Now, a quota for minority writers

The patronising subtext is: “Sorry, you’re not good enough for mainstream but don’t lose heart we’ll create a separate one for people like you”

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media
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Hasan Suroor

In an era of virtue-signalling and box-ticking with constant pressure to please everyone, it was perhaps an inevitability waiting to happen. Yet, the idea of a quota for writers from minority groups, effectively prioritising their gender, ethnic and racial background over literary merit, is hard to digest. In case, you missed the news, Penguin Random House, the world’s biggest English language publishing house, has announced a time-bound “company-wide” policy of affirmative action (read positive discrimination) to increase diversity of its stable of writers.

The announcement has sent ripples through literary circles in Britain where it kicks off this month before being extended to its foreign subsidiaries, presumably including Penguin India which is the largest English language trade publisher in the subcontinent.

The new policy will commit it to making sure that the composition of its new authors and staff reflects the cultural make-up of a country’s population. “Our company-wide goal is driven by our strong belief that the books we publish should reflect the diverse society in which we live,” it said in a statement. Literary agents have been sent a memo advising them to give weightage to factors like “ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability” while signing up prospective writers.

Those wishing to submit a proposal to Penguin directly will now be required to fill an extraordinary online questionnaire seeking elaborate information about their ethnic background and sexual orientation, etc. For example, are they “Asian or Asian British”? And if so, “Indian“, Bangladeshi”, “Chinese”, or “Pakistani”?

Among other things, they’re asked: “How would you define your sexual orientation— “Bi” (whatever that might mean), or “Bisexual?” Or “Do you identify as trans?” The questionnaire has become a subject of ridicule with some writers calling it “insulting” and “intrusive”. These are the sort of questions that spy agencies are known to ask potential recruits, not publishers. The question about sexual preference has particularly infuriated critics. Novelist Lionel Shriver, best-known for her book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, has accused the company of being “drunk on virtue ...ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes”.

“Thus from now...literary excellence will be secondary...We can safely infer 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,” she wrote pointing out that in America the policy of affirmative action has had “unfortunate consequences”, and the country has moved away from “numerical diversity targets”.

Agents have been sent a memo advising them to give weightage to factors like “ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability” while signing up prospective writers.Those wishing to submit a proposal to Penguin directly will now be required to fill an extraordinary online questionnaire seeking elaborate information about their ethnic background and sexual orientation, etc.

Penguin’s move follows the launch recently by the Little Brown Book Group of a stand-alone “inclusive” imprint called Dialogue Books, to “source, nurture and publish writing talent from areas currently under-represented or not covered by the mainstream publishing industry”. In other words, creating a ghetto for “under-represented” writers much like women-only literary prizes.

The patronising subtext is: “Sorry, you’re not good enough for mainstream but don’t lose heart we’ll create a separate one for people like you”. Expect Penguin India to do something like this for, say, Dalit or trans writers. Promoting diversity is undoubtedly a noble goal in an industry where, as British-Indian author Chitra Ramaswamy points out, “A writer has more chance of making it on to the bestseller lists if their name is David than if they are from an ethnic minority.” Statistics show that of the thousands of titles published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by authors from a non-white background. And of the top 100 bestselling titles, just one was by a writer from an ethnic minority background. So, there’s, of course, a case for a wider range of voices. But the answer doesn’t lie in social engineering.

A target-driven approach may be ok for boosting diversity mong the workforce. But in a creative field, it is “more complex than a mere reflection of readers and authors divided up by category,” as Peter Gordon, editor of the Asian Review of Books in Hong Kong, has argued. Diversity for its own sake, pursued simply to promote an ethical corporate image, risks ending up in tokenism, as has happened in other areas: one token woman on an all-male board, one token Muslim in the cabinet, one token black in an all-white team.

Many resent being treated as a showpiece of inclusion. I would feel uncomfortable if I were to be signed on by a publisher only because I tick the right diversity boxes (a British-Indian, a Muslim, and a disabled to boot) and not because of my writing. To be sure, what Penguin is doing is trying to play catch-up with the wider trend in the West —a culture in which everyone must have prizes in the name of egalitarianism and equality. So, all children are given “Pass”; top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge face pressure to relax admission rules for ethnic minority and underprivileged candidates; Hollywood is censured for not hiring more women directors and coloured actors; everyone must have an Oscar; everyone must have a place on the Cannes awards jury.... In the bad old days, it was money and class that opened doors for you (they still do); today they have competition in ethnic identity and gender.

Ethnicity and gender are the new currency. With the proverbial cake divided between money and class on the one hand and ethnicity and gender on the other, “normal” people are being squeezed out and may soon need a quota of their own. Penguin’s CEO Tom Weldon says its diversity goal is “an ambition, not quota”, and “talent and diversity are not mutually exclusive”. Indeed. Yet this is exactly what his company’s policy risks doing by prioritising diversity targets over talent. The problem has arisen because of an institutional bias. Get rid of the bias, and you will have both talent and diversity in abundance obviating the need for any social engineering.

(Hasan Suroor is a London-bassed critic and writer)

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