s in her interactions with others that she ‘feels’ her gender. She talked about celebrity Caitlin (Bruce) Jenner and how for him, feeling like a woman included all the trappings of ‘femaleness’ – dresses, manicures, big hair – Shriver questioned how/why this made him feel more female inside. I guess we’ll never really know!

      In relation to this, I do wonder about the inner identity because when you hear the stories of very young children that don’t identify with their biological gender you have to think that it is a pure and true feeling given that they aren’t aware of social pressure/expectation in the same way as an adult who suddenly decides they need to reassign gender.

      Personally, I agree with Shriver on the fact that I don’t feel particularly female or male, I just ‘am’ (and kind of assumed everyone felt the same way when they’re on their own!).

      When it comes to male authors writing female characters, Shriver gave a few examples of it being poorly done. But, for all her examples, I could think of the opposite – one of my favourite authors, John Irving, has created some wonderful female characters. Shriver said (using Graham Swift as an example!) that male authors fall back on female stereotypes. I think a more interesting question would have been whether females writing about males fall into the same traps of stereotyping as males do about female characters – maybe we’re all as bad as each other?!

      Another thing she mentioned was that as a writer, she feels one of her greatest achievements is having a mixed audience – not sure how they measure that but I do wonder if it’s because she gives her characters non-stereotypical personality traits. It’s interesting stuff! Have you read any of her books?

      • Thankyou for the detailed reply. No, I haven’t read her. Blogging is having the effect of dragging me into the C21st, but I haven’t otherwise read new Australian fiction for years, let alone American Lit – though I get through lots of popular fiction via audio books. I often think about the man/woman divide, partly because I work only with men and partly because I follow feminist writing but hold back from commenting – not my place.

  2. Lionel Shriver is endlessly fascinating to me, because she makes these pronouncements which are seductively authoritative, but she doesn’t stop to think about the fact that maybe, if only for one or two or five people in her audience, their experience differs. She also, I think, says things that lead people to confuse “sex” and “gender”; her comments could easily be used to buttress an anti-trans argument, and that’s an argument about feeling you are the wrong biological sex, not the wrong societally-imposed gender. It’s possible to feel one without the other!

    I also think ignoring gender/sex or “not feeling it” is a gift that you can often only exercise if you’re comfortable in it. Like being healthy and able-bodied: people who have the flu or a broken leg – a tiny taster of what it’s like to be chronically ill or physically disabled – often report on all the things they took for granted when they had them: the ability to sit up without nausea, the ability to walk to the bathroom unaided. I think there might be a similarity with : people like Shriver (and me!) who are free to be the sex and/or gender we were assigned are never going to have the acute awareness of its significance (especially in public spaces) that trans* folks have, or that non-conforming folks have, no matter how much we read.

  3. Pingback: The Shriver Kerfuffle | theaustralianlegend

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