From time to time white, middle-class organisations (like Quakers) ask themselves why they are white and middle-class. They bemoan the lack of BME and working-class members (though they are perhaps not so keen on attracting the aristocracy). It seems to be the sole preserve of the middle-classes to deprecate themselves: I never went to a majority working-class event where people were wringing their hands and saying ‘we’re so working-class!’
But in the world of publishing it’s worse, because a row has blown up over Penguin Random House’s diversity statement which commits the organisation to ‘reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.’ It all sounds highly laudable, particularly in an industry that is presumably dominated by white middle-class males. But is it? Should publishers try to ‘reflect’ society or should they just publish the best, regardless of where it comes from?
There’s an issue here, which is that of unconscious bias. An editor may think they are unbiassed but research has shown that women get published more easily if they use either a male pseudonym or initials. You are probably more likely to be published if you have a Western name rather than an African or Asian name: Hanif Kureishi (who as I never cease to remind you started me off with this blog) was told that ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ would have had no problem being produced if the characters had been white. Surely it’s a laudable thing to try to address all these unconscious prejudices?
Well, yes. But the danger is that you get involved in quotas and box-ticking, which as a short-term measure can perhaps have some value but only as a stepping-stone to genuine open-mindedness and lack of bias. And this is a hard goal to achieve. Much easier to get some quotas and issue a press release telling everyone how diverse you are.
Enter Lionel Shriver who, in an article for the Spectator lambasts this policy of Penguin/Random in several hundred sneering words. Shriver may have a point – that excellence is found with an open mind, not with tick-boxes – but the tone of the piece is snide and sarcastic and the argument lost in rhetoric:
‘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.’
Surely she can do better than this? I would put it another way; that talent should be recognised and acknowledged no matter where it comes from; that we all have unconscious biases in terms of which groups we are likely to regard as talented, and that we all need to open our minds and keep them open. I know it’s the Spectator but she could have done the job so much better.
Here’s the article anyway:
and here’s the Penguin statement: