Photo by Laurence Dutton
Artillery Row

(Some) Writers Wanted

The drive for diversity can lead to discrimination

Last year, I approached an online literary magazine Five Dials, which was soliciting new work and, most pertinently of all, offering payment. Its publisher Hamish Hamilton replied, “We are specifically seeking writers from backgrounds underrepresented in the anglophone mainstream, for example writers from the global majority, working class writers, queer writers, disabled writers. If you’re a fit within this rubric, we would be very interested to take a look at your essay.”

Cue a great deal forehead-scratching from me. Now, I do have a damaged back, but I wouldn’t strictly say I was disabled. I wouldn’t call myself working class either, but I live in an impoverished district and earn less than the majority of people who label themselves working class. However, downwardly mobile or financially-challenged is unlikely to fit into a publisher’s box-ticking exercise.

After more soul-searching over a working-class bag of Cheese and Onion Taytos, I debated whether to go for queer as my essay featured queerness, even though I felt unsure of my eligibility. If Tilda Swinton is happy to label herself queer, it’s good enough for the rest of us. As soon as I thought of the publishing fee, I realised, like most writers, I’d probably self-identify as a male Maori tohunga to get my hands on it. Therefore, I replied confidently that I was queer and sent in my essay.

I should have deduced from the rubric that Hamish Hamilton was too conservative in ethos to publish me, but the salient point is that writers nowadays are expected to “fit” within narrow confines. Naturally, new varied voices should be encouraged. Perish the thought of regressing to the former male-centric era, but perversely literature is as non-inclusive as ever, now that publishers choose to advance the work of writers from specified groups. In the past, publishers didn’t openly reveal their prejudices. Now they do.

Writers shouldn’t have to agonise over whether they qualify. It’s a bit like fulfilling the criteria for a job application: “Writers wanted! No experience necessary — all you have to do is fit our image.” Traditionally, writers are misfits in society; the idea of being asked to fit in is invidious. 

Nearly all writers looking for agents believe their stories aren’t represented

A similar trend is taking place within literary agencies. The Good Literary Agency (more likely to be derived from a social aim than a surname) is dedicated to “writers under-represented in mainstream publishing including writers of colour, disability, LGBTQ+, working class and anyone else who feels like their story isn’t being told in mainstream publishing At first sight, it’s encouraging that they mention “anyone else”, but they later qualify it in smaller print: “This can include but is not limited to”, followed by a specific range of categories. What agencies should recognise is that nearly all literary fiction writers looking for agents believe their stories aren’t represented in mainstream publishing.

Former literary greats didn’t have to fit in, exaggerate or even lie to gain an agent, but it’s fun to imagine how they might have shoehorned themselves into the Good Literary Agency’s hierarchy of under-representation:

“Adoptees” — Jenny Diski

“Writers who are 60+ in age” — Frank McCourt

“Refugees and asylum” — Milan Kundera

“Care experienced people” — Alan Bennett 

“Those with long term illnesses” — Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“Abuse and trauma survivors” — Colette, whose husband locked her in a room to make her write

“Those who have experienced homelessness” — George Orwell

“Those who have experienced incarceration” — Brendan Behan

To be fair, the Good Literary Agency aren’t entirely prescriptive as they say, “If you are unsure if you qualify, please do get in touch with us … to clarify the reasons you believe you might be eligible.” The idea, however, of writers trying to justify themselves seems totally needless when it’s the manuscript that matters. 

Some might not think the current bias of publishers and agents is important, but it has a monumental effect on the future of individual writers. All writers create, but successful writers are created. As Cyril Connolly said, “Popular success is a palace built for a writer by publishers, journalists, admirers and professional reputation makers.”

The quest for under-represented voices is increasingly neophilistic

We writers aspire to live in a talentocracy where literary talent is rewarded. It shouldn’t matter what we are, but what we write. In my own writing career, I haven’t had the same opportunities as my male peers. Whilst I haven’t been subject to racism, but coming from a small city like Belfast I’ve definitely experienced place-ism from British publishers and media. Now that I’m in my fifties, I may well start receiving the cold shoulder of ageism, especially as publishers and agents in their quest for discovering under-represented voices are increasingly neophilistic.

Any scan of literary agencies shows mention of creating inclusive cultures, but the drive for diversity can lead to discrimination. Again and again, writers are expected to join popular groupings. It should also be pointed out that the rise in publication of anthologies promoting one singular identity, such as Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers (Unbound 2019), contributes to the identity division. The publishers are to blame rather than the writers who are simply seeking work; I’ve appeared in female-only collections myself.

Why can’t publishers redress past imbalances without using a selection process? Can’t they trust themselves to be fair? The literary establishment might believe it’s opening up opportunities, but instead it’s reducing writers into ciphers, mere representations of type, pigeonholing us more and more. We are boxed into writing about our own backgrounds. In one way, it’s authentic to write about what you know, but the problem is that it’s being imposed upon us as a marketing and virtue signalling device on behalf of the publishers. Take for example, Michael Magee’s much-awaited debut Close to Home with Hamish Hamilton. The blurb says, “Drawing on his own experiences, Michael Magee examines the forces which keep young working class men in harm’s way.” Working class writer? Tick. Working class novel? Tick.

All this fails to recognise that writers are irreducibly complex. To return to George Orwell, he was a middle class man who wrote brilliantly about working class life. Sean O’Casey liked to portray himself as working class to help sell his working class plays, but in reality he came from an educated lower middle class family.

It would be best if the term “under-represented voices” was dropped for good, but if it has to remain for the foreseeable future, I’d like to suggest a few new options just to mix it up. What about a call-out for underclass writers, writers of the global minorities, writers who can’t be categorised, writers of a non-conformative nature? Or what about — and here comes the really revolutionary concept — what about talented writers?

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