An open letter to Lionel Shriver

In the wake of Lionel Shriver’s article, entitled ‘When diversity meets uniformity’, published in the Spectator on 9 June, the inaugural cohort of writers from the Penguin Random House WriteNow scheme would like to challenge Shriver on her comments. WriteNow, a programme aimed at finding and championing new talent that the publishing house may not otherwise find, has paved the way for all of our writing careers, and we believe such efforts should be celebrated rather than dismissed as mere ‘box-ticking’ exercises.

In her article, Shriver argues that, because of their desire for their employee and author list to directly reflect the diversity of the UK population, Penguin Random House is "drunk on virtue" and "no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books". In claiming this, 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.

It’s incredibly difficult to get published; Shriver has said so herself. Even more so when either the community you come from, or the material you are writing about, or both, are not deemed to be part of the experience of ‘everybody’, but instead part of some sort of outsider enclave. Getting onto one of Penguin Random House’s schemes is a competitive experience. Over 2,000 applications were made to WriteNow in 2016, and over 1,700 in 2017. Across both years, a total of 23 writers were selected for the mentoring scheme – roughly 0.6% of applicants. In context: statistically you are much more likely to get into Oxford than onto a Penguin Random House mentoring scheme. Therefore it’s hardly the indiscriminate box-ticking process that Shriver so unimaginatively envisages.

We must also not forget that in 2005, Shriver won what was then called the Orange Prize for Fiction for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin – a prize set up to reward ‘excellence, originality and accessibility’ in women’s writing. If the current diversity policy put forward by Penguin Random House had included these words (as well it might), would Shriver have heralded it as more admirable? Her issue seems to be that by implementing a strategy that encourages those from underrepresented backgrounds to submit writing, literary excellence will inevitably be of secondary importance.

In the case of Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme, the initiative is being used with the aim of widening the range of social and cultural backgrounds of their author lists – but the usual procedures to ensure excellence are not knocked aside in favour of box-ticking. Equally, the more traditional routes into publishing – such as via agents – haven’t necessarily prevented the publication of subjectively poor writing; what is popular is not always the ‘best’.

What did strike true, however, was her quoting of New York Times columnist David Brooks – that "diversity is a midpoint, not an endpoint". Of course, the push for diversity is only a midpoint; the endpoint is where diversity is so automatic that we don’t even need to consider it, where the publishing industry reflects the diversity of the population without any particular efforts being made, because we all have access to the same levels of education, financial stability, and ease of opportunity. However, as Shriver is apparently unaware, that point is still a long way off.

Prizes for women’s fiction have not lapsed into rewarding mediocrity because men are excluded from applying for them. Why should trying to reflect the reality of society lead to a decline in standards? Good books – for everybody – means by everybody too.

We eagerly look forward to competing with Shriver on the shelf.

Signed:
The 2016 cohort of WriteNow mentees