Is Mediocrity The Only Path To True Equality?

Is Mediocrity The Path To True Equality?

She’s got an opinion and she’s not afraid to use it

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.

Is Mediocrity The Only Path To True Equality?

We’re so diverse we even have 2 women in suits!

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.

  1. Some books will be published that should have been published years ago, but they will fail, because they missed their time.
  2. 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.
  3. Some writers will be fairly rejected no matter how many diversity boxes they tick, but they’ll still accuse publishers of discrimination.
  4. 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?

  1. More children will recognise themselves in stories than before. Some of these children will then grow up to be great writers.
  2. Readers will get new stories which haven’t been told before.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

Is Mediocrity The Only Path To True Equality?

Yay!! It’s the diversity conga!

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  45 comments for “Is Mediocrity The Only Path To True Equality?

  1. June 17, 2018 at 10:54 am

    In the eighties, a female judge told me that women will only have made it when they are allowed to be mediocre. The idea has legs, as they say, although it does beg the questions of who judges the levels of brilliance and who grants the required permissions. Also, men are actively encouraged for their own security to be the ‘grey man’. Ie neither best nor worst. Are women ever so encouraged? The situation is complex.

    Liked by 2 people

    • June 17, 2018 at 11:38 am

      It is complex, Lizzie, and complicated further by privileged people crying foul whenever someone tries to level the playing field. For my part, I’m all for encouraging mediocrity. Perhaps I’ll get t-shirts printed and start a movement!

      Liked by 4 people

      • June 17, 2018 at 11:49 am

        You’d be endorsed by the Andy Warhols among us – with celebrations of mediocrity all the way!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. June 17, 2018 at 11:36 am

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes etc. One for the keep mailbox and revision in ten… twenty… thirty? years’ time. Oh, I might not be around then, but I shall be happy in the prospect.

    Liked by 2 people

    • June 17, 2018 at 1:42 pm

      Let’s hope it takes a lot less time than that, Hilary, and we’re all around to see it!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. June 17, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. June 17, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    I love this! Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. June 17, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Reblogged this on Crazy Little Redneck Goth.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. June 17, 2018 at 1:38 pm

    How true. And it’s not just women who should be allowed to be mediocre. All minorities, black, Asian, disabled, LGBT, etc. etc.
    Not that I don’t think everyone should strive to be the best they can, but someone should not need to be better than everyone else in order to get to the same place.
    However, there are some women who think that women are ‘better’ than men, andas such, should be the dominant gender. I saw what I thought was a terrible sentiment on a T-shirt worn by a woman in my town. It read ‘The future is Female.’ No! the future is HUMAN. If we go along the path indicated by said T-shirt, we’re not making any progress, just reversing the inequality and unfairness.

    Liked by 4 people

    • June 17, 2018 at 3:06 pm

      I think the hardest thing sometimes is learning to accept other methods of argument, V.M. Some times we can find activists or their methods a little too hard-core, even if their end goal is the same as ours. Some people might feel worse about the status quo than us, and that changing it will be a bloodier fight. But isn’t that part of the whole diversity drive too? Accepting that there are many different paths to the same destination, we just feel more or less comfortable with one over another.

      Liked by 4 people

  7. June 17, 2018 at 2:49 pm

    Reblogged this on Viv Drewa – The Owl Lady.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. June 17, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    I read Shriver’s article in The Spectator. I wouldn’t have used the language she employs (and particularly that quoted in your post), however, as a blind poet I do think that she has a point. I wouldn’t want my poems to be picked up by a traditional publisher simply owing to me ticking the disability box. I want my work to be picked up because it is considered to be worthy of publication, not because I am blind. To publish a person’s work simply because they tick a “disability”, “ethnic” or other box is patronising and could harm the reputation of the disabled (or other category) of person being picked.

    Liked by 2 people

    • June 17, 2018 at 3:14 pm

      To be fair, no publisher is ever going to publish something just because it ticks a socially responsible box, drewdog. Publishers will only publish something they think will sell, and therefore justifies their investment.

      I think the change that a diversity drive brings is that the thinking changes on what will sell or not. Instead of dismissing a story or poem as being ‘too niche’, they might think harder about taking a chance on something that’s new and untested – which could then turn out to be a shock blockbuster, spawning a whole new generation of copycats. That’s the theory, anyway.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. June 17, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    It wasn’t Shriver’s comments which got to me in all this debate but the very angry reaction. Are we really about to reach a point when we are not allowed to have active debate, worrying we will upset someone? (I don’t mean a katie hopkins type comment)
    I heard a conversation on the radio the other day where a professor said it’s happening more and more that he stands in a lecture hall amid silence. A gathering of bright, articulate students afraid their opinion will upset or insult so they say nothing. This is how they’ve been reared, to be mindful of hurting anyone.
    I’m also mindful of the numbers who have never read her original conversation or heard her speak, but are outraged at her opinion as they’ve read it in snippets and headlines online, which is another conversation entirely.
    Having said that I am on the side of change is good and why does it mean it will be ‘bad’ or any worse than the bad we already have? As for equality… don’t start me on that as it’s too early for drink.

    Liked by 4 people

    • June 17, 2018 at 3:16 pm

      I must disagree with you in the strongest possible terms, Tric. It is SO NOT too early for drink. It’s past noon, and you’re over 18. Please think carefully about making such contentious statements in future.

      The other stuff you said was ok though. I agree with that.

      Liked by 3 people

      • June 17, 2018 at 3:19 pm

        I sit in silence as all of twitter explodes at my condemnation of afternoon drinking, my non existent book boycotted by the masses, fueled by the vintners association adds condemning me.
        I should have said nothing.

        Liked by 3 people

        • June 17, 2018 at 3:26 pm

          Yes, Tric. You only have yourself to blame. I’d stick up for you, only I’m still so triggered and offended by what you said. Sooooo offended [hic].

          Liked by 2 people

  10. June 17, 2018 at 3:07 pm

    Middle-aged white male fictional characters need not apply – in fact, they must even keep off the grass.

    Liked by 3 people

    • June 17, 2018 at 3:24 pm

      Actually, I hope that they still have their place in the literary canon, Christine. It just won’t be more places than are due.

      And to be fair, they’ve been struggling for quite a while now, whether the rest of us want to admit it or not. Mike McCormack just won the International Dublin Literary Award (having already won a stack of other major prizes) for his novel Solar Bones, which everyone I’ve ever heard talk about it has praised to an almost tearful degree. But it very nearly didn’t get published, because loads of publishers told his agent they couldn’t see a market for a book about a middle-aged Irishman, especially one that was also experimental. That’s not good either, nor is it fair.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. June 17, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    What a great post and ensuring discussion, here. Thanks to all of you and especially Tara for this conversation.

    My two cents: I am a lifelong feminist (so we’re talking more than 6 decades,now), so I can speak from extensive observation and experience to say these things:

    1) It is not “progress” for women to be the SAME as men when men suck (violence, harassment, egotistical nonsense, incest, sex trafficking, pimping, war-mongering, rapaciousness and overall greed and rewarding cronyism and mediocrity come to mind, for starters).

    2) That being said, I agree that women should not be PENALIZED unfairly for being as bad as men are, nor should we be held to a higher standard: THAT would be progress toward equality;

    3) It would be great if all people who are considered minorities, members of any oppressed groups and women (who are NOT a “minority,” BTW, and are part of ALL of those groups) could have equal access, opportunity, assessments, education, resources, safety, time, freedom, leisure, and forgiveness for mistakes and attempts that fail. THEN we would be truly equal.

    4) Men who harass, assault, rape, molest, ridicule, kidnap, pimp, imprison, threaten, stalk, or, when in positions of power and authority choose to ignore, disrespect and otherwise pass-over for promotion or opportunities or rudely hold women back MUST be punished to a much higher degree (we need better/fairer laws and judges, both) if that kind of BS is ever going to slow down to a trickle and stop.

    Best to you all,

    Sally Ember, Ed.D.

    Liked by 2 people

    • June 17, 2018 at 6:49 pm

      Hi Sally – thanks so much for your comment! I will clarify one point: for me Noreen Doyle’s quote isn’t about women becoming either incompetent or mediocre or becoming the ‘same’ as men – it’s that gender should be irrelevant when it comes to mediocrity and incompetency. At present, in the financial sector anyway, it seems like women’s gender is irrevocably linked with their performance, either good or bad. You’re seen either better than other women, or worse than a man.

      However, the centre of the argument here is the publishing industry, where the discrimination is of a different kind, and it is more about minorities than gender, albeit that women in those minorities do tend to have it even worse again.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. June 17, 2018 at 4:03 pm

    I think the real problem is publishers second guessing what the reading public will – or will not – like. Who would ever have imagined that a badly written book about a BDSM couple would become a best seller and spawn 3 movies? As a 76 year old I know that however good or relevant my writing it will never find a publisher, not because of ageism but because I can’t offer them future earnings over a long period.

    Liked by 2 people

    • June 17, 2018 at 7:05 pm

      I suppose that’s what publishers are for, though, Frank: they have to second guess what the reading public will like, or else they’ll be out of business within the month! And 50 Shades was already a self-published hit before the mainstream copped on. The fact that it was essentially just fan fiction of another hugely successful franchise with terrible sex written in does explain some of the phenomenon: it copied someone else’s successful story, so didn’t come out of nowhere.

      I agree that it’s a tough break on older writers, but there is an investment at stake, and hardly anyone makes money out of a first book. But even young writers still need a hell of a lot of luck to make it too.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. June 17, 2018 at 9:57 pm

    Brilliant. Exactly right. Huzzah. You hit the damn nail.

    This is a topic near and dear to my heart for a number of reasons. As I spent the last year pitching a novel about “an interracial couple—in the midst of a new relationship—are thrown into chaos when an arrest turns their world upside down,” I was stunned to discover that, by virtue of my being white, my “voice,” I was told, was not welcome to tell a story that included black characters. I had agents insist they loved the book, it was “important and well written,” but still they were hands-off because the fear of cultural appropriation “had become an impacted conversation,” making my book too controversial to even try to sell. When I discussed this with other writers, many of whom had run into similar versions of this creative censorship, it became clear that the literary industry’s blundering answer to the very real problem of under-representation of diverse authors was: DON’T LET WHITE WRITERS INCLUDE DIVERSE CHARACTERS IN THEIR BOOKS…. there… (brushing hands together smugly), that’s taken care of.

    No. That’s madness.

    Because the only solution to under-representation of diverse writers in the literary industry is TO PUBLISH MORE WORKS FROM DIVERSE WRITERS… not shut down the creativity and artistic license of anyone else.

    Several black writers I spoke to were annoyed that publishers thought muzzling white writers solved anything, agreeing that “artists should be able to write whatever they want, with whatever kinds of characters they choose,” while additionally asserting that there WAS a heightened expectation of authenticity and sensitivity when including characters of cultures outside one’s one. I agree with that, and held myself to that standard. But that’s a very different matter than the industry as a whole limiting who can write what about who. THAT is fascism, not problem-solving.

    So for me, the decision of Penguin Random House is exactly what the publishing industry SHOULD be doing: opening their very tightly-closed gates to a more diverse slate of authors, NOT micro-managing anyone else. Which makes it strange that Lionel Shriver would react so vociferously and cynically against this; she herself has written about the anti-creativity thrust of censoring writers on subjects and characters, so why then would she complain about this far more effective solution? That seems counterproductive to her own stance and you can’t have it both ways; if we really want to solve the problem of over-representation of “straight white male authors,” the only option (to repeat myself) is PUBLISHING MORE WORKS FROM DIVERSE WRITERS.

    To presume this means sloppy work, bad work, lesser work, crappy work will be published is the height of cynicism. Lionel might want to rethink that condescension. Given the many excellent writers I know who have not been published, I would assume the opposite: that more excellent work will be brought into the marketplace when we get beyond generic, predictable, genre-based, formulaic product. And, frankly, I’ve read plenty of banal mediocrity from white writers with legacy publishing deals… mediocrity, it seems clear, has no cultural boundaries.

    Your summation summed it up perfectly: “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.”

    BEAUTIFUL. Perfect. Exactly right. You get the gold star, Miz Sparling.

    (Btw, I did finally find a small press bold enough to take my book on, it will be out next year, so I didn’t let ’em crush my spirt. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • June 17, 2018 at 10:37 pm

      I’ll take that gold star, Lorraine. And all your other gold too. HA, HA! Sorry. That was my financial sector side coming out. Must be more careful 😉

      I love this – “mediocrity… has no cultural boundaries.” Amen, sister. Everyone in this world should have the power and opportunity to be as underwhelming as they like. And huge congratulations on the new book deal! You deserve it!

      Liked by 2 people

  14. June 18, 2018 at 9:08 am

    Reblogged this on The Biblioanthropologist.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. June 19, 2018 at 12:25 am

    Oh, thank you, thank you for being the voice of sanity, Tara! It’s amazing how the “white male” majority (not all of them, obviously) equates equality with having to endure inferiority! Drives me nuts! Efforts to curb discrimination will likely mean that the best works will be published, not just white-male-works. As you said, there will be plenty to complain about as there always is in this imperfect world, but a shift away from arbitrary discrimination will always move us in the right direction. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • June 19, 2018 at 10:24 am

      Exactly that, Diana – books won’t change, only attitudes will. I see arguments against positive discrimination much the same way as I see corsets – a relic of a bygone age, mourned only by those who benefitted from the survival of the weakest.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. June 19, 2018 at 12:51 am

    Hi there … I arrived here via his right royal Apeness. 🙂

    … Most of these changes have already been effected in the indie publishing landscape. Traditional publishers are getting further and further behind.

    I have to question this though … ‘Genre fiction will become less prevalent …’ did you mean it will become more prevalent?

    Liked by 3 people

    • June 19, 2018 at 10:27 am

      Nice to see you here, Widdershins! Glad you found us 🙂

      As for your question, no, I mean that genre fiction will become less prevalent, because it shouldn’t be relied upon as much in a more diverse environment. Books will still be shoehorned into ill-fitting genres for marketing purposes, but the books themselves should be less formulaic.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. June 21, 2018 at 10:54 am

    I used to leave my full address off letters to agents in case they saw the comical northern town and thought we’ve already done DH Lawrence. Then I tried just using my initials. Then I just gave up and started designing clothes instead. No one will win this battle until AI controls everything and then it’ll descend into a three-way discrimination between Apple, Android and Windows robots.

    Liked by 2 people

    • June 23, 2018 at 10:52 am

      That may be true, Chris, but until we run out of nuts, I’ve decided not to worry.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. June 23, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    Happy birthday to you,
    Happy birthday to you,
    Happy birthday dear Tara,
    Happy birthday to you.

    No, I’m not entering this particular minefield. All I’ll say is, you reminded me of a teacher I once had. “My son will do great in life,” she once told me. “He’s perfectly mediocre in everything.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 24, 2018 at 12:32 am

      Happy birthday who??! There are no birthdays on this blog, only disappointments. And cake. Lots and lots and lots of cake.

      I like the sound of your teacher. She sounds like a woman who is rarely wrong about anything.

      Liked by 1 person

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