Publishing giant Penguin Random House has announced that its authors are no longer to be chosen on literary merit but according to a politically correct quota system “taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability”.
This is mad, stupid, and insulting. But not nearly as mad, stupid, and insulting as the decision by the Mslexia Short Story Prize, a literary competition for women authors, to sack one of its judges Lionel Shriver as a punishment for daring to criticise the new policy.
Shriver (who, despite her misleading first name, is a woman) is the American-born, UK-resident novelist best known for her bestseller We Need To Talk About Kevin.
She also has a column in the Spectator which this week she used to mock Penguin Random House’s new diversity policy.
I’d been suffering under the misguided illusion that the purpose of mainstream publishers like Penguin Random House was to sell and promote fine writing. A colleague’s forwarded email has set me straight. Sent to a literary agent, presumably this letter was also fired off to the agents of the entire Penguin Random House stable. The email cites the publisher’s ‘new company-wide goal’: for ‘both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025.’ (Gotta love that shouty boldface.) ‘This means we want our authors and new colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.’ The email proudly proclaims that the company has removed ‘the need for a university degree from nearly all our jobs’ — which, if my manuscript were being copy-edited and proof-read by folks whose university-educated predecessors already exhibited horrifyingly weak grammar and punctuation, I would find alarming.
Then she really gets going:
Drunk on virtue, 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. We can safely infer from that email 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. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some.
Eminently sensible stuff. But the diversity police didn’t like it.
A statement from editor Debbie T: ‘Since our launch in 1999, Mslexia’s raison d’être has been to provide a safe space for all women writers to develop their craft. We actively encourage entries from marginalised writers and frequently draw attention to the issues they (we) face.
— Mslexia (@Mslexia) June 12, 2018
In another blast at Shriver in the Independent (formerly a newspaper), an “LBGT screenwriter and filmmaker” called Amrou Al-Kadhi – who specialises “in avant-garde attempts to queer mainstream institutions” – explains why choosing authors on literary merit is homophobic, disablist, sexist, and racist.
How we are taught to judge “good work” is inextricably rooted in the structures of social and racial privilege. Unconscious biases sit at the heart of invisible prejudices, and when we have been fed on a culture defined by the privileged, it leads to a cultural taste of works from the privileged – and so the vicious cycle perpetuates.
Shriver seems to believe that there is some sort of abstract ideal of good-quality writing, but this is a complete and utter fallacy dripping with privilege. This “ideal” no doubt upholds writing that has benefited from a high-quality education, and with this comes the perils of class and racial privilege.
This is the kind of post-modernist, neo-Marxist gobbledegook they teach you at Cambridge (where Amrou Al-Khadi studied). It is of a piece with the campaign being conducted by woke students at Cambridge (Oxford too, unfortunately) to “decolonise” the curriculum, by replacing dead, white male philosophers, writers, historically significant talents you’ve heard of with second-, third-, and fourth-raters you haven’t heard of but who fit the right diversity profile.
One of the many problems with choosing your talent on criteria other than talent is that the people you end up with aren’t necessarily that talented.
Consider as Exhibit A, this open letter to Shriver, purportedly written by the “inaugural cohort of writers from the Penguin Random House WriteNow scheme”.
Shriver seems to view diversity and quality as mutually exclusive categories. We are compelled to ask: does she truly believe that diverse writers are incapable of penning good books? That women of colour are incapable of working editorially? That marketing is a job limited to individuals who identify as cis, white and straight? Does she believe that someone with a disability, or from a working-class background, does not have what it takes to grasp the concepts of plot, dialogue and use of language? If she truly does believe these things, we ought to be having a very different conversation.
That word “seems” is carrying an awful lot of freight.
The letter accuses Shriver of something she never actually said. Besides being sloppy, unobservant, ungenerous, and intellectually dishonest, the letter is also smug, virtue-signalling, self-righteous, pompous, worthy, hectoring, patronising, tendentious, dull, and an absolute torture to read.
If the dreary letter is in any way representative of the stuff we can expect in future from Penguin Random House’s new list of diversity-compliant authors, it doesn’t augur terribly well for their bottom line. The company is co-owned by Bertelsmann (75 percent) and Pearson (25 percent). Glad I don’t own any shares in either…