Twenty years ago, Malcolm Gladwell popularised the term “the tipping point” when he identified the magic moment when ideas, trends and social behaviours cross a threshold, tip, and spread like wildfire—although he perhaps underplayed his discovery by quoting Hush Puppies as his introductory exemplar.
It wasn’t until last year, however, that the horrendous killing of George Floyd, coupled with time for reflection created by the pandemic, meant that society on a global scale tipped to the point of understanding that structural racism permeates everything, and change must come about. Not least in the publishing industry, where for too long the dominant voice has been white, male and highly educated.
As we enter 2021, things definitely feel more hopeful: Douglas Stuart winning last year’s Booker Prize (topping a notably diverse shortlist); ITV’s “Loose Women” featuring an all-Black line-up of presenters; Bernardine Evaristo chairing the Royal Society of Literature’s Open programme (celebrating the excellence of underrepresented writers in the UK); and 2020’s #MerkyBooks New Writers’ Prize attracting more than 2,000 entries. Although, as Twitter champions of equal representation, such as authors Kit de Waal and Sara Collins would be quick to point out, there is still a long way to go.
Once you’ve read Collins’ threads on the “magical negro”, you begin to see the trope repeated everywhere, while de Waal has talked of how she’ would “do anything to help knock down that wall between the haves and have nots”—and used part of her advance for My Name is Leon to create a fully-funded creative writing scholarship for a writer from a disadvantaged background. Meanwhile, as with Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, there is still the issue that white writers can find mainstream success when writing about marginal subjects far more easily than those marginal subjects can.
Above: Douglas Stuart’s Booker win last year came from a notably diverse shortlist
It’s a problem that has been traditionally compounded by the fact that unless voices or narrative structures fit ideas that for decades have remained narrow in definition, they are often neither understood nor seen to be of “quality”. For instance, when James Kelman, the only Scot to win the Booker prior to Stuart, won the prize in 1994 with How Late it Was, How Late, Rabbi Julia Neuberger called the decision a “disgrace”, arguing that the work was “deeply inaccessible for a lot of people”. In his Booker acceptance speech, Marlon James recalled the 78 rejections for his first novel, which was finally published in 2005; and having taken 10 years to write, Shuggie Bain garnered 42 rejections on both sides of the Atlantic before finding its publishers.
As Professor Sunny Singh, founder of the Jhalak Prize, has commented, indie publishers have always done the heavy lifting when it comes to “new, brave and unusual voices”. But after last year, when concepts of Black Lives Matter (BLM), structural racism and transphobia dominated the cultural agenda, one might imagine a plethora of schemes aimed at promoting underrepresented voices in publishing would now be in place. So it is perhaps surprising that there appear to be still relatively few.
A promising start
Something to come directly out of BLM was the Black Writers’ Guild, created by writers to represent the interests of Black authors in the UK. Other schemes range from the fiction development programme run by publishers such as Hachette, and Penguin’s Write Now regional workshops; to grants offered by Literature Wales and the Print Futures Awards; to a UEA Creative Writing Scholarship; and Elevate, a new mentoring programme for underrepresented writers, created by Cornerstones Literary Consultancy and backed by a grant from Arts Council England. Also launched in 2020 was the HarperCollins Author Academy for Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers, led by affiliate publisher Rose Sandy.
Curtis Brown recently introduced its own Breakthrough Writers Programme, and it is significant that it now declares itself “facilitators not gatekeepers” as part of its commitment to diversity and inclusion. Last June, Curtis Brown m.d. Jonny Geller circulated a message to his staff following a tweet he had written, suggesting there had been a sudden shift in the mainstream towards wanting to hear new voices. The message said that, on reflection, he realised the tweet “was simply wrong”, before acknowledging both his responsibility and his ability to make improvements and bring about deeper change. He has moved to make those changes quickly, following up his promise with investment in grass-roots mentoring, funding writing courses and, with Curtis Brown authors such as Clare Mackintosh and Adam Kay, funding scholarships for Black writers.
However, Geller still believes there is much to be done. “Agenting is the point at which culture meets commerce and we have an important part to play to push the door open with our submissions. I believe our new scheme is the biggest initiative of its kind, involving tens of thousands of pounds of investment over the next three years but, most importantly, involving everyone in the agency. For only through changing our working lives, to include this initiative as a priority, do I believe that change will come. And there is still much more to do in breaking down the barriers both inside and outside publishing, agenting, bookselling and the review pages.”
Ten years ago, Monisha Rajesh pictured right, bestselling author of Around the World in 80 Trains, certainly felt a sense of being excluded. “I am always hesitant to admit this, but I never used to read travel writing. I just couldn’t relate to anything the majority of (white, middle-class) writers wrote about. I was nervous when I came to write my first book, because I’d read Paul Theroux’s train travels and thought, ‘Yikes, I don’t think like this, so maybe I’m not actually a travel writer’. I had real imposter syndrome. I gradually developed the confidence to write, thinking maybe there was room for a different viewpoint and a different book.
“What’s crazy is that when my agent, David Godwin, was trying to sell it in the UK market, he was told there was already too much like it. And yet there had never been a travel book written by a late-twenties brown woman who had just hopped on a train, with all the obstacles this engenders. Travel is something that affects people differently. I got racially abused travelling in Russia, and I think it’s helpful that I can read about that experience, written by a Black or brown writer.”
Helen Hoang pictured right, the American author of The Kiss Quotient, believes that being diagnosed with autism aged 34 was pivotal in the development of her endearing protagonist, Stella. “There’s a clear benefit to #ownvoices. When someone writes something they have lived, it’s obvious in the writing. This doesn’t mean that an outsider can’t add something valuable. They can; but just as often don’t.”
Unusually for a romance, the book contains detailed sex scenes, which she felt was important. “I have heard agents say that it’s disrespectful and offensive to write about autistic people having sex. Hopefully this is becoming an antiquated position.” However, having become a prominent voice for people with autism, she also feels a weight of responsibility. “I’ve come to believe that it might be harder to write inside one’s lane, because of higher expectations and increased scrutiny. The last thing I want to do is harm the people I’m representing. I lose sleep over it, and the few times readers have voiced disappointment over decisions I’ve made, it’s crushed me.”
The shoes of another
Nelle Andrew, literary agent to authors such as Sara Collins and Elizabeth Day at the Rachel Mills Literary Agency, professes to be conflicted when it comes to writing about other cultures and backgrounds. “You cannot be a tourist, you have to be a native. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can only talk about a background if you were born to it; it’s about making sure that you’re fluent in your understanding. So it means not just co-opting a persona or characterisation, but fully immersing yourself in that world, in the same way an anthropologist would. And if you don’t have the time and energy, then don’t do it. I guess the question I would ask an author is: ‘Why do you feel that story has to be told in this particular way? Are you the best person to tell it?’ If you can’t answer those questions satisfactorily, then you need to step away.”
Hoang agrees. “I will always question whether it’s an issue, condition or group of people close to the writer’s heart, or are they simply jumping on a trend?” In her latest novel, The Heart Principle, the heroine is Chinese American; a fact that caused Hoang great anxiety. “I’ve wondered if I have the right to write her, even though my grandfather was Shanghainese. In an attempt to connect to this part of myself, I took intensive Mandarin in college, going so far as to enter a total immersion programme and study at Tsinghua University in Beijing.”
However, Andrews also cautions against too much fear of writing about “the other”. “People from across the racial and cultural spectrum don’t wish to be erased from literature simply because writers are afraid to include them. That’s not it. Just make sure that what you do is authentic.”
For historical novelist Tracy Chevalier, authenticity is created by being confident in every detail of the psychology and time-period she is writing about. Of course, she has the advantage that no one alive now has lived through them, “so the field is open to me. But I’m aware that I’m looking at research that’s been viewed through certain lenses. And I’m conscious of trying not to use my 21st-century Tracy lens too. For instance, it’s important to remember that women living centuries previously would have thought very differently.”
On the move
As a travel writer, Rajesh has the same sensitivities. “I don’t read a lot about countries before I visit, for I want to avoid colouring my vision by seeing things through somebody else’s lens. For instance, with Japan I already had that stereotypical view of how otherworldly and alien it is-—Geishas and tea ceremonies—but after three weeks I came away thinking very differently. Also, I’m always mindful that I’ve read so much I find hugely offensive. I don’t want to be one of those writers who goes to a country, stereotypes everybody, writes something they think is really clever but actually just falls into all the traps. I find that with so many books or articles about India, I’ll soon be thinking, ‘Not this again’. My friend and I call it travel bingo-writing. Within the first paragraph, you’ll invariably get at least four of the following: cows, saris, the heat, the assault on the senses, the piles of spices, traffic jams and honking.
“When I appeared on a travel panel for the British Guild of Writers last year, we discussed how often writers will set off with this idea of what they want to find, then try to get everything to fit into that picture, rather than just waiting to see what appears. There’s this constant yearning for the ‘authentic’—the exoticising of a place you’ve completely imagined before you arrive. Another panellist, Tim Hannigan, has a PhD in travel writing and he talked about how we’re all unconsciously biased; how the stereotypes we read about become so much a part of our psyche that we start telling people it’s what we have also seen. Good writing is about unlearning all of that; stepping into a country with completely fresh eyes. It is really hard to do, but so worthwhile.”
Hoang also sees this in fiction writing. “Unconscious reader bias is real. Publishing has suffered from a gatekeeper problem with regards to people of colour. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen readers/reviewers saying they didn’t ‘connect’ to a book written by an author of colour featuring people of colour as main characters, when a book with similar story elements, written by a white author about a white character, is much beloved to them.”
Chevalier suggests that alongside publishers, agents need to take more responsibility for widening the gates. “I think they are all trying to be more open-minded, but it’s always with the caveat that these are commercial decisions. I expect publishers are worried that Black writers won’t be read by as many readers as a white writer might be. They’ll probably not say that, but they’ll worry that the sales won’t be as high. Maybe that’s changing. I’m hoping. But I also think that change has to start, first and foremost, with readers. With us deciding, ‘Yes, half of the books I buy and read this year are going to be by people of colour’. Judges of book prizes can also think about their perspective, to make sure they are not automatically rewarding books that they might respond to more instinctively.”
Sensitivity to language on all levels is important, says Rajesh. “Personally, I don’t like the term ‘woman of colour’ and I absolutely loathe the acronym BAME. I can’t stand the fact that Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are all lumped into this one big pen, and then there’s white people. The ‘rest of us’ are so different, with such different stories and histories and backgrounds. Also we cannot possibly put Black people into a box with British Indians, because for the most part the latter are upper-middle-class, wealthy; generally accountants, lawyers, doctors, and one of the highest-earning diaspora.”
Interacting with major publishing houses, Andrew has experienced racial bias first-hand. “I’ve actually sat in a meeting where somebody has said to me, ‘Is it because Black people don’t read very much?’ They were talking about diversity and I was so incensed. Of course we fucking read, we’re not illiterate savages.” She is, however, hopeful about things going forward. “I grew up without it ever occurring to me that it was odd to have a Black writers’ section in W H Smith, just like I never questioned that I couldn’t find my foundation in Boots. I just assumed that if you’re not seen, you’re not catered for, and you just took whatever crumbs you could find.”
She agrees that all decisions are commercial ones. “Publishing is a business, and that’s a problem. It’s difficult to apply permanent cultural changes when you’re dealing with finances and cold business decisions that will always cater to the bottom line. As long as the cultural questions and financial answers align, then yes, we can be optimistic. The second they don’t, I have absolutely no doubt the financials will win.
“But BLM means that people feel emboldened now to commit their stories to paper. So that’s a positive uptick. If it’s a good story, a good writer, if it emotionally connects with me, makes me look at the world differently or question things, these are the criteria by which we should be judging. Not, ‘Well, this has got a funny sounding surname, so I don’t think it will sell because people won’t be able to search for it on Amazon.’
“One of the biggest deals I did last year was for a British Nigerian author, who I signed because it was just a fantastic story and she was writing about the Black British experience. I signed her the previous July, before BLM, so it’s not like those voices haven’t always been there. I just hope that now they feel more encouraged to seek out representation, rather than perhaps persuading themselves that there isn’t an audience or an appetite—which is what publishing used to say.”
In the light of BLM, Chevalier has been reflecting on her characters. “I’ve realised that there aren’t any people of colour in my historical novels, other than The Last Runaway, which was about enslaved people but told from a white perspective. I’m currently writing about 15th-century Venice, and famously in a Carpaccio painting there’s a Black gondolier, who I’m now incorporating into my story. But it’s tricky. I don’t want him to be the benign sidekick, but nor do I feel that Black characters should always have to represent trauma... although my gondolier would have been enslaved. I definitely want to respect him, and the more time I spend with him the more he’ll take on a three-dimensional life. Which might mean he does bad things too. Because every character needs to be well-rounded.”
Andrew agrees that negatives mustn’t be ignored. “When I was a kid, people would always say, ‘Oh, I don’t see colour, I see people’. Because that’s how racism was dealt with then. But actually I want people to see my colour and the pain that comes with it. Trying to erase racially difficult narratives could just be seen as trying to make white people feel more comfortable about the fact that we don’t live in a racial utopia. But what I don’t want is to be labelled as only experiencing negativity; it’s not my single calling card. Black people can write about their pain, but they can also write thrillers, or gardening books, or a novel where their Black protagonist is just experiencing pain from life generally—a souring marriage or fertility issues. And they should write their successes too.”
Chevalier says she wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a Black protagonist. “I’m not sure I’d do a good enough job, not entirely get away from writing from my white-privileged point of view. When I was writing New Boy (a reinterpretation of “Othello”), reading Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give crystallised my thoughts. I saw that I could never have written it like she did: the authenticity of voice, the way she looked at everything. I’m a professional and could do the research, and make a pretty good job of it, but I could never do what she did; and nor would I want to.”
Beyond lazy tropes
When it comes to the creative details, Andrew is sanguine; including her response to a recent Facebook writing group question asking how to describe skin colour in ways that aren’t offensive. Generating 103 comments within hours, not using food comparisons was popular advice. Andrew disagrees. “I think everyone has to do what they feel comfortable with. I don’t think there should be rules. That’s really restrictive. I’ll often describe my skin tone as caramel, and where does it stop? Really? When you start policing similes and metaphors to that extent? As long as it’s not pejorative, then that’s my criteria. Otherwise you stifle creativity.
“But do avoid tropes, for both major and minor characters. Like saying, ‘My character’s French, so I’m going to have them holding a baguette and wearing a beret’. If that’s the only way you signify it, that’s crude and lazy. Something like putting a Black woman in a headscarf at night? Yes, we wear them, but why do we? It’s like when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did that massive passage about hair in Americanah. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it’s like to be Black. Sitting in a hairdresser’s for hours on end, getting your locks and twists done, having the edges burnt to shit because you’re putting relaxer on’. That’s the reality of dealing with textured hair in Western society; all the things you need to do to tame your otherness; or not tame it, depending on what you subscribe to. It’s a really emboldening and empowering passage, I’d never seen it done in mainstream literature before. But if it had been treated in a slightly crass, off-hand, tropey way, it would have been diminishing. It’s all about the manner in which something is done, and its execution—not the actual thing that’s being written about.”
On the issue of whether sensitivity readers should be used, there is less cohesion. Hoang always uses them, as does Rajesh. “Everyone should,” Rajesh says, “not just for fact-checking but to make sure you have not written anything offensive. There’s no harm by doing so, but you could potentially cause harm by not doing so.” Chevalier doesn’t use them. “I really hate the idea. I just feel like a writer ought to be able to tell and it kind of makes me cringe to hear that this is now seen as necessary.” Andrew sits somewhere in the middle. “As a must, I don’t know, but I’d be worried if an author refused to have one. Because if you believe that you’ve done a good enough job then you shouldn’t be afraid to seek out those opinions. Then take it on the chin if you get criticism, and address it accordingly.” Yet most agree that writers need to help writers when it comes to widening diversity and increasing inclusion. Hoang says her third book will be her last “autism” one. “I’d like to see other voices, particularly autistic ones, enter the space.”
Being an ally
In light of BLM, Rajesh is concerned how many “brown people are now moving into slots that I very much feel are for Black people. If you want to be a real ally, you should be pushing forward Black writers right now.” However, she acknowledges things are not easy for brown writers either. “Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy generated a lot of division concerning why Andrew Davies was commissioned to adapt it, instead of an Indian screenwriter, and I fully understand why a lot of British Indian creatives were frustrated. In general, we’re not given the chance to script-write BBC dramas about ourselves, and now there’s a book written by an Indian and we’re still not given the chance to do it. When are Black and brown people going to be allowed to tell their own stories?”
Chevalier is optimistic that this is changing in publishing. “There’s now a recognition that publishers can lead the market, create the demand. If there are more books by Black and ethnic minority writers on the table in Waterstones, then there’s a better chance that shoppers will pick one up.”
She feels that writers, too, have a role to play. “I’m delighted that the publishing gates are finally opening up, meaning that voices of every kind can rightfully take up their own slot. This is crucial, because each year I believe there are still only limited slots for specific stories. So writers who are in the majority, white writers, need to question, ‘Am I the best person to tell this story? Maybe there is someone who deserves that slot more; they will do something more genuine with it.’”
Gladwell writes in his conclusion that tipping points require that we reframe the way we think about the world and test our institutions, suggesting “if there is difficulty and volatility in the world of the Tipping Point, there is a large measure of hopefulness as well… [for] with the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.”
Hopefully publishing, in all its guises, finally understands why this must happen when it comes to true cultural diversity and inclusion. And if not, it should be prepared to do the necessary reading.