We’re closing 2018 by republishing our ten most-read articles of the year. Here’s No. 5: Lionel Shriver on the publishing world’s quest for diversity:
I’d been suffering under the misguided illusion that the purpose of mainstream publishers like Penguin Random House was to sell and promote fine writing. A colleague’s forwarded email has set me straight. Sent to a literary agent, presumably this letter was also fired off to the agents of the entire Penguin Random House stable. The email cites the publisher’s ‘new company-wide goal’: for ‘both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025.’ (Gotta love that shouty boldface.) ‘This means we want our authors and new colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.’ The email proudly proclaims that the company has removed ‘the need for a university degree from nearly all our jobs’ — which, if my manuscript were being copy-edited and proof-read by folks whose university-educated predecessors already exhibited horrifyingly weak grammar and punctuation, I would find alarming.
The accompanying questionnaire for PRH authors is by turns fascinating, comical and depressing. Gender and ethnicity questions provide the coy ‘prefer not to say’ option, ensuring that being female or Japanese can remain your deep dark secret. As the old chocolate-or-vanilla sexes have multiplied into Baskin Robbins, responders to ‘How would you define your gender?’ may tick, ‘Prefer to use my own term’. In the pull-down menu under ‘How would you define your sexual orientation?’, ‘Bi’ and ‘Bisexual’ are listed as two completely different answers (what do these publishing worthies imagine ‘bi’ means?). Not subsumed by that mere ‘gender’ enquiry, out of only ten questions, ‘Do you identify as trans?’ merits a whole separate query — for 0.1 per cent of the population. (Thus with a staff of about 2,000, PRH will need to hire exactly two). You can self-classify as disabled, and three sequential questions obviously hope to elicit that you’ve been as badly educated as humanly possible.
And check out the ethnicity pull-down. ‘Asian or Asian British’ may specify ‘Indian,’ ‘Bangladeshi, ‘Chinese’, or ‘Pakistan’; the correct adjectival form of the latter nationality seems to be mysteriously unprintable. ‘Black or Black British’ may identify as ‘Caribbean’ or ‘African’. ‘Mixed’ allows for the options ‘White and Black African’, ‘White and Black Caribbean’, and ‘White and Asian’, but any other combo is merely ‘Mixed: Other’. As for us crackers, there’s ‘White: British’, ‘White: Irish’, and ‘White: Gypsy or Irish Traveller’, but the rest can only tick ‘White: Other’.
Let’s unpack that pull-down. If your office is chocka with Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Germans, Danes, Finns, Bosnians, Hungarians, Czechs, Russians, Americans, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, Argentines, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Romanians who aren’t travellers and South African Jews — I could go on — together speaking dozens of languages and bringing to their workplace a richly various historical and cultural legacy, the entire workforce could be categorised as ‘White: Other’. Your office is not diverse.
I see two issues here. First: diversity, both the word and the concept, has crimped. It serves a strict, narrow agenda that has little or nothing to do with the productive dynamism of living and working alongside people with widely different upbringings and beliefs. Only particular and, if you will, privileged backgrounds count. Which is why Apple’s African-American diversity tsar, Denise Young Smith, got hammered last October after submitting, ‘There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.’ She hadn’t bowed to the newly shackled definition of the word, which has now been effectively removed from the language as a general-purpose noun.
Second: dazzled by this very highest of social goods, many of our institutions have ceased to understand what they are for. Drunk on virtue, Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books. Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision. Thus from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email 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. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some.
In the news last week, we find the ultimate example of this fatal confusion over what is your actual job. Will Norman, London’s ‘walking and cycling commissioner’, bemoaned the fact that too many cyclists in the city are white, male and middle-class. ‘The real challenge for London cycling,’ he declared, ‘is diversity.’ As opposed to building more cycle lanes for everybody, or fixing potholes lethal to everybody’s wheel rims, Norman regards his principal function as increasing black and minority ethnic ridership. I’ll be fascinated how he accomplishes this noble mission. Will he resort to stereotypes — broadcasting gangsta rap from lampposts alongside cycling superhighways, where pop-up snack stands hand out free chapattis? For a cycling commissioner to define his primary remit as ‘diversity’ is no less ludicrous than for Transport for London to turn a blind eye to the chronic tailbacks along the Embankment, just so long as the requisite number of Koreans is stuck in them.
With rare guts, the softball conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks recently decried the ‘misplaced idolisation of diversity’. Although a laudable penultimate aim, he wrote, ‘diversity is a midpoint, not an endpoint.… [An] organisation has to be diverse so that different perspectives can serve some end. Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centri-fugal and leads to social fragmentation.’ Just as Brooks sees diversity as no substitute for ‘a common national purpose’ in the US, private and public institutions alike need to keep their eyes on the prize: good books. Safe cycling. For everybody.