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Publishing needs to be more diverse, but how?

Real pluralism is about ideas, not just identity

For an industry that can seem obsessed with diversity, publishing is not particularly diverse. Concentrated at the lower ranks are white, middle-class women from liberal backgrounds, most of whom can afford to take a relatively low-paid entry-level job in a location where the cost of living is high. Further up the pay scale, things become more male-dominated, not that this helps matters much.

The industry is competitive, not because it makes many people rich (professional authors earn a median of £7,000 a year), but because it attracts people who are passionate about books. Working with books is a luxury. Literature, as so many of us know, has the capacity to change lives.

Young editors and agents tend to be hyper-aware of social justice hierarchies

The sheer niceness of publishing — its good will, its belief in transforming how we see the world — can sit uncomfortably alongside the privileged backgrounds of some of its main representatives. Young editors and agents tend to be hyper-aware of social justice hierarchies and of their place within them. As such, the more privileged amongst them may suffer from the occasional anxiety that if all things were equal — if having connections, a degree from the right university, the ability to do an internship and being able to live in London didn’t matter quite so much — their job may be someone else’s. They may be hard-working and passionate about what they are doing, but isn’t the next book-lover?

One method, at least if you are an agent, is to work hard at achieving diversity in who you represent. A recent Telegraph report into so-called “woke literary agents” claims that “white, able bodied stories” are being sidelined by agencies who wish to focus on traditionally under-represented groups. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. There are groups that are traditionally under-represented. If there are agents who are committed to enabling their stories to be heard, this can enrich our society. What concerns me are the motivations of some of the agents involved.

Julie Gourinchas from Bell Lomax Moreton, for instance, has interests “including but not restricted to writers of colour; queer, trans, and nonbinary writers; working class writers; disabled writers; etc”. It’s the “etc” that gets to me — the lack of specificity reminds me a little of Princess Diana describing herself becoming involved “with people who were rejected by society … battered this, battered that”. “The marginalised” become a random mass who serve the purpose of illustrating what a good person you are. In practice, Gourinchas seems to represent white males with diverse pronouns.

Ash Literary Agency is “actively seeking voices that have been underrepresented”, which sounds fantastic in theory. On its submissions page, however, things start to look a bit more worrying.

“For example,” it reads, “we are not interested in stories about white able bodied WW2 evacuees but would welcome that story from a disabled, LGBTQ+ or BIPOC perspective. If your book is about an identity that is not yours, we will not be a good fit. This includes books based on the experiences of family members and friends.”

There’s something incredibly crass about implying that most former WW2 evacuees are a little too privileged, with stories that are “often said to be ‘over done’”. I wonder, too, about the demand that stories are not “based on the experiences of family members and friends”. If Ash is serious about wanting greater disability representation, I am guessing this will have to be restricted to disabilities that do not render a person incapable of writing their own story.

There are writers from diverse backgrounds who have questioned the diktat that one should not write “about an identity that is not yours”. Where is socioeconomic class in all this? What seems to be sought is not so much a multiplicity of voices, but people from under-represented groups who share the political views of Ash — who will agree not to step out of line by writing about members of other under-represented groups. This seems incredibly limiting to me.

Some who claim to want diversity in publishing do not want a plurality of voices

Publishing is dominated not just by people of a particular class background, but of a particular political persuasion. There is a danger that calls for more diverse authors can really be calls for “more diverse authors who think like me” (on the basis that many liberal people find it hard to imagine someone who is poor or disabled or LGBTQ wouldn’t think like them). This leads to shock and disappointment when certain writers are deemed to have gone off-script, even in works of fiction. This year, for instance, saw Cecilia Rabess’ excellent Everything’s Fine receive a flood of negative reviews before it was even published, on the basis that a black woman writing a love story about a black woman and a white Republican must be driven by internalised racism. The novel explores the limits of love and moral compromise, but that was not enough to spare Rabess from the assumption that she, the author, must believe all decisions her character Jess makes (about which Jess herself is deeply conflicted) are totally justified.

The response to Rabess’ book indicates that some of those who claim to want diversity in publishing do not want a plurality of voices. Being a member of an under-represented or oppressed group does not make one “woke” by default. In non-fiction publishing, Julie Bindel’s Feminism For Women was not treated as a wonderful example of a lesbian voice reaching the mainstream, whilst Tomiwa Owolade’s This Is Not America was not seen as the “right” kind of book on race. Regardless of their authors’ backgrounds, they were just not the kind of books one might use to advertise oneself as being on the right side of history.

As someone who has recently had the privilege of publishing a book, I’m aware I could drive myself insane justifying to myself why I, a white, middle-class woman in what the Guardian describes as a “hideously middle-class and white industry”, am taking up shelf space. Whenever I have tried, I ultimately end up torn between telling myself I shouldn’t be there — and telling myself that actually, it’s fine because it could be a work of genius that transcends my own privilege. Neither of these are healthy responses. A third option, granting myself a more interesting pronoun on the basis that I’ve got short hair, has very briefly crossed my mind, but I’ve already shot myself in the foot with what my book says about that sort of thing.

The truth is, it is uncomfortable to occupy a space that someone else, who may have struggled far more than you, could occupy just as well. What is needed, though, are not knee-jerk responses that merely make the guilty feel a little better.

Diversity does matter in publishing, but it has to be more than an opportunity for those who already have a seat at the table to launder their privilege. We do need more stories, but we also need honesty.

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