A few years ago, realising that I was reading, almost exclusively, books written by (dead) white women, I decided to make a conscious effort to read more novels by Asian and African writers. This did not mean that I would read just any book by an Asian or African author. My decision just meant that I made the conscious decision to seek out African and Asian fiction, which I had hitherto simply not paid attention to.
In response to Penguin Random House’s newly unveiled aims ‘that the books we publish should reflect the diverse society in which we live’, Lionel Shriver, in this piece for The Spectator, said, ‘Drunk on virtue, 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. Thus from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some.’
How is being inclusive ‘eschewing standards’? It seems to me that the publisher is admitting that there are systemic faults that result in more white authors that authors of colour being published, and it is addressing this problem by making public its intention to ‘actively [seek] out talented writers from communities under-represented on the nation’s bookshelves‘. Shriver, on the other hand, is revealing her contempt for writers who aren’t white. She obviously believes that coloured communities are low on talent and that Penguin Random House will have to resort to publishing just any damn mss in order to fulfil their goals.
It’s telling how Shriver seems not to recognise/admit that mainstream publishing is a largely white, middle-class world. With most employees in publishing houses being white, it’s not hard to understand how there might be a bias (intentional or otherwise) towards white authors. So, in that situation, why don’t Shriver and other white writers worry that their work is being published purely because of the colour of their skin rather than because it’s actually good work? Because white privilege means they see themselves as racially neutral, i.e their race and skin colour have nothing to do with the lives they lead. And why does Shriver immediately assume that wanting to be more racially inclusive will result in fewer good books being published? I can’t think of any other reason besides the fact that she is a racist bag of manure who thinks that white authors are naturally more talented and able than authors of colour.
After all, surely she’s noticed that even without initiatives like those undertaken by Penguin Random House, publishing houses have published a fair number ‘meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling’, by white authors no less?
Diversity poses no threat to readers’ standards, it only challenges Shriver’s bigoted beliefs.