Lionel Shriver: America’s Best Writer?

April 20, 2010 | 6 books mentioned 34 7 min read

With her new novel, So Much for That, Lionel Shriver strengthens her already credible claim to the title of best living American writer.  This won’t surprise her readers in the UK and much of Europe.  In many countries, she is now regarded as one of our most important novelists.  Americans, however, have been slower to find her.  That’s okay.  We were the same way with Faulkner and Poe.  Nothing’s more American than not quite recognizing some of our most accomplished artists.

Besides, Shriver’s lack of recognition in the U.S. is relative.  Her novels tend to be highly valued by the American critics who discuss them, and she has received strong reviews from that toughest of readers, Michiko KakutaniThe Post-Birthday World, Shriver’s last novel, was a New York Times bestseller, and I’m sure we’ll all start arguing about her breakthrough book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, as soon as the movie version comes out next year.

Still, we don’t need to wait for the theater screens to bring her to our full attention, especially when most of her novels are in print and easily available.  Her work offers an appealing combination of qualities that seldom come together in a single writer.  She couples the hardheaded social observation of Edith Wharton or George Eliot with a relentless psychological and artistic boldness that belongs more to the tradition of Melville or Dostoevsky.   Exerting these different skills with immense confidence and penetration, Shriver is one of our great American originals.

Shriver didn’t become well-known until she was in her late forties, and she had the talent and the will to deepen her work gradually, making the most of what must have been a trying period of obscurity.  Born in 1957, she grew up in North Carolina, graduated from Columbia, and supplemented her fiction writing with a career as a journalist.  She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist.  More recently, she has become a columnist for The Guardian, and has divided her time between London and New York.  In addition, she has lived all over the place:  twelve years in Northern Ireland, a year in Kenya, and shorter stints in Israel and Thailand.

covercoverThe fierce independence of her writing seems to come from her compulsion to push her thoughts as far as she can take them, whether she is describing demographics experts in Africa or the pressures of professional tennis.  Her two best early novels are Game Control and Double Fault.  The main character in Game Control moves to Kenya so she can work on a family-planning project.  She then falls in love with a man who believes that the solution to the world’s overpopulation problem is mass murder.  Like all of Shriver’s novels, Game Control is intellectual and political in the best sense—not as a polemic, but as an examination of ideas in action, ideas as part of people’s lives.  Here’s the main character scrutinizing some of her boyfriend’s research associates:

Eleanor had already noticed their tendency to circulate the same informational tidbits, as in small incestuous communities where neighbors copy one another’s recipe for chicken balls.  For example:  that if we had dropped a bomb the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima every day since 6 August 1945, we would still not have stabilized human population:  she had heard that three times now.  The repetition felt clubby, claustrophobic and it was boring.

Double Fault, Shriver’s tennis novel, came out in 1997.  It traces the brief marriage of two low-level professional tennis players, and presents a merciless study of their collapsing relationship.  It’s a cruel book, a Revolutionary Road for our times.  The story is determined to show us the worst of both the husband and the wife, and it goes so far in this direction that it seems to have freed Shriver for the more generous and contradictory vision of human nature in her recent novels.

coverStarting with We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver entered her major phase as a writer.  The book won the UK’s Orange Prize for 2005, and eventually sold over a million copies.

The narrator, Eva, lives out a nightmare:  Kevin, her teenage son, goes on a killing spree at his high school and murders nine people.  Shriver creates a bracing story of a mother who has always hated her son as intensely as she has always loved her husband and her young daughter.  Eva can never be sure if her hatred helped turn Kevin into a murderer, or if she simply identified his savagery before anyone else did.

The novel follows Eva’s motherhood from Kevin’s birth to the time of the killings, and grows into a meditation on all kinds of things we don’t at first expect.  We Need to Talk About Kevin plows deeply into anti-Americanism, the sacrifices women are expected to make for their children, the complexities of family life, and the dizzying questions of where individual responsibility begins and ends.  Shriver has finally discovered a subject that makes full use of her ruthless psychological honesty.  Eva’s narration is often brutally tough on herself and her son, and she slowly wins our trust—in part because she is smart enough to see that her version of events contains its own distortions, which are worked into the story with intriguing elegance.  We Need to Talk About Kevin is an exhilarating book, alive with the author’s excitement at constantly going further than even she might have expected, and it gets better on repeated readings.

coverShriver’s follow-up novel, The Post-Birthday World, is her best-known work in America, since it was released by HarperCollins with great fanfare in 2007.  It would have been easy for Shriver to continue in the sensationalistic vein of Kevin, but with typical stubbornness she chose to try something different.  The Post-Birthday World is a meta-fiction love story.  It takes us through two parallel plotlines, two possible lives for the same woman.  In one plotline, she remains in a troubled marriage.  In the other, she leaves her husband for another man.  The chapters alternate between the first plotline and the second, and much of the novel is a formal tour de force, with nearly every sentence in the first story playing off against another sentence in the second.  Shriver also brandishes an unexpected flair for writing about small pleasures—her characters’ love of snooker and home cooking, the satisfaction they take in their casual conversations.  Yet the story always opens onto broader perspectives:  the rise of terrorism in the background of our lives, the influence of our relationships on our careers, and the different possibilities that we create for ourselves and that are created for us by others.

coverSo Much for That, the new Shriver novel, offers us her ferocious take on the American healthcare system.  Shriver has always been good at the dark comedy of catastrophe.  Here she faces a monster worthy of her clear-eyed attention to absurdity:  the giant insurance-powered beast of medical costs that devastate two families in New York.

Shep Knacker is a handyman whose wife is diagnosed with cancer.  His best friend, Jackson, is a fellow employee whose daughter is slowly dying of a degenerative disorder.  With methodical Catch-22 illogic, Shep is forced to give up all the money he has saved over the years to pay for the medical care that his grotesquely inadequate (but perfectly standard) insurance fails to cover.  The treatments cause his wife nothing but agony, and provide little hope of curing her or even of extending her life for very long.

Meanwhile, Jackson and his wife carry on with their daughter, who has been ill since birth.  Her disease plays an ongoing part in Jackson’s sometimes entertaining and sometimes destructive obsessions, from his compulsive spending to his frenzied hatred of the government and of nearly everything else in the world.

Health is the novel’s constant concern—not just physical and economic health but health in friendships, marriage, work, parenthood, and society at large.  Shep is in some ways a modern Prince Myshkin, determined to do the right thing even if some people think this makes him foolish.  One of the novel’s many thorny questions is whether Shep’s foolishness is truly admirable or a mistake in judgment, a personal flaw that condemns him to pointless pain.  Shriver’s effects are hard to summarize because she builds them up so densely, thickening the texture of her world with each page.  She makes our vision of Shep and the others depend not on glib generalities but on the total force of the novel’s accumulated impressions, with their many crosscurrents and subtleties.

We learn, for instance, that Shep associates his wife Glynis with the metalwork she makes, and the role of this metalwork becomes a continually deepening part of Glynis’s illness.  Without giving away too much of the plot, the metalwork is at the core of Glynis’s shifting views of Shep, Shep’s shifting views of her, and both of their ideas about personal and public responsibility.  Throughout the novel, Shriver is fascinated by our possible choices in the face of death and overwhelming injustice, by how we can and can’t control our lives in situations where all action seems quixotic.

Shriver’s characters are always capable of surprising each other, and this is central to her rich sense of human relationships.  She expertly captures the give-and-take between friends, and the ways our friends both annoy and beguile us.  Shep changes Jackson and Jackson changes Shep, but the changes are intricate and unpredictable, and they fill the novel with an invigorating energy.  You come away feeling that you’ve learned to see your own friendships more clearly and appreciatively.

A similar complexity is at work among all the characters, particularly Shep and Glynis.  Early on, Glynis is a monument to rage, refusing the role of loveable victim.  When Shep ponders Glynis’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina, we can see the efficiency of Shriver’s writing style, which is flexible enough to accommodate many different voices and situations yet still retains a distinctive sharp bounce, like a good topspin serve:

She loved watching destruction—the big bountiful houses of the sort she and her husband had never bought for themselves filled with acrid, oily water to the second floor.  The stranded black matriarchs waving fruitlessly on rooftops for rescue that would never come, who now knew they were alone in the world and no one cared.  Well, he could sense Glynis responding coolly, welcome to the club.  Other people’s suffering did not disquiet her.  Glynis did nothing but suffer, and if others suffered too that was only fair.  She seemed gratified by the prospect that one whole city would not survive her… In a fell swoop of self-liberation, Glynis had relinquished her empathy for other people, defiantly reflecting back the very apathy about her own fate that she increasingly perceived in would-be well-wishers.

Shriver’s bold approach to the novel’s structure delays a series of revelations for us about Glynis, and about what the disease has done to her mentally and emotionally.  For the first 300 pages of this 450 page book, we go back-and-forth solely between Shep’s perspective and Jackson’s.  When we finally enter Glynis’s mind, the experience is heartbreaking and chilling, and clears the way for the book’s simultaneously tragic and jubilant climax.  In all of her novels, Shriver works towards honest feeling the hard way—by pushing into places we’re afraid to go and making them not ugly but essential, an enrichment to our lives.  She might just be the best we’ve got.

is an American writer who lives in Helsinki, Finland. His criticism has recently appeared in The Henry James Review, and his nonfiction writing has been nominated for Poland's Kapuscinski Award for literary reportage. He was also a finalist for Finland's Lumilapio Prize for investigative journalism, and he publishes fiction under a pen name.


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  2. This is a very nice essay on Shriver’s work – makes me a little ashamed I haven’t read any of her novels yet.

  3. A strong argument. She’s definitely my favorite American writer. Also, thanks for the notice that there is a Kevin film on the way — starring Tilda Swinton. What perfect casting.

  4. Thanks, Trisha. It’s also worth noting that the director of the film is Lynne Ramsey, whose last movie was the remarkable Morvern Callar.

  5. Leslie – Thanks for your comment, which is a fair one and deserves a clear response. I only suggested that Shriver might be the best, in the same way that Junot Diaz or Jonathan Franzen or quite a few other writers might be the best, and that she is worthy of serious consideration on that score. We do different types of rankings on The Millions all the time, and of course all of those rankings are ridiculous in the sense that you can’t objectively rank literature. Still, the rankings exist, and they make a difference because these are the writers many of us end up reading and talking about. I think Shriver should be added to the conversation, and I stand behind my opinion that, as long as we use reading lists and rankings at The Millions, she belongs at the top of them.

  6. Thank you for reminding me – I heard an interview with this author on a locally produced show (The State of Things) on my NPR station and meant to go back and figure out her name. The interview was about her newest novel. Now that I have read this article and realized she has several critically acclaimed novels, I’m going to move her to the top of my to-read list.

  7. Lionel Shriver is a terrific writer, and this is an excellent discussion of her work. I’ve always admired her insightful “house” novel, A Perfectly Good Family.

  8. For me: yes to Cormac McCarthy, and no to Philip Roth. And I have friends who would reverse that — friends who hate McCarthy and love Roth. I don’t really see why it should bother anyone if some people prefer Lionel Shriver as well — certainly she’s worth taking seriously.

  9. Tom B. – Good question. I picked Diaz as an example because The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of the books in The Millions’ Hall of Fame. I also know two people who think Diaz is a genius. I like his work, but I would want him to write more good books before I would rate him as a top American novelist. Still, he is regularly discussed in The Millions while Shriver isn’t, even though she has had a far longer career and has produced a far larger body of impressive writing. I don’t mean that as a put-down of Diaz–just as an illustration of how, because Shriver had her first big success in the UK rather than the US, she isn’t as well-known among Americans as she should be.

  10. First-rate review of a first-rate writer. I don’t know if you could call Lionel Shriver the best American novelist, but the only one of her books I’ve read, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is brilliant.

  11. Lionel Shriver may not be quite at the top of my list (for best American writer), but of late she ranks right up there among a few in the upper echelon. She not only gets your attention with a topical subject, but really gives you something to chew over, protagonists you’ll remember long after finishing the book. After reading We Need To Talk About Kevin, I was prompted to go looking for her other books, in particular The Post-Birthday World. And after finishing So Much For That, Jackson, even though his political rants may drive you up the wall, was the protagonist that I thought about most. These are people that really come alive on the page.

  12. Morrison’s an excellent choice obviously. I don’t think, though, the article means for the proposal of Lionel Shriver to be definitive — the writer is pretty careful to suggest Shriver’s name as a possibility, not as a flat-out dogmatic assertion. I get the impression a lot of people are just reading the title of the essay and scrolling down to offer their own favorite writer. Anyway, I find this completely unanswerable “best American writer” question much less interesting than the revelation of Lionel Shriver as another novelist I might want to read. I bought So Much for That yesterday and stayed up most of the night reading it. It’s good.

  13. Eric and Robin – Thanks to both of you for your comments, and particularly thanks to Eric for bringing up Toni Morrison, who’s my idea of a proper challenger. (To Nemo: I also agree that Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth are formidable writers.) I knew what I was doing when I gave this Lionel Shriver essay its title, and I not only expect but welcome alternatives to Shriver’s name. This is part of what The Millions is about–opening these discussions up for a little debate. I’d have been disappointed if every comment were part of a hallelujah chorus for Shriver’s greatness, just as I’d have been disappointed if every comment dismissed Shriver out-of-hand. She’s my personal favorite in the current bunch of American writers, for reasons I’ve tried to explain, but I wouldn’t want everyone to accept my judgment—that’s not how literature works. (We all know the days are long gone when T. S. Eliot or F. R. Leavis could issue their literary preferences as if they were transmitting divine truth to their quivering followers.) I do think many of the readers at The Millions will enjoy discovering Shriver’s books, even those inevitable readers who ultimately don’t like her, and that’s why I wrote the essay in the first place. Do I really believe she deserves to be part of any serious discussion about the best living American writers? Yes, I do, quite strongly, and my judgment is neither eccentric nor unusual on this side of the Atlantic. But I wouldn’t bother to participate in The Millions if I thought my opinions were beyond challenge. I’ve pushed hard with Shriver, and it’s only fair for others to push back. That’s the fun of it. My one suggestion would be that, if you’re going to disagree with me, you should still get a hold of a few of Shriver’s novels and find out for yourself what it is you’re challenging. I’m not at all troubled by people who dislike Shriver or prefer other writers, but I’m deeply troubled by people who think they can reject her without reading her. This seems to me a violation of the spirit of fair play, and without fair play, criticism is just petty bickering and mean-spirited power games.

  14. I was playing around with a greatest-american-novelist list recently and found myself — to my surprise — giving John Irving serious consideration:

    I didn’t include Shriver among the 50 or so contenders, as I haven’t read her. I was put off by the sensationalism of “Kevin,” but this post certainly makes a fair argument for consideration. I’ll certainly have to dip into her work now.

  15. I read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Game Control, and was overwhelmed by them. They are books I would not have thought an American could have written. I disapprove of the practice of grading writers, but Lionel Shriver is a very good novelist indeed.

  16. Kevin, would you get in touch w me, please? I don’t know how else to contact you aside from through this website.

  17. I desperately hope that the “LS” above my comment is Lionel Shriver herself.

    Thanks for this article. I loved and hated Post-Birthday World, a sure sign of strong characters. This reminds me to go back and re-try to get We Need to Talk about Kevin from my library system–I had been too daunted by the waiting list previously.

  18. Interesting piece. I stopped reading “We Need to Talk About Kevin” a couple years ago, after getting almost three-quarters of the way through the thing. It’s not because I thought it was bad, but rather dark and unpleasant as an experience in a way I’ve found few novels to be. I find, though, that some five years later the characters and situations stick in my head much more vividly than many books that I finished, which in retrospect makes me wish I’d finished it.

    Not sure I’ll ever have the appetite to try again, but after reading this I think I’ll have give either “Game Control” or the new one a shot.

  19. My brother was given Beverly as a middle name after an English male novelist and Lionel as a first name.I wonder if Ms Shriver is the only female in the world called Lionel.My brother will be very amused if Lionel Beverly is actually 2 female names.He is tough so I don’t remember any kid teasing him about it when he was at school.Is she a better writer than Hemingway or Steinbeck who were also journalists.The excellent Herald writer and critic, Sandra Hall, tried to switch to novels but failed.Apparently Ms Shriver has succeeded.Must read some of her work.

  20. Kevin. I don’t know whether you’ll read my response months after your article was published, but thank you for writing it! I picked up So Much For That after reading it and loved the book. I’ve read two more Shriver novels–Birthday and Kevin–and loved them too. The only problem now is, I’m spoiled. Her novels make the works of other contemporary writers seem thin and inconsequential. I haven’t read Freedom yet, though, so here’s hoping.

  21. I love all the books I have read by Lionel Shriver (Kevin, So Much for That, Post Birthday). I really came looking to see if she has written anything new. Her books certainly stick with me.

    I am now going back to read some of the earlier work.


  22. “America’s best writer”? If that’s the case America’s culture is in bigger trouble than I think it is already. Her book on Kevin, having been written from the point of view of a woman who IS NOT A PARENT is by definition nonsensical and a worthless work of fiction.

  23. In unfolding the plot through Kevin’s Mother’s letters to her husband, Shriver is totally dishonest to her readers. This is great writing?

  24. Within 15 minutes of seeing the movie “We Need To Talk About Kevin”, which was deeply moving, I immediately downloaded the book, which was even better–I would say profound. Up to that pont I had never read one of Lionel Shriver’s books. Yes, I agree she is one of America’s best writers. I plan now to read all her books. Thank you Lionel Shriver for gracing us with your genius. And good for you for making your name whatever you wanted it to be.

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