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Penguin mentoring program responds to Lionel Shriver's attack on publisher's inclusion policy

'Shriver seems to view diversity and quality as mutually exclusive categories'

Ilana Kaplan
Tuesday 12 June 2018 18:30 BST
WriteNow mentoring program responds to author Lionel Shriver's attack on publisher's inclusion policy.
WriteNow mentoring program responds to author Lionel Shriver's attack on publisher's inclusion policy. (Credit: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

Penguin's literary mentoring program WriteNow has responded to author Lionel Shriver's criticism of the publisher's inclusion policy, saying its efforts should be "celebrated" instead of "dismissed as mere 'box-ticking' exercises".

WriteNow - a programme that recruits 12 writers from under-represented communities and mentors them for a year - replied to Shriver's article attacking Penguin in The Spectator.

Shriver originally wrote, "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 piece she also claims that a draft "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".

In an open letter, the 2016 WriteNow mentees responded with critical questions saying: "Shriver seems to view diversity and quality as mutually exclusive categories. We are compelled to ask: does she truly believe that diverse writers are incapable of penning good books? That women of colour are incapable of working editorially? That marketing is a job limited to individuals who identify as cis, white and straight? Does she believe that someone with a disability, or from a working-class background, does not have what it takes to grasp the concepts of plot, dialogue and use of language? If she truly does believe these things, we ought to be having a very different conversation."

The programme pointed out that like Shriver, they think it's "incredibly difficult to get published," which is amplified by what community you come from or the topics covered in your work.

WriteNow further asked if Penguin Random House had included "excellence, originality and accessibility" in its description - as it had with Shriver's acquired Orange Prize for Fiction - if it would have been made more "admirable" to her.

"Her issue seems to be that by implementing a strategy that encourages those from underrepresented backgrounds to submit writing, literary excellence will inevitably be of secondary importance," they continued.

The WriteNow mentees assured Shriver that "widening the range of social and cultural backgrounds" does not in fact diminish literally excellence in favour of box-ticking.

Penguin Random House stated on its website that its goal is to make inclusion in publishing "both a cultural and commercial imperative."

They claim that they want their "new hires to represent UK society by 2025," accounting for ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.

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