Lionel Shriver on the new censorship

Don’t expect much today; I’m starting to take it easy on Saturday. After all, I’m retired, for crying out loud.  I will, however, call your attention to a new piece by author Lionel Shriver at Prospect Magazine, “Writers blocked: how the new call-out culture is killing fiction“.

You’ll remember Shriver from two years ago, when, at the Brisbane Literary Festival, she gave a talk defending “literary appropriation”—the fictional description of culture or characters from one culture by a writer from another (usually white). That so triggered the black Muslim female Australian author—all adjectives necessary these days—Yasmin Abdel-Magied, that she walked out on Shriver’s speech and wrote about her distress.

That helped kindle a literary debate that continues today: what right do authors have to write about people of different races/genders/sexes/ethnicities than their own? As I’ve said before, although some sensitivity has to be used here, this kind of “appropriation” is not inherently odious. After all, fiction involves putting the author and reader into another person’s shoes, and unless it’s completely autobiographical (which it’s not if it’s fiction), why should those shoes always have to be the same size and shape for the writer and her character? Think of the number of great books we wouldn’t have if, for instance, white authors had to limit themselves to writing only about white people and “white culture” (whatever that is)? I’ve named some before, and you can fill in the blanks. And nobody ever discusses whether those who are nonwhite, or gay, or Muslim, have any right to write about “others”. Are such restrictions group-specific?

But the Pecksniffs are winning, as Shriver argues in this piece. Publishing houses now have “sensitivity” readers to vet submissions for cultural purity, and remember how Laura Moriarty lost a star on Kirkus Reviews because one of their “Own Voices” editors (yes, that’s the name they give to ideological Pecksniffs) deemed her narrative too redolent of a white savior helping a Muslim? Shriver brings that up—and more.

Often when a Leftist intellectual gets attacked or sandbagged by Authoritarian Leftists, they become strong critics of that brand of Leftism. Think of Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying at Evergreen State, Nicholas Christakis at Yale, Laura Kipnis at Northwestern, Alice Dreger, also at Northwestern, and so on. After Brisbane, Shriver also became one of those critics. I’ll just give a few quotes from her piece, which is long but worth reading:

One crucial but now imperilled fictional device is that of imbuing characters with thoughts and emotions that the author may or may not share. When characters speak and think, the writer has plausible deniability. The contractual understanding with the reader—that the content of dialogue and internal reflection does not necessarily represent the author’s own perspective—facilitates putting contradictory feelings and ideas in the same work, providing it with balance and depth. Freedom from a reader’s assumption that every character is necessarily a mouthpiece for the author’s own opinions allows for the exploration of characters who don’t embrace progressive orthodoxies—who are bigots, opponents of gay marriage, advocates of more restrictive immigration, or—the horror—Tory supporters.

Yet the “it wasn’t me, it was my imaginary friend” defence has been challenged ever since Bangladeshis successfully protested against the filming of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane in their area not because of what her novel said, but because of what her characters said. [JAC: I had no idea this had happened.] At the 2016 Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee, fellow authors accused Allen Wier of a “microaggression” because three old men in a baseball park ogled a young woman in his short story.

Is “hate speech” in dialogue prosecutable? Not long ago, I’d have said of course not. Now I’m not so sure. Minnesota has just withdrawn two great American classics, both scathing examinations of southern racism—Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird—from its school syllabus because the novels’ bigoted dialogue might make students feel “humiliated and marginalised.” Readers highly motivated to find fault often embrace deliberately unsophisticated interpretations of literary texts, for it’s easy to make passages sound atrocious just by taking characters’ assertions and word choice out of context. Indeed, searching for hidden offences has become social media’s updated version of the Easter egg hunt.


What is the purpose of literature? To shape young people into God-fearing adults who say no to drugs? To accurately mirror reality? To act as a tool for social engineering? To make the world a better place? Certainly fiction is capable of influencing social attitudes, or trying to. But the novel is magnificently elastic. Fiction is under no obligation to reflect any particular reality, pursue social justice, or push a laudable political agenda. The purpose of any narrative form is up to the author. Yet contemporary university students are commonly encouraged to view literature exclusively through the prism of unequal power dynamics—to scrounge for evidence of racism, colonialism, imperialism, sexism, the list goes on. What a loss. What a pity. What a grim, joyless spirit in which to read.

How did we get so obsessed with virtue? A narrow version of virtue at that—one solely preoccupied with social hierarchy, when morality concerns far more than who’s being shafted and who’s on top. If all modern literature comes to toe the same goody-goody line, fiction is bound to grow timid, homogeneous, and dreary.

I don’t want to read only about nice people, and I don’t turn to novels to be morally improved. I was drawn to writing fiction in the first place because on paper I completely control my world—where I can be mischievous, subversive and perverse. Where I follow no one else’s rules but my own. Where I can make my characters do and say abominations. I have never confused sitting down at my desk with attending Sunday school. And I frankly do not understand readers who go at novels making prissy judgments of the characters and author both, and can’t just sit down to a good story.

This debate fascinates me because it brings up something we don’t often think about: what is the purpose of literature? I’m pretty sure that whatever it is, it doesn’t include ubiquitous conformity to a set of ideological standards, all meant to effect a moral purification of the reader. Yes, some children’s book do that, and that’s okay, but we’re not children.


  1. Posted February 24, 2018 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps publishers’ “sensitivity readers” are just a form of economic self-defense. After all, triggering a Radical Left response can be very hurtful to their bottom line. Of course, this can work the other way and boost a book’s sales through the roof but it is a dangerous gamble. Probably not something conservative publishers want to touch.

    • Simon
      Posted February 25, 2018 at 6:16 am | Permalink

      Perhaps publishers will get their courage back when they realise that these whiners are not big consumers of their products. They get off on dictating to others what they may produce or consume.

    • Laurance
      Posted February 25, 2018 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      I bought Laura Moriarty’s “American Heart” precisely because I learned here from Jerry what had happened, and I wanted to support Laura. It’s in my Kindle along with a load of books that I’m reading in my disorderly fashion.

  2. Posted February 24, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t the “inappropriate cultural appropriation” meme clash with the complaint that these very same groups are under-represented in popular culture (movies, tv, etc.)? Sometimes it seems like us white guys can’t win! Oh yeah, we’re always winning. LOL

    • Posted February 26, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      It also (relatedly) clashes with the historical record that seems to show that in order to overcome oppression (to whatever degree) one needs “allies” on the outside. It seems to me that one way to get allies is to encourage them to use their talents (like writing fiction) to support the effort.

    • Posted March 4, 2018 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      From what I get, it seems that white writers shouldn’t have black protagonists because a white person cannot understand the psyche of a black. Also, white writers shouldn’t include black minor characters because, if they are bad, this is unspeakable, if they are good and help the white protagonist, this is the “magical Negro” stereotype, and if they are good and the white protagonist helps them, this is the “white savior” stereotype. And finally, as you say, white writers shouln’t write without including black characters, so the only option for them is apparently to quit writing.

  3. Barry Lyons
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    All of which is to say, again, that William Styron’s magnificent “The Confessions of Nat Turner” would not get published today.

  4. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    This form of censorship presupposes an inability to feel empathy or have insight into someone radically different from oneself. But this is precisely what the best writers have.

    An intriguing example is novelist A.M. Homes (sic- not Holmes).

    She wrote a sympathetic short story about Ronald Reagan during his Alzheimer’s days entitled “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero” that was so presciently accurate, that discreetly and non-aggressively some secret service folk (in charge of Reagan’s security) asked how she go so much of this utterly correct. It was sheer good intuition!!
    Homes is not a conservative Republican.

    Homes’ most infamous novel, “The End of Alice”, is about a child molester . A spokesman for the National Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Children called it “the most vile and perverted novel I’ve ever read.” I’ve read both these Homes works, and I can say that “Lolita” is pretty mild by comparison to the latter.

    In short, Homes is not only not a conservative Republican, she is not a child molester either. But she wrote uncannily well about both.

  5. glen1davidson
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Time to rid ourselves of that master appropriator, Bill Shakespeare.

    Once it was considered talent, but now we know better.

    Glen Davidson

    • David Harper
      Posted February 24, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. He wasn’t Scottish, so how dare he write “Macbeth”. Nor was he an ancient Roman, so he had no business writing “Julius Caesar” or “Anthony and Cleopatra”. In fact, double plus ungood for the latter, since he wasn’t ancient Egyptian either. And then there’s “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice”. So much appropriation!

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted February 24, 2018 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        Triple plus ungood, since he wasn’t a woman either.

        (Note our appalling appropriation of Orwell’s Newspeak…)


        • Posted February 25, 2018 at 5:42 am | Permalink

          Now you are culturally appropriating the country of Oceania as well. How dare you.

      • Posted February 25, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        he wasn’t ancient Egyptian either.

        Neither was Cleopatra. She was Greek. Her ancestor – Ptolemy – appropriated Egypt after Alexander died.

  6. Merilee
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink


    • Diane G.
      Posted February 25, 2018 at 12:11 am | Permalink


    • Laurance
      Posted February 25, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Now what does it mean when a post appears and only says “Sub”? I see this a couple/few times a week. Often I see it from a person who is obviously subscribed to Jerry’s site (do I remember correctly that Jerry does not consider Why Evolution Is True to be a blog?), so to what is this person subscribing?

      Inquiring minds want to know.

      • Merilee
        Posted February 25, 2018 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        Sub just means I’m subscribing (meaning I want to see others’ comments) to this particular thread, but have nothing brilliant to say at the moment. You also need to check the two boxes below.

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 27, 2018 at 2:24 am | Permalink

          I only need to check one of them…I get new post notifications by virtue of subscribing to WEIT.

  7. Posted February 24, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    What would these readers have said to Dickens (Fagin was a Jew, and a fairly reprehensible one, at that), Shakespeare (Shylock, of course), almost any novel by John Buchan (whose better novels I love in spite of the offhand anti-semitism). Even Beethoven made a slur about his Jewish publisher, Schlesinger, I think, in one of his letters. (Is that the same Schlesinger whose wife Flaubert was smitten by in “L’éducation sentimentale”?)

    Where will this end? Hopefully, it will.

  8. Posted February 24, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    As a heterosexual male writer of no color, I find this sitting at the back of my mind as I try to write from the perspective of a character that doesn’t share my identity, which is most of the world. Part of characterization is putting yourself in the characters shoes and while I can’t say my representations will ever be entirely accurate (I’m just not that good of a writer), I don’t see how I can even write fiction without using characters that are different from myself.

    In fact, if I were to write a book about nothing but heterosexual white men, I’d still get into trouble because I would be viewed as racist and sexist. I pale when I think of the groups of writers that have to contend with storytelling in the Hollywood of the future. Movies will not only be excoriated for not containing characters, but if they do include those characters, but the writers for those characters are not themselves, then these movies will be excoriated for appropriating a point of view. It’s a lose-lose situation.

    Fortunately, I also feel that this is an untenable trend. When a dog in a fury begins to chomp about wildly, eventually it nips it’s own tail and begins to think twice about where it sinks its teeth.

    • Posted February 24, 2018 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      As far as I have noticed (not that I have looked), writers of movies don’t get much press. So if that is right then so far they have not received much of this sort of attention.
      But the next “logical” step will be to attack the white male directors for putting women and minorities into their films.

    • mikeyc
      Posted February 24, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      In the movie “As Good as it Gets”, Jack Nicholson plays a misanthropic writer who says this to a gushing fan after she asked him how he could write “like a woman”;

      “I think of a man, and take away reason and accountability.”

      Lines like this will never be heard again.

  9. simonchicago
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    About the use of art:

    Poetry is indispensable — if I only knew what for. (Cocteau)

  10. Posted February 24, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    As an aspie, literature gives me access to other people’s inner worlds in a way most social interaction doesn’t. I don’t want to read about people who experience the world precisely as I do. I can get that experience for myself.

    I want to read about futuristic street gangs, or kids who kill their cousins by flying them out to sea on a kite. I want to read about gay junkies in Tangiers and insomniacs with split personalities who start fight clubs. I want to read about Edwardians who visit the Moon and yuppies who axe their workmates to death while listening to Phil Collins.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted February 25, 2018 at 4:34 am | Permalink

      Indeed, imaginative literature, and all the arts, have a great deal to do with the fact that we are social animals and feel in consequence empathy and sympathy with others and have what is called ‘theory of mind’.

  11. Posted February 24, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    This was an excellent article by Lionel Shriver, and well worth the time to read. Wish I could write like that.

    The thought occurs that the subject of the New Censorship would make an interesting subject for a college course in the humanities. But that might cause a bit of an implosion.

  12. DrBrydon
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    We wouldn’t have Meadows Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug.

    We are in that period (which never really ends) where a group of people want to make us all better, and they would be perfectly willing to use the power of the law to do it. Luckily, at least in the US, they don’t have it. In those institutions where they hold power, though, they are doing everything they can to censor and punish. These people are always with us, but sometimes they hold more sway than others.

  13. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    There’s an argument that Critical Theory and Post Modernism look at *everything* in terms of ‘power relationships’ – who has it and who is oppressed.

    You can read literature, comics, newspapers, even phone books and log tables (does anyone still use these?) through the ‘blinders’ of power relationships and you *will* find something to be offended about.

    What a pity. What a grim, joyless spirit in which to read.

    Indeed; and the pecksniffs want you to live like that too.

    • Posted February 26, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      But note the inconsistency with another tenant. Deconstruction, for example, is premised on the idea that the author intentions don’t matter. (“Death of the author”.) How is that squared with continually committing the pathetic fallacy and attributing remarks of a fictional character to the author?

  14. Christopher
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    “You can’t write that because you’re not (insert minority here)! And at the same time “Nobody in Hollywood writes parts for (insert minority here)!”

    So what we have is a bunch of whinging little sh*ts who aren’t happy no matter what any white, western, straight male does, says, writes, thinks, or what they don’t do, say, write, or think. Answer to this issue? Follow your heart, write, say, think, do what you like and try not to be a d*ck, while knowing full well nobody will accept or approved of you. Welcome to art and literature of the future.

    • Posted February 24, 2018 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      I like your first line. You stated the problem more succinctly than I did.

      It does occur to me that there is a solution that might satisfy the “little sh*ts”. To write a Hollywood movie in which multiple minority points of view are portrayed, you need a writing team with the corresponding mix of minorities. And, by extension, for hair, makeup, lighting, direction, acting, editing, marketing, and so on. It’s a full employment plan in disguise!

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted February 24, 2018 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

        And we know what it will produce. A sort of intellectual porridge. No character will be allowed to be more prominent than any other, nobody will be allowed to be sarcastic about any other’s race, tastes, abilities, gender, intelligence or looks, and the audience will all commit hara-kiri before the end of the first act out of sheer boredom.


        • Posted February 24, 2018 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

          Acts? Aren’t they a construction of the white male patriarchy intended solely to constrain the oppressed in both time and space?

        • Christopher
          Posted February 24, 2018 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

          i don’t know what the answer is, all I know is the blame game and playing the victim card won’t solve anything, and neither will censorship, self or otherwise. I refuse to cede my freedom of thought, of creativity, to anyone or any group for any reason and I refuse to silence anyone else too. To hell with this kind of groupthink.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted February 25, 2018 at 4:35 am | Permalink

            Bully for you!

        • Posted February 26, 2018 at 10:12 am | Permalink

          I can think of one Hollywood director who might have pulled that off: Robert Altman. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted February 25, 2018 at 2:59 am | Permalink

      It’s worse than that – what they are actually saying is:

      “You can’t write that because you’re not (insert my stereotypical view of a particular minority here)!”

      Not every member of a “minority” is identical. You could reasonably argue that it is cultural oppression to act as if “minorities” are monadic. I guess that is why the escape door of ‘intersectionality’ has been invented to try and allow for minority differences observed in real life.

  15. rickflick
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    To avoid appropriation, a novel or film could be written by multiple authors. A black writer writes the black character, a gay for a gay, etc. Problem solved. If fact, the plot would be unpredictable making for extra fun.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 24, 2018 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      It’s been done –


      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted February 24, 2018 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        (Well, not quite exactly how you described, but near enough…)

        • rickflick
          Posted February 24, 2018 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I’d heard of that one(Naked came the Stranger). The twist, as you realized, is that each author should fully represent the character they write for. There would be a matrix of identities including race, ethnicity, sexual identity, political leaning…every category which has currency in today’s socio-political scene. I bet there would still be a few quibbles.

  16. KP
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Ideally, a good writer shouldn’t need a sensitivity reader. And the Moriarty book already passed through one before the Twitter (and Goodreads) deemed it unacceptable. Publishers and reviewers should know better than to bow to social media mobs, or, at least, find some compromise between completely ignoring their fanbase and making a rash decision to pull a book.

    I can’t (or don’t want to) see what’s happening to adult literature, but as Shriver said, there’s no way to gauge how much censorship is going on behind the scenes, and even worse, how much self-censorship. If even someone as accalimed as Shriver herself has admitted to playing it safe, there’s no hope for a new writer trying to make a name for herself.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 24, 2018 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      I think a justifiable ‘sensitivity reader’ would be the traditional ones: A spouse, a close friend, an editor. The feedback may be invaluable to the author if it comes from a sympathetic, critic. A postmodern, radical however, will make the head swim. We don’t need that.

  17. Tim Harris
    Posted February 24, 2018 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    ‘What is the purpose of literature?’ asks Professor CC Perhaps the question should be re-phrased as ‘What is the purpose of imaginative literature?’ — since Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Swift’s satires, Keats’s letters and Charles Lamb’s The Essays of Elia are rightly regarded as part of English literature, and then there are didactic or ‘philosophical’ poems like Pope’s Essay on Criticism and Essay on Man, as well of course as the great De Rerum Natura by Lucretius. Literature is very various and is not confined to plays and novels, which anyway vary widely in their nature, from moral or political allegory (Orwell’s Animal Farm, Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You) to what are generally regarded as the heights of literature: for example, The Divine Comedy, Anna Karenina, the tragedies of the Greeks and the best plays of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, including of course Shakespeare’s, Milton’s Paradise Lost…. Even re-phrased, the question really has no single or obvious answer, as why should it?

    However, one concern of good and great literature has consistently been to do with the ethical. But good and great plays and novels are not mere illustrations of pre-conceived ethical positions that come out with some easy answer to ethical dilemmas. They are imaginative explorations, and they complicate things. They allow the spectator or reader to enter into ethical dilemmas as if they were their own. One important aspect of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays is the daring with which they explore political questions (contemporary European observers were shocked at the freedom that English playwrights, despite censorship, had) and raise profound questions about politics and ethics (the two cannot in the end be readily separated). Shakespeare was far from being just an ‘entertainer’ as some commentator claimed on this website some time ago.

    One of the colleagues of Professor CC at the University of Chicago is, or was, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who has written two excellent books on literature in connexion with philosophy: Love’s Knowledge and The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. There is also the philosopher Bernard Williams’s Shame and Necessity, which is also much concerned with Greek tragedy, and which shows, in the words of the writer of the foreword, Williams’s ‘remarkable ability to cut through the hackneyed distinction between thoughts that are strictly “philosophical” and ideas that are only “literary”.’ There is Kiernan Ryan’s Shakespeare, not to mention Samuel Johnson’s and Coleridge’s thoughts on Shakespeare. There are a great many other books I could recommend that address the concerns of great literature. They really are not difficult to find if you want to find them.

    Regarding the only ‘literary’, Nussbaum quotes Marcel Proust as one of the epigraphs to Love’s Knowledge:

    ‘Style for the writer, no less than colour for the painter, is a question not of technique but of vision: it is the revelation, which by direct and conscious methods would be impossible, of the qualitative difference, the uniqueness of the fashion in which the world appears to each one of us…. And it is perhaps as much by the quality of his language as by the species of … theory which he advances that one may judge of the level to which a writer has attained in the moral and intellectual part of his work. Quality of language, however, is something the theorists think they can do without, and those who admire them are easily persuaded that it is no proof of intellectual merit.’

  18. Tim Harris
    Posted February 25, 2018 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    I should add that what strikes me about good children’s literature — Michael Ende’s ‘The Never-ending Story, for example, or the comic books and films of the great Japanese director Miyazaki Hayao, or, if you want to regard them as intended for children, Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence & Experience’ — is that they do not present simplistic little moral lessons for children as bad children’s books do. Instead, they describe the complexity of the world.

  19. PS
    Posted February 25, 2018 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    This debate fascinates me because it brings up something we don’t often think about: what is the purpose of literature?

    One well known author to have taken this question head on is the great Hindi novelist, Premchand, who made it the subject of his address at a writers’ conference held towards the end of his life, in 1936. It is now available in English translation:

    The opening of the third paragraph of the translation is perhaps an accurate summaryof his thoughts on the matter:

    Literature can best be defined as a criticism of life.

    I should say, however, that the translation does not seem to be very faithful. While the above quote appears (almost) as it is in the original Hindi, quite a bit of the eloquence of the rest of the original has been shafted, and new terms (such as “parasitic class”) that do not appear in the original seem to have been added. In particular, the original, unlike the translation, also adds to the discussion on “fairy tales” that in the hand of a skilled artist, even those can be used to illustrate the realities of life. Premchand would know, for his first story, which got him banned by the British government and forced on him the pseudonym of Premchand, was just such a “fairy tale”.

    For those who read Hindi, the original is available here:

  20. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted February 25, 2018 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    This all just has to be a spasm.
    A quirk of history where voices that shouldn’t be amplified are,thanks to new technology.
    The real consequences of the vacuous idelogies that have held sway for a while now will become more and more evident in their draconian absurdities and more and more smart people will wake up.

    I hope.

  21. Posted February 25, 2018 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    If these people had their way, the entire genre of science fiction would have to be abandoned. After all, who has the right to speak from the view point of aliens. Talk about cultural and species appropriation!

  22. Robert
    Posted February 25, 2018 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    What about Porgy and Bess? Or Othello? How about Aida? When I was a kid, we referred to anyone looking for offence as walking around with a chip on their shoulder. Sure enough, they always find reasons to have it knocked off.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted February 26, 2018 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      And ‘Madame Butterfly’?

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