Diversifying the Publishing Industry Will Improve the Books
I tried not to get too deeply into this, because Lionel Shriver has basically made a beat out of critiquing efforts to make the publishing sector more inclusive. This is feeling like her bread and butter at this point. But I’ve let others carry the weight of answering her before, and I feel pressed to share the burden of weighing in on at least one of her rants.
In the latest incident, Shriver has written a screed about the demographics questionnaire that Penguin/Random House (PRH) has sent out to authors as part of their effort to do better on race and gender. The publishing house has bravely said that they will now aim for their workforce and their writers to mirror the actual people who live in the UK. Shriver is horrified that PRH will no longer require a university degree from most of its job requirements. Current university grads already can’t spell or edit for grammar, she claims, so the next batch will be even less competent. She finds the demographic pull down questionnaire fascinating, comical and depressing.
Shriver pulls up the tired old maxim that “diversity isn’t just about race.” She cites the example of Apple’s former Black diversity tsar Denise Young Smith, who suggested last year that 12 White men would still be diverse in thinking, skills and background. Smith, Shriver writes, wouldn’t narrow the definition of diversity to meet the needs of only those “privileged” groups that count as diverse, and she was hammered for it. Shriver argues that ethnicity should count for diversity, even if all the ethnics are White. “Privileged” groups include the gay, the immigrant, the brown-skinned, the female, the transgender, and the disabled. Because you know, these folks get soooo much attention that it’s really gotten out of hand, and Shriver wants good things for all, don’t you know
“Let’s unpack that pull-down. If your office is chocka with Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Germans, Danes, Finns, Bosnians, Hungarians, Czechs, Russians, Americans, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, Argentines, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Romanians who aren’t travellers and South African Jews — I could go on — together speaking dozens of languages and bringing to their workplace a richly various historical and cultural legacy, the entire workforce could be categorised as ‘White: Other’. Your office is not diverse.”
Actually, your office would be diverse indeed, but it would not be racially diverse. If all these people were men, it would not be sexually diverse. If they were all over 50, it would not be intergenerational and age diverse. This isn’t a hard concept to understand. I can only assume that Shriver doesn’t want to understand it, and so she didn’t.
Shriver goes on to say that PRH has abandoned its mission of publishing and distributing wonderful books for some virtue-signaling nonsense. “Drunk on virtue,” she writes, “Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books. Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision. Thus from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes.”
For Shriver, it is impossible that literary excellence and a fair, representative political economy of publishing could exist at the same time and in the same entity. People resisting diversity efforts love to talk about how awful the future products are going to be, as though every one of the books by white men PRH has published in the past was fantastic because there were no screens other than excellent writing. Shriver doesn’t seem to have heard the words “social capital:” the relationships, cultural know-how and credentials that give people a leg up in a competitive process. Systems based on social capital following a long history of imperialism reward a lot of mediocrity by perpetuating the explicit exclusions of the Empire, but just not saying so. Shriver herself took criticism for the depictions of Black and Latino characters in her book The Mandibles. That critique was driven by politics, she has said, because of course the cause could not possibly that she failed as a writer to do right by all of her characters.
There is one thing on which Lionel Shriver and I agree. She doesn’t want diversity to be the end goal of publishing, and neither do I. I like institutions to embrace equity as their goal. Diversity is about variety, but equity is about power. The idea of a major publishing house hiring editors who come from and can reach into the full range of U.K. communities (or wherever the case may be) makes my heart sing. Luckily, the company stands firm. In a response to Shriver, they told The Guardian, “Our company-wide goal is driven by our strong belief that the books we publish should reflect the diverse society in which we live,” vowing to do more in “actively seeking out talented writers from communities under-represented on the nation’s bookshelves.” Sounds good to me!
In the end, Shriver is counting on PRH not being able to find enough excellent books by people of color, women, queer folk, disabled writers that readers will want to buy, and going bankrupt as their grand experiment fails. If I were her, I would not hold my breath waiting for that outcome. People of color are, after all, some 80% of the world’s population. We buy a lot of books.