Earlier this week, Lionel Shriver shared her opinions about Penguin Random House UK’s new diversity initiative, claiming that the company’s aim to reflect the UK’s diverse demographic by 2025 meant it was “drunk on virtue” and no longer interested in the “acquisition and distribution of good books.”
She commented that “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.”
Of course, Lionel Shriver would only have to do a quick Google search to realise that publishing in the UK is still overwhelmingly white and British, with a survey carried out in 2017 reporting that 90% of publishing staff in the UK identified as white and British. 81.8% of the respondents were also female. Only 8% of the UK’s publishing staff identified as BAME. 2015 statistics also showed that less than 100 books were published by British writers from a non-white background.
Penguin Random House’s push for diversity comes at the heels of these statistics in order to rectify these disparities and make the publishing industry, along with the books it outputs, more inclusive and accessible to marginalised people.
The statistics also show that Lionel Shriver’s suggestion that PRH’s diversity initiative means that quality literature will be ignored for ticking diversity boxes is incorrect. It’s working under the false pretense that white writers, like Shriver, are published because of their talent while marginalised writers are published because they are marginalised. Which is not only an idea that is wrong, but is also a bigoted viewpoint to hold. In fact, the opposite is true. Even though UK publishing is overwhelmingly white, the minor percentage of books that are written by non-white authors are often ignored by major literary prizes and festivals, leading BAME writers, critics, and publishing professionals to set up their own festivals and prizes.
Shriver’s claim that “readers will still have some [standards]” also comes from a place of extreme privilege, where she assumes that the majority readership shares her worldview and background. In fact, with the diversifying of the world around us, readers and writers alike have diversified. And while marginalised writers are frustrated at the lack of space for them in the publishing industry, a diverse population of readers are equally frustrated at the lack of diverse representation in the books available to us. So Shriver might be surprised to find that writers, readers, and publishers are all eager to see our diverse population accurately represented in the literature that we read.
Following Shriver’s comments, Mslexia, a UK-based magazine focused on helping women writers, have decided to remove her as the judge for their short story competition. The decision has already been critiqued by some who believe that Shriver espousing an “opinion” should not affect her role as judge in this competition. Except Shriver’s “opinion,” paired with her role and influence in the publishing industry, is the exact kind of gatekeeping that keeps marginalised people out of publishing and upholds the status quo that is already there. For Shriver to hold an influential role where she is able to judge and give value to writers and their work, while simultaneously holding the bigoted opinion that marginalised people are the “other” and their work is unlikely to be quality literature because of their marginalisation, means a bias against writers who are already in a disadvantaged position.
Personally, as a reader from multiple marginalised backgrounds, I’m happy to see PRH’s much-needed push for diversity. Far from diminishing quality literature, I believe it has the opportunity to create a cultural shift in publishing where we are aware of the diverse reader base in the UK (and internationally) and are able to publish fantastic books that are more representative of the world around us.