Pigeonholed by Diversity

I’m late to this, but never mind. Here’s Penguin Random House:

Our industry does not currently reflect the society we live in. We believe that making publishing more inclusive is both a cultural and commercial imperative.

We have made a number of positive changes over the past few years, including removing the need for a university degree from all our jobs, introducing paid work experience, and finding and nurturing new writers through our WriteNow programme.

To better understand how our actions are making a difference in the long term we need to better understand the diversity of the authors we publish and the people we hire, and how this changes over time.

That’s why we want both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025. This means we want our new authors and colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.

Enough people have pointed out the stupidity of this, not least Lionel Shriver, as the BBC reports:

Ms Shriver said: “Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books.

“Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision.”

In the article she suggested that a manuscript “written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven” would be published “whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling”.

What I haven’t seen anyone make, though, is the point the Turkish author Elif Şafak raised in a talk she did:

When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

If Penguin books are going to start publishing minority authors, you can be sure the books will be about minorities; what we’re not going to see is a transgender’s work get published unless the story itself is about transgender issues. As if by way of confirmation, the BBC article tells us:

Candice Carty-Williams is a writer who has also worked at Penguin Random House for almost two years.

She supports the company’s attempts to make both its staff and authors more reflective of the UK population.

Carty-Williams – a black woman living in London who used to work for The Guardian and thinks her white counterparts have it easier than her – has just had her debut novel Queenie snapped up. So what’s it about? Well:

Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers.

How surprising. It’s also worth noting that Carty-Williams is currently a Senior Marketing Executive at Vintage Books and before that spent over two years doing the same job at HarperCollins. Funny how publishers always seem to get their books published, isn’t it? A bit like how New York Times journalists always get their works on the New York Times bestseller list.

Anyway, as Elif Şafak said:

Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.

I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian … And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports. Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary.

The real insult isn’t that Penguin thinks positive discrimination in favour of minorities will mean they publish better content, but that minorities are only allowed to write about themselves.

Share

26 thoughts on “Pigeonholed by Diversity

  1. Never mind the bollocks, I am losing a fortune selling shares because of Trump’s trade war!

  2. I think this attitude is becoming commonplace in the publishing industry.
    I ran into this example a few days ago:
    https://www.tor.com/2018/06/25/tor-com-publishing-opening-to-novella-submissions-on-july-30/

    Lee Harris, Carl Engle-Laird, and Ruoxi Chen all actively request submissions from writers from underrepresented populations. This includes, but is not limited to, writers of any race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, class and physical or mental ability. We believe that good science fiction and fantasy reflects the incredible diversity and potential of the human species, and hope our catalog will reflect that.

  3. Funny how publishers always seem to get their books published, isn’t it?

    To be fair, this is the only reason anybody ever works for a publisher; it certainly isn’t the pay.

    Some industries run on paying peanuts, but attracting people with the promise of them getting a break; publishing is one of them.

    Anyway, this policy is quickly going to run up against the reality of economics. If it turns out that there are enough people out there who want to buy ‘diverse’ books, regardless of quality, in order to signal their virtue to guests who peruse their bookshelves, then they will keep doing them (and why not? Publishers have always to some extent been in the home-furnishings business).

    But if there aren’t, they won’t.

    It will be the market in action.

  4. Carty-Williams – a black woman living in London who used to work for The Guardian

    I am going to take a wild guess and say her opinions on every topic under the sun are no different from those of her paler workmates, just with an added tinge of ethnic grievance.

    Diversity in everything except thought comrades!

  5. How many middle aged right wing Gammon writers do they have on their books? After all there’s quite a few of us in the West. Do we get to be ‘represented’ too?

  6. Entirely off topic, but I’m seeing an ad for Kuwaiti dating service with this image. Is someone having a laugh?

  7. Not related to the point you’re making, but this bit did raise a wry smile;

    “We have made a number of positive changes over the past few years, including removing the need for a university degree from all our jobs, introducing paid work experience,”

    Those might actually be positive changes. Though they are publishers, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  8. Having had a few publishing clients over the years, their economics has always amused me. Filled to the gunnels with Arabellas and Sophies who all read literature at a Russell Group university and believe they are academics working in the arts, and being paid accordingly. Meanwhile, the few commercially minded individuals who actually make it to the top in the management structure – almost entirely composed of men from a non-literary academic background – are making out like bandits

  9. “I wish you had written it differently”

    What correct-thinking “liberal” leftists will never get is that it’s the correct-thinking “liberal” leftist who is being the racist here.

    “straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither”

    Well this is a genuine and almost universal minority experience. Hence it’s been done to death (Hanif Kureishi master of the genre), and doesn’t need its millionth novel.

    “Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary.”

    Yes, Salman Rushdie proves thispoint. Oh, wait…

  10. Anyway, this policy is quickly going to run up against the reality of economics

    It will probably be saved by the reality of politics – public subsidy for publishing companies. It will be disguised but it will come.

  11. The next logical step – refusing any more print runs of books written by boring white males, e.g. Shakespeare. One day such books will simply no longer be around.

  12. I feel sorry for those authors of genuine talent. They will be regarded as quota players no matter how good, and since they’ll be lost in a sea of spoiled wallpaper not even a literary prize (awarded by lottery, the judges aren’t going to have the patience to read all the rubbish) will save them.

  13. And of course, the guy running BBC2 said that he would be unlikely to commission Monty Python these days because it was done by white, Oxbridge blokes and therefore did not reflect the population at large

  14. Lefty industry killing itself with lefty decisions. Not sure I care. Reminds me of all the lefties complaining about unpaid interns when most of the industries that use unpaid interns are lefty (e.g. publishing, PR, art) and most of those that pay (and pay well) are decidedly not (banking)

  15. “This means we want our new authors and colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.”

    Strikes me that this is remarkably parochial and backwards-looking. In this interconnected age, we are all global citizens now – shouldn’t they be aiming to reflect the the ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability status of the entire planet?

    So, for example, around one in 6 books should be by Chinese authors and a similar proportion Indian. American authors should make up only 1 in 23 books.

    British authors should only contribute just under 1% of books, whereas Bangladesh, Nigeria, Brazil, Pakistan and Indonesia should be contributing around 2-3%. On the other hand, Jamaica should only get 0.036% of books (about 1 in 2,800) and despite the best efforts of such luminaries as V. S. Naipaul and C. L. R. James, Trinidad & Tobago would be limited to 0.018% or about 1 in 5,600.

    Around 3% of British people identify as “Black British”, somewhat short of 2 million people at the 2011 census though likely a little over that today. I am not sure that Candice Carty-Williams would be pleased to hear that, if her publisher were to be reflective of the UK population it serves, just 3% of its books would be by Black British authors. But I’m sure she would be positively delighted to discover that, if they were to be less British-centric and more internationally diverse, this would fall to 2 million over 7.6 billion – which is 0.026% or about 1 in 3,800. Still a better deal than the Trinidadians get so can’t really complain, and since the median number of books read for pleasure by UK readers* is reportedly 6-10 per year, calling that an average of 8 book per year means the “average” but discerningly population-proportionate British reader may consume 0.0021 books by a Black British author per year, or about 0.1 such books over a reading lifetime.

    * “Readers” means excluding the 24% of people who did not claim to have read a single book in the last year. So for the whole population, the median falls to 3-5 books per year – and so calling that “4”, the population-proportionate reading figure for Black British authors falls to 0.0011 books per year.

  16. Col. Milquetoast: Australia seems to specialize in literary hoaxes. There was the Ern Malley poetry hoax in the 1940s, and more recently as multiculturalism became fashionable, a number of Aboriginal hoaxes. Like this guy:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudrooroo

    Basically, he sounds like a literary version of Rachel Dolezal.

  17. “…became controversial when it was discovered the author wasn’t Ukrainian, unlike her pen name, and the term “literary hoax” was bandied about because the novel wasn’t nonfiction but a novel”

    Author’s name wasn’t Rigoberta Menchu, perchance?

  18. @Howard Roark

    I also assumed all books were by living authors, yet my nose for one is more usually ensconced in “the classics”. Frankly there are already so many of them, I’ll never finish off all the supposed “must-reads” in my lifetime, so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to make room for the new stuff – which squeezes the less pale’n’stale even further. Sorry Candice. Still, I can accept that minority authors often (but not always) have something interesting to say, partly because they have access to multiple cultural traditions and partly because they have that “foot in both camps” experience. Though as BiG points out, it’s hardly as if the inherent tension in that has gone unexplored.

    I suspect one of the reasons Tim’s such an interesting read on social and cultural issues is because of his experience as an outsider looking in on Russia, Nigeria, France and Thailand. Perhaps even to a lesser extent his minority experience of being a Welshman in England…

    Medical statisticians often take “booster samples” from minority groups, to check if e.g. the trends they observe in the general population are also occurring in those communities. On a similar basis, I don’t mind hearing from a “booster sample” of minority voices in public life and the media – I’m not going to sit and log the number of black people I see on-screen and get dreadfully aggrieved if it ventures above 3%, and for me “minority voices” includes potentially unfashionable minorities of opinion, not just sexuality or skin colour. But I’m also not at all convinced the minority voices we do hear are particularly representative of the groups they’re heralded as speaking for. “Unsuitable” opinions tend to be filtered out, and quota spots are generally filled by the most eloquent, best networkers, social climbers and often surprisingly privileged (skin colour or surname can easily belie the fact daddy was a successful doctor or businessman, education was a posho private school followed by elite uni).

    Who would really pay to read the authentic voice of an economically precarious, zero-skilled loser-kid from Hull or Clacton or Blackburn? Ask a teacher about the quality of written work produced by school-leavers in the bottom set of a rough school and they’ll howl in desperation – the standard needed to be awarded a passing grade is low enough, yet thousands of kids fail their exams completely. The kind of people who love to warble about diversity can get remarkably snobbish when confronted with garbled sweary text-speak with only the loosest connection to conventional English grammar and a limited, yet still unrecognisably spelled, vocabulary. Anyone actually capable of turning out prose satiating the literary tastes of Middle England, is by definition lacking neither skills nor prospects. The truth is that the British literature market revolves around middle-class authors (or those aspiring to become so) writing for middle-class consumers. Much of the variation in skin tone or accent is part sop, part window-dressing and part conscience-salve.

  19. “But I’m also not at all convinced the minority voices we do hear are particularly representative of the groups they’re heralded as speaking for. “Unsuitable” opinions tend to be filtered out, and quota spots are generally filled by the most eloquent, best networkers, social climbers and often surprisingly privileged (skin colour or surname can easily belie the fact daddy was a successful doctor or businessman, education was a posho private school followed by elite uni).”

    Quite. These “minority voices” are the ones who tend to turn up in slots on breakfast news, usually reviewing the day’s papers, which tends to give the game away, regardless of whatever PR puff got them an interview for the launch of their book.

  20. And whilst I think of it;

    This sort of thing reminds me of a very old comedy sketch featuring Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith; it might date from Not the Nine o’Clock News. It’s popped into my head a few times over the last few months.

    Basically, it was a piss take of the late night review/discussion shows of the time; Griff played the host with a couple of terribly earnest types comparing the dialecticals of this, that and the other. Smith was some sort of Northerner who just tetchily uttered the word “Bollocks” every twenty seconds or so.

    Probably the closest thing recently has been W1A, which apparently nobody watched.

  21. In the 90s there was an Australian prize winning novel that became controversial when it was discovered the author wasn’t Ukrainian

    Indeed, and she now goes by the name of Helen Dale. I mentioned her a few days ago.

  22. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind.
    Only now the books are not burned but are displaced by meaningless dross and the process of memorizing books to prevent their complete loss is taken by the Interweb which forgets nothing

Comments are closed.