Rules for scribes

Last week author Lionel Shriver accused Penguin Random House of being “drunk on virtue” because of its goal to reflect society in whom it employs and whom it publishes. Writing in the Spectator, Shriver infers PRH “no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books”. She believes that in chasing a quota, PRH will disregard talent. It is a cheap argument, and not hard to disprove. Talent is not prejudiced; it is how that cream rises to the top that is problematic. There are different ways of addressing this, but the one Shriver does not believe in is affirmative action. In a podcast for Prospect recorded in March, Shriver was challenged on this; around a third of UK MPs are female, she was told by the host, but for decades it was about 10%, with the increase a direct result of action taken by some political parties to select all-women shortlists. Would it have happened anyway, Shriver is asked? Possibly, she responds, only more slowly.

That publishing has a diversity problem is not in doubt. The issue is not anything other than urgent. Time is not on our side. Even if it were, many—myself included—do not believe we will become more inclusive without intervention. As Neil Morrison, head of HR at PRH for nine years, wrote: “The system in which we operate is unintentionally rigged towards certain groups and certain backgrounds and all we are doing is unpicking that bias.”

Shriver has said she writes to be “mischievous, subversive and perverse”. She cannot complain when people react. Nevertheless, in return for this piece, Shriver was called a self-publicist, a white supremacist and a racist. Her books were described as mediocre, her motives called into question. The article was “dumbass”, wrote one author. Others said her air-time should be reduced. On cue, the magazine for female writers Mslexia removed her as a judge of its short story award. “We welcome open debate,” said founder Debbie Taylor, but Shriver’s comments did not chime with its “ethos”. Shriver’s column was published in the week that the Royal Society of Literature president Marina Warner spoke out about morality clauses in author contracts. Writers, she said, were tasked to “win gold stars for conduct”. Ironically, one example warned authors against behaviour that “results in sustained, widespread condemnation”. I doubt Shriver is interested in scoring points for civility, but should she be concerned? Probably not.

Publishers have not yet forgotten their duties to free speech: if PRH were really “drunk on virtue”, it would not be the publisher of provocateur Jordan Peterson. But we cannot pretend that the atmosphere for writers hasn’t shifted. Social media brings with it a new way of policing authors, and their words, that publishers should resist, not prep lawyers to use. We need to talk.