Titled Fiction and Identity Politics, and featuring the speaker in a Mexican sombrero as shown at right, the keynote speech began this way, leaving no doubt how it meant to go on:
I hate to disappoint you folks, but unless we stretch the topic to breaking point this address will not be about “community and belonging.” In fact, you have to hand it to this festival’s organisers: inviting a renowned iconoclast to speak about “community and belonging” is like expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose.
The topic I had submitted instead was “fiction and identity politics,” which may sound on its face equally dreary.
But I’m afraid the bramble of thorny issues that cluster around “identity politics” has got all too interesting, particularly for people pursuing the occupation I share with many gathered in this hall: fiction writing. Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.The reaction began before the speech was over, with some listeners walking out and blogging about their reasons why later. Conference organizers disavowed the message and set up a "right of reply" session for those attendees wishing to speak in rebuttal to the controversial keynote.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied, one of the attendees, noted "Her question was — or could have been — an interesting question: What are fiction writers 'allowed' to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?" She writes about waiting for Shriver to subvert the argument made humorously at first, only to conclude that the speech was a "poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension."
Just because a speech is famous--and this one surely is now--doesn't make it the best example of greatness. Here's what you can learn from this famous speech, or really, some questions to ask if you are considering such a tactic:
- Is your respect showing? There are plenty of speakers who make their mark by being gadflies, people who poke conventional thinking in the eye. It's a provocative and memorable approach, whether you agree or disagree with the content. And it's a bold stroke, one that few speakers attempt. But better might be an approach that balances the bold questions with some demonstrated respect for the audience and the organizers. When listeners in the hall see your speech as arrogant and condescending, you have missed this mark.
- Do you get at the interesting question, or just the glib one? Abdel-Magied posed the tougher question that could have been answered by Shriver's talk: "What are fiction writers 'allowed' to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?" That's more on-point for a writers conference, for starters, and would have required some philosophy to get beyond the protest.
- Are your examples one-sided? Certainly, many speakers cherry-pick their examples to make an extreme point. Playing solely to one side of the argument dismisses your opponents, but also excludes a large portion of your audience. A better (and likely better received) talk might have found many other-than-biased examples to illustrate the complexity of the issue and how authors (aka, the audience) have thought about them through the ages. The talk, for example, put me in mind of Jane Austen, who includes no scenes of men speaking to other men without women present, because it was outside her own experience. Yet she's considered one of the greatest novelists. How does that fit into this discussion?
(Photo of Lionel Shriver shared by Dr. Kristin Ferguson on Twitter)