In an extract of an article by novelist Kerry Hudson, commissioned by Writers’ Centre Norwich for The National Conversation, the Scottish author explores the state of the literary ecology
Imagine four writers. They are talented, they have written brilliant, sales-worthy books. They are respectively BAME, LGBT, working- class, disabled. They go in search of publication. Feedback comes in: “The writing is good but it didn’t speak to me. I don’t know how I’d sell this.” Of course, to love a book it must resonate, represent a society we recognise, have relatable characters. However, the agents and editors who will decide if our writers will be published may not “connect” with these stories.
In Spread the Word’s recent Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writing in the UK report, just 11% of publishers that responded had ties with non-Oxbridge universities or had developed educational programmes for state schools. Additionally, publishers are overwhelmingly London-based, with entry into the profession largely gained through unpaid internships. This is not a system which fosters diversity.
Three of our authors gain representation, but not the BAME writer who—like 53% of BAME writers surveyed in Writing the Future—remains unagented. While our authors sell their books there are commercial concerns: the LGBT writer is asked to “straighten” a few characters; the BAME writer’s editorial notes urge “authenticity”, by which they seem to mean more “urban/African/ethnic” . . . though the writer is sure that the semi-autobiographical novel is “authentically” about them. The disabled and working-class writers are asked to talk about difficult personal experiences during book promotion. One welcomes the opportunity, the other doesn’t wish to be defined by this single trait; publicity column inches will reflect this.
Now our writers are authors, there should be second novels. Unfortunately, our BAME author remains unagented and is unable to place his next novel. Our disabled writer suffered from her lack of press coverage. The working-class writer couldn’t sustain the added unpredictability of a tiny income and took a “real” job. The LGBT writer was nominated for two LGBT awards and, though the advance reduced, was able to write without concern that she might alienate the presumed “mainstream” reader.
Four writers. One stays in print. The others, their future stories, are lost. The consequence? Other emerging writers will look, and fail, to find voices like their own, and young people from non-Oxbridge institutions will have no idea that they might contribute to our literary culture. It is stories lost, voices unheard, a book-buying public that has no idea how much spectrum of choice it is being denied.
Without making changes, we risk turning our proud literary legacy into a factory producing monocultural “safe-ish bets” based on previous successes, where books are viewed as “units” to be shifted. Naturally so, this is a business. The bottom line is important.
So consider an industry that could benefit from the potential disposable income of £300bn for the BAME community and approximately £80bn for both the Pink Pound and those with disabilities. Even as we publish more books than ever in the UK, and our market becomes saturated, the fact that we have a such a spectrum of diversity in this country should make our potential to perform well in the area of foreign rights much stronger, because a variety of books about people of different backgrounds will be more attractive globally.
Books are not just a business, they are a fundamental element of evolved society. Writers are often the first to be persecuted by oppressive regimes specifically because words have immense power to influence. We must not relinquish that power by reducing it merely to profit and loss calculations. Let’s make sure a career in publishing is seen as a viable option for people of all backgrounds. If we portray the true multiplicity of society in books, young people will grow up immersed in a British cultural life which fosters a creative environment with inclusivity, innovation and collaboration at its heart. Let’s harness the enormous potential of our diversity, not only to meet our current financial objectives but to fulfil our responsibilities for generations to come.
I don’t believe anyone in publishing is unconcerned by its lack of diversity. But agreeing isn’t enough. Each of us must ask: “What can I do to change this?”
Join the discussion using #NatConv or at www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk