Writers blocked: how the new call-out culture is killing fiction

Writers blocked: how the new call-out culture is killing fiction, by  Lionel Shriver.

These days, straight white fiction writers whose characters’ ethnicity, race, disability, sexual identity, religion or class differs from their own can expect their work to be subjected to forensic examination — and not only on social media.

Publishers of young adult fiction and children’s literature hire “sensitivity readers” to comb through manuscripts for perceived slights to any group with the protected status once reserved for distinguished architecture.

The publishing magazine Kirkus Reviews assigns “own voices” reviewers with a matching “marginalised” pedigree to assess young adult books that contain a diverse cast.

Last autumn, the magazine yanked both a positive review and its coveted “star” after online activists accused Laura Moriarty’s dystopian novel American Heart, which imagines a future in which US Muslims are sent to internment camps, of using a “white saviour narrative.” (Yes, whole plot lines are becoming unacceptable. This year’s film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has attracted heavy flak because its racist cop rounds into a half-decent human being. Writers can refurbish murderers into good guys, but must never redeem a racist.)

As for adult literature, it’s impossible to gauge the degree of politically correct censorship going on behind the scenes at publishing companies and literary agencies. Editors and agents are unlikely to assert directly that a submission’s content is too hot to handle. Having tackled divisive subjects or deployed characters who don’t hew to the rules of identity politics — rules that are often opaque, or at least until you break them — authors are left with uneasy suspicions about why their manuscripts might be attracting no takers, but with no hard evidence.

Equally impossible to gauge is the extent of writers’ collective self-censorship. … Does the edict to eschew stereotypes mean a black character can never be a drug dealer?


In late 2016 I permitted myself to create another black character in a short story. Jaconda is the alluring girlfriend of a young white layabout. … Jocanda is lively, smart, savvy and appealing.

Yet despite the positive portrayal, the cutting across class stereotype, and the restrained rendition of her speech, my agent warned me about the story’s poor prospects at a magazine that had published me in the past. In the touchy climate following my speech in Brisbane that September, she said “we’ll never know” whether it would be rejected because I had the gall to craft a black character. She invited me to revise the story using a white girlfriend. I held my ground. The story was indeed declined. Why? Maybe the editor just thought it was crummy. We’ll never know.