A Week in Books: It's who you know

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The Independent Culture

One especially damning statistic leaps out from the new Arts Council/Bookseller report on "cultural diversity" - or rather, the lack of it - within British publishing. It isn't the proportion of publishing employees from ethnic-minority backgrounds: at 13 per cent, that figure actually exceeds the national average, although one informant cut to the chase by pointing out that "diversity happens at the fringes of the industry, not its heart". All media outfits now tend to prefer a multi-coloured shop-window while retaining a strictly monochrome boardroom. And it isn't the fact that only 8 per cent of all respondents thought that they worked in a diverse business.

No: the jaw really drops on discovering that fully 40 per cent of the sample (of more than 500) got their first job in publishing "through a contact, a referral or network of some kind". So it's still not what you know... A couple of months ago, I wrote in this column that "the British literary scene indulges in a level of nepotism that might make the average Medici blush". At the time, I wondered if that sounded like a bit of cheap hyperbole. If only.

Publishing in its upper echelons remains distinctly posh - by which I don't mean normally middle-class, in the way of other businesses - to a degree that can baffle outsiders. One can, in fact, sympathise with the overt hereditary principle. It's hard to think of a niche publisher who has kept up higher standards in recent years than John Murray VII, the direct heir to a dynasty whose literary lineage dates to the 1760s. Family publishers can safeguard a tradition as well as family butchers.

More suspect is the smooth passage prepared for vaguely interested young graduates who have the right connections to secure them an initial berth. The current vogue for "work experience" - in effect, unpaid apprenticeships available only to financially-cushioned youngsters - will only make matters worse. Opportunity will mean that another set of gilded youths acquires competence, and so gives an extra spin to the old cycle of privilege.

A profession so happy to recruit mainly from PLU (People Like Us, my dear) will clearly impede the progress of what you might call "visible minorities". That merely forms part of a pattern, of like-selecting-like, that aggravates the most acute difficulty facing the trade today. The challenge is not how to sell more titles to enthusiastic readers, but how to reach out to that reluctant half of the population who could buy books but hardly ever do. By the way, the Arts Council research, edited for The Bookseller by Danuta Kean, makes clear that library use among non-white groups surpasses the national figure "by as much as 10 per cent".

The response to this latest survey will probably consist of yet more noisy campaigns to hype the "new Zadie Smith" or the "new Hari Kunzru". We can also expect a few more high-profile non-white editors to emerge, with a brief to locate and promote other young stars of a similar lustre. That's not the principal problem. Publishers will always seek out modish metropolitan faces of whatever hue. Equally, they now tend to shun the older, the provincial and the fashion-resistant author, whatever their background or origin.

In some ways, the formula-driven efficiency of corporate publishing today has squeezed the space available for genuine singularity. In 1951, the 54-year-old Bengali writer Nirad C Chaudhuri was able to launch an unlikely, late-blooming British career with his classic Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. Chaudhuri was a tetchy, eccentric, reactionary old curmudgeon. He also happened to write some of the most brilliant and beautiful English prose of the 20th century. Would today's trend-hungry, pack-hunting, youth-adoring publishers have looked twice at his work? I very much doubt it. The market-led definition of "diversity" may yield some pretty uniform results.