Lionel Shriver and Toby Young should have actually spoken to someone like me before attacking Penguin’s new writers’ scheme

How we are taught to judge 'good work' is inextricably routed in the structures of social and racial privilege

Amrou Al-Kadhi
Monday 11 June 2018 17:38 BST
As a minority identity who has recently acquired a book deal, I would like to let Lionel Shriver and Toby Young know that I didn’t feel paranoid it was only due to my race or sexuality
As a minority identity who has recently acquired a book deal, I would like to let Lionel Shriver and Toby Young know that I didn’t feel paranoid it was only due to my race or sexuality (Getty/iStock)

In The Spectator this weekend, author of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver, attacked Penguin Random House’s initiatives to make their roster of employees and authors more diverse. This is a critical move, considering the recent findings that 90 per cent of people in publishing are white.

Part of Penguin’s strategy removes the requirement of a university degree to work there, and it projects that by 2025, their authors and workforce will be inclusive of ethnic minorities, working class people and those with disabilities and LGBTQIA+ voices.

This is part of a long-awaited push among the publishing and creative industries. This year 4th Estate, a publishing imprint of Harper Collins, returns with its BAME short story prize, giving writers from ethnic backgrounds a route into a perceived to be impenetrable industry; in the film industry, the BFI has released a 2022 set of targets to address the pitiful imbalance towards white male directors (only two women directors were among the list of top-grossing 200 films between 2001 and 2016); and BBC Films has recently restructured to make nurturing a more diverse slate of talent a priority.

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Why is this being met with venom? According to Shriver, such schemes prioritise being a minority over having talent – offensively, she writes 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.”

Let’s really sit with this remark. It is infused with systemic homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism and classism. Shriver implies that a socially disenfranchised author without an education will probably be a poor writer. Is it that inconceivable to imagine that a writer from such a background would be able to write a good book?

This opens up a difficult and complex question – what makes a good book? What makes a good piece of filmmaking? Or a noteworthy work of art? Well, if we imagine that our quality controls are routed in what we have known to be “of quality”, then there is a culturally unconscious bias towards writers from privileged backgrounds. The writers we are taught to revere in our education are mostly from white elite groups; the artists that we think of as geniuses are almost exclusively white men.

How we are taught to judge “good work” is inextricably rooted in the structures of social and racial privilege. Unconscious biases sit at the heart of invisible prejudices, and when we have been fed on a culture defined by the privileged, it leads to a cultural taste of works from the privileged – and so the vicious cycle perpetuates.

Shriver seems to believe that there is some sort of abstract ideal of good-quality writing, but this is a complete and utter fallacy dripping with privilege. This “ideal” no doubt upholds writing that has benefited from a high-quality education, and with this comes the perils of class and racial privilege.

Diversity initiatives open up the cultural mindset to other forms of writing we might not have considered to be “good”. I never understand it when people for instance say: “I go to the cinema to see myself.” Surely the opposite is true? We read books, watch films, and go to museums to witness other versions of the world, to be transported into the realities of those who have different experiences to our own. And this is why culture has the potential to make society more tolerant and empathetic of difference.

There seems to be a push back from white creatives, who suggest that this is all meaningless identity politics. Toby Young was quick to agree with Shriver, tweeting that “any BME, gay, trans or female authors [Penguin] publishes from now on will worry that they haven’t been chosen on merit, but because they tick a diversity box”.

Thank you, Toby Young, for telling me how I feel as a queer person of colour. If I may speak for myself (ahem): as a minority identity who has recently acquired a non-fiction book deal with 4th Estate, I can tell you that I didn’t feel paranoid it was only due to my race or sexuality. What I did feel was that a broadening cultural mindset allowed my merit to be more readily showcased and invited into the room. And I feel seen, represented, and well – included. It ain’t so bad, Toby.

At the Oscars this year, Frances McDormand used her winning speech to argue for an “inclusion rider” in every film made, a contractual clause requiring cast and crew to be diverse. Penguin’s initiative is hopefully part of a global realisation that for culture to meaningfully represent the diversity of our world, such strategies to diversify must be structurally enforced.

Imagine culture as a huge piece of pie, 99 per cent of which has so far been owned by the most privileged. All that’s being demanded is for the pie to be equally distributed, so that everybody, no matter your race, sexuality, gender or class, can be offered a slice.

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