Diversity in Publishing: There’s No Going Back

Published: 21 June 2018

Country: UK

By Yasmine Alibhai Brown, first published by i News on 11 June 2018*

Penguin_Random_House_InclusionFirst, I should, I guess, apologise to the author, Lionel Shriver, best known for the explosive novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. On Monday, live on the Wright Stuff (Channel5), I rudely said she should ‘shut up’.

On second thoughts, maybe not an apology, but an extended reproach is what she deserves for writing up a storm in the The Spectator – these days a repository of regressive ideas and hard right theologies. The publishers Penguin Random House have decided that by 2025, their staff and authors would “reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability”.

Anyone sane and sensible would support this policy shift. But Shriver finds Penguin’s aspirations shocking and contemptible. Here she is in her own words: “I’d been suffering under the misguided illusion that the purpose of mainstream publishers …was to sell and promote fine writing’ [my italics]. So, we writers of colour can go off to small ghetto publishers, because we can’t possibly be fine writers. Toby Young (whose dad called up contacts to get his under-achieving boy into Oxford) praised Shriver’s blistering column. Other traditionalists were reassured too. She validated their rage and anxieties. The rest of us were not impressed.

Shriver herself accepted the £30,000 Women’s Prize for fiction in 2005, an award set up to encourage and honour female writers who had long been treated as second class talent. Then she damned such feminist awards too.  It’s as if equality can never mean quality, that inclusion is always patronising or unfair, that the best are only ever found among those who feel entitled to be winners ( like their dads and grandads too). Yes I do mean authors such as Martin Amis, a gifted writer who sometimes pens embarrassing books such as Lionel Asbo or the late Tom Wolfe, author of some great American novels and trashy ones like I am Charlotte Simmons. Low grade work by established white writers is no threat to excellence. But admitting the excluded into the club is?

Shriver decided to let rip just days after Kamila Shamsie, a British-Pakistani, won the 2018 Women’s Prize. In her novel she uses Sophocles’ Antigone to explore modern radicalisation and family loyalties. Twenty three years ago, there was no such prize and such brilliance never got recognition. There’s no going back to those times.

Assertive inclusion policies spook people who have long had privileges and access. It’s their club. Why bring in blacks, Asians, gays, the disabled and, as Shriver describes them, ‘ the crap educated’? Let the diehards grumble. We are not obliged to indulge them. We heard the same whinges when black actors got major parts to play in films and plays. Black Panther’s success showed what was possible. Glossy mags too defended their boring usual stuff by claiming readers were put off by black and Asian faces and stories. Edward Enninful, black, British and brilliant, became editor of Vogue and suddenly the magazine became a cool, modern poster of this rainbow nation. And now others are following furiously and fast.

Change must come, will come, for the sake of the creative industries as much as for artists and writers whose stories, abilities and experiences have been kept out in the cold for centuries. Shriver and her sort will just have to put up with the inconvenience. Perhaps learn to shut up too.

*Photo taken from Penguin Random House website