Shriver: 'Diversity is a laudable goal; I've never said anything different'

Shriver: 'Diversity is a laudable goal; I've never said anything different'

Lionel Shriver has hit back against accusations of racism following the fallout from her controversial column that branded PRH “drunk on virtue” for its diversity drive, arguing that it is "not fair" to call her racist.

In an opinion piece for the Spectator, Shriver expressed concern that the "statistical precision" with which PRH had pursued its aim for staff and authors "to reflect UK society by 2025" could be to the detriment of literary excellence.

“Drunk on virtue,” she wrote, “Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books… We can safely infer [from PRH’s new policy] 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.” 

The column – which many read as arguing that diversity and talent were mutually exclusive – was met with outcry across the industry, with members of PRH's WriteNow diversity intake, and PRH UK c.e.o. Tom Weldon himself, writing open letters to the author.

Shriver was also dropped as a judge for a competition run by women's writing magazine Mslexia, following her controversial statements which Myslexia founder Debbie Taylor said were "not consistent with Mslexia’s ethos and mission" and risked alienating the women it is trying to support.

Now, following what she calls a “tempest in a teacup” propagated by an “online mob”, Shriver has said: “Diversity is a laudable goal, and I’ve never said anything else”.

In a new interview with Taylor for The Spectator, Shriver said that while she stood by her statements, portions of them have been "taken out of context" and that the column was "clearly making fun of the box ticking exercise of meeting all these criteria for diversity goals. It is not making fun of the actual groups that I identify".

Arguing that her style is purposefully "wacky or hyperbolic", Shriver told the Telegraph: “It’s a column, not written to be read in snippets. You have to read the whole thing. I have no doubt that half the people on Twitter who are up in arms haven’t read it". She added that her idea of funny is the "humourless’s idea of offensive, because they refuse to get the joke".

She criticised the reaction to her piece, saying that “the online mob is prone to rabid overreaction and tends towards groupthink, but my concern is when it decides to reinterpret what you’ve actually said as something completely different. It’s entirely possible I’ll have to correct this [latest] mistake for years, denying over and over that I ever claimed diversity leads to lower literary standards. It really boils down to the accusation that I’m racist, and I don’t think that’s fair.” 

She added: “Diversity is a laudable goal, and I’ve never said anything else, but it shouldn’t be the primary goal if your company is meant to be doing something else. What’s being imputed to me is that I believe diversity leads to a lower quality of writing, and you don’t have to take that very far to figure out that’s essentially a white supremacist position, that white people are better at writing and minority people are crap. I did not go on some ugly screed about how rubbish black and Asian and gay writers are. Why would I do that?"

Shriver also said that she thought WriteNow is "wonderful" and is the “kind of effort at diversifying publishing [she] wholly support[s]". 

"It’s not a quota, it’s a programme which aggressively tries to find people who haven’t had much opportunity in the past and puts them together with other writers. I don’t oppose that, I applaud it," she said.

Discussing being removed as a judge from the Myslexia competition, Shriver said she had agreed to participate as a favour, and now that she's being "let off the hook", it's "not exactly crushing".

However, she added that it did bother her that people were saying she was discouraging women and other minorities from entering publishing. "Nothing could be further from the truth", she said.