Another day, another publishing row. The latest storm to hit the shelves is about diversity. To cut a short story shorter, Penguin Random House has committed itself to promoting more diversity in literature, because they say books “should reflect the diverse society in which we live”.
Although she claims her remarks were taken out of context, the UK-resident American writer Lionel Shriver said that positive discrimination will make literature a poorer sort of art. She said “we can safely infer … 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.”
Much frowning and finger-wagging ensued. I always enjoy a good row from the sidelines – I’m Irish, after all – but the whole thing reminded me of another row: that of gender equality at work.
Now, as a white Irish woman, I don’t think I can argue that I’m in any sort of oppressed minority in the world of publishing. White Irish women don’t tend to do badly at all in publishing, from what I can see. But being a woman working in the financial sector is a whole different ballgame, and happily I happen to have LOADS of opinions about that.
Having ruminated upon some of them, I got to thinking: even if promoting diversity in literature did result in a dip in quality (a notion, I might add, I don’t believe even for a second), would that be so bad?
Let me explain.
It might surprise you to hear that as a writer and book lover, the best quote I ever read in my life was in the Financial Times. (No, don’t run away! I read the Guardian too!!)
It came from Noreen Doyle, Vice-Chair of Credit Suisse and Chair of the British Bankers’ Association, who in a discussion about gender equality at work, said: “We’ll be considered equal when equally incompetent women get the same opportunity as incompetent men.”
I think that quote is so genius, I’ve considered getting it laminated and handing it out to every woman I meet. I wouldn’t consider myself an activist, but sometimes the truth simply stuns you into action.
It always seemed to me that in order not to be accused of benefitting from positive discrimination at work, senior women had to perform to a truly exceptional standard. A bad or even mediocre female manager always rouses grumblings about positive discrimination and gender politics. But you never hear the same complaints about incompetent male managers.
Nobody ever says a man’s failings at work are down to him being a man. Why? Why do women have to be better than men at doing the same jobs? Why can’t they just be the same?
Equally, I would imagine that after Penguin Random House put their plan into motion, there’s bound to be mutterings and grumblings about quality, and positive discrimination, and even mobility scooters. But a sea change in attitude is always going to be going against the tide in the beginning.
If something has been wrong for a very long time, getting it right is going to hurt. The market will be misread, and mistakes will be made.
- Some books will be published that should have been published years ago, but they will fail, because they missed their time.
- Just like now, some books will be published that tick all the boxes, but really aren’t that great – however in this instance, the diversity pledge will be blamed.
- Some writers will be fairly rejected no matter how many diversity boxes they tick, but they’ll still accuse publishers of discrimination.
- Some publishers will reject excellent manuscripts from or about middle-aged white men, afraid that they shouldn’t publish anything involving a middle-aged white man, no matter how good it is.
But after the teething problems – do you know what else will happen?
- More children will recognise themselves in stories than before. Some of these children will then grow up to be great writers.
- Readers will get new stories which haven’t been told before.
- Genre fiction will become less prevalent, because publishers won’t have to keep playing it safe with homogenous stuff they know will sell regardless of quality.
- People who are different will cease to be so unfamiliar, and we’ll all be less scared of each other.
Yes, the market will struggle in the beginning with an onslaught of the unfamiliar. But the teething problems will eventually get sorted out, and we’ll be back to a market with some books are mediocre and some books are great, just like now, but neither their greatness nor their mediocrity will be blamed on the colour or creed of their characters or writers, just like now. The only difference will be that these books will reflect the diverse society in which we live.
Eventually, protagonists and narrators who are Chinese tree surgeons in Birmingham or Nigerian solicitors in Dublin or transgender interracial couples in Berlin will become the norm. We will have learned to always insist on a great story, no matter who’s telling it. Everyone’s imaginations will benefit. And wouldn’t that be a nice place to live?