Novelists can’t merely tell cracking tales. We’re supposed to save the world. At the University of Kent, a student implored me to inscribe The Mandibles with instructions for ‘how to keep this from happening’ — for the feverish young man now vowed to devote his life to preventing my new novel’s debt-fuelled near-future financial collapse. And I thought I was just doing a book signing. I wrote, ‘To keep this from happening, pay your bills. To cash in on this happening, get as deeply into debt as possible.’ The next student proffered a tiny spiral notebook, in which I was to jot ‘three things that are really important’. In desperation, I scribbled, ‘The freedom to get away with something, to make your own mistakes, and to do anything that doesn’t hurt other people.’ Sometimes it’s fortunate to have thought out libertarianism in advance.
Another audience member at that event urged me to tackle identity politics in fiction. But this infighting phenomenon may be going the way of the incandescent light bulb. Mark Lilla’s astute The End of Identity Liberalism endured on the New York Times ‘Most Popular’ list for a fortnight. At last, American progressives are encouraging one another to appeal to their compatriots’ common causes and shared aspirations. The sudden currency of ‘white nationalism’ demonstrates how identity politics has backfired — inexorably spawning a white identity movement, since you can’t politically weaponise being black or disabled or trans without white lives mattering, too.
Post-election, the president of Massachusetts’ Hampshire College removed the school’s American flag — to some students a symbol of hatred — the better to focus on ‘racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and behaviours’. But both that recitation and the petty flag removal already feel dated. Perhaps the best aspect of the flabbergasting US election results is the left waking up to the fact that we have proper problems — big problems, which we needn’t trump up, like a rash, ill-informed, inexperienced hothead headed for the White House. Lo, some tempests rage outside the constraints of teacups.
Nevertheless, I’ve already maxed out on the Democrats’ apocalyptic hair-tear (after ripping out a few tresses myself). It’s a toss-up which has grown more off-putting, the bumbling and bluster on Fifth Avenue, or the conniption fits among Clinton supporters. With such high concentrations of righteous indignation, America’s coastal states might spontaneously combust. I was much more moved by my brother’s dolorous admission that, having volunteered as poll worker in Iowa, he felt like ‘an enabler’.
This is an extract from Lionel Shriver’s Diary, which appears in the Spectator’s Christmas issue