Friday, February 7, 2020

Well this is depressing...

By Abir

Here’s our topic for this week: Discuss diversity in the sense of the market. What do you want to see on bookshelves from black authors in 2020?


Where to start? I suppose with honesty.

My first reaction to seeing this week’s topic was to roll my eyes. It seems every so often there’s a burst of handwringing in the publishing industry and the wider media about the lack of diversity, and good white people ask ‘What can we do? How do we fix this?’ and we get a bunch of well-meaning and often wrong-headed gestures (Black Frankenstein for f*!@’s sake – seriously?), and then people get scared by the backlash or just bored and go back to whatever it is they were championing or publishing before. So please forgive me if I’m slightly sceptical about the topic. What’s more, I have a problem with the question itself, but bare with me, I’ll get to that.

Let’s deal with the easy part of the question first:
Discuss diversity in the sense of the market

I’m going to talk about the UK market, because that’s the one I know best, but I fear the same holds in North America too.

As far as I can tell, on both sides of the Atlantic, the publishing industry at almost all levels appears to be staffed and run by white, upper-middle class people, drawn from a very narrow strata of society. And the same goes for authors that are published.

From the youngest interns at the literary agents responsible for sifting through the slush piles, to the agents themselves who act as gatekeepers to the industry, on to the ranks of the publishers – from the nice people in marketing, to the lovely ones in design, to the editors and the bosses – the vast majority of these people are great, good-natured, upper-middle class white people, who are well-meaning but tend to live in a bubble and often haven’t much of a clue how to deal with working-class white issues and books, let alone those written by ethnic minorities.

I spent twenty years of my life working in high finance in the city of London, a place not particularly known for its ethical standards and certainly not short of sociopaths in positions of power, but I’ll tell you something – the degree of diversity you’ll see there (and have done since the late 1980s) puts the supposedly liberal and progressive publishing industry to shame.

Why? I don’t have an answer, but it strikes me that until the advent of Amazon and e-books, the publishing industry was quite safe and cosy, with a stable market of older white, middle-aged readers and saw no real reason to change or to appeal to other groups.

Are things changing? I think (and hope) that they are, and I think the crime and mystery genre is in the vanguard of that change. When I was first published five years ago, there were no British Asians being published in the genre. Since then, it seems we are up to about ten authors, with a few more published each year. The numbers are still a drop in the ocean but it feels like a sustainable change is occurring. 

I’ve read the posts by my fellow bloggers on this topic, and one of the recurring themes was a desire to read more about different cultures and heritages. That is most laudable, but with respect, I’m going to take issue with this point – not in terms of the individuals who express it, but with the general theme and tone. That’s because I’ve heard it before. I’ve been hearing it for years, from individual writers, readers, agents, editors and CEOs of the odd publishing house or two. And yet, nothing really changes. Why? Because I think, when it comes down to it, you either don’t really mean it, or as an industry you don’t have the guts to take a risk and follow through on your good intentions. The industry is extremely conservative For years, non-white, non-middle class writers have been told by agents and editors – ‘we’re looking for the next new thing’, when what they actually mean is ‘we’re looking for the next new thing which is pretty much the same as the last thing that worked for us.’

And that’s why we have a deluge of psychological thrillers, each with interchangeable covers and many of which have a title with the word ‘girl’ in it. 

And you know why? Because that’s what the paying punters want. Publishing is a business. They need to sell books. The problem is, no one from their narrow middle class white background has figured out how to widen the market to cater to the wider public. When they do try, they often do it so cack-handedly (American Dirt, anyone?) that they then take fright and go back into their shells. It’s often one step forward, one step back.

Right, so that’s my view on the subject. You may disagree, but I owe you my honest opinion.

As for the second part of the question: What do I want to see on bookshelves from black authors?

I’m sorry. I have a problem with the question. The absurdity of it can be seen by changing ‘black’ to ‘white’ in the question.

Black authors can write about whatever they want to write about. If it’s good, I’ll read it.


So I've slept on yesterday's post and have woken up a bit less frustrated by the world. Yesterday was a bit of a rant, and in the interests of fairness, I feel I should point out some of the positive developments, as well as making suggestions about how things might improve. Otherwise, I'm not really helping the situation.

Firstly, I have to say that things in the industry, at least on this side of the pond, seem to changing for the better, though slowly. One thing that stunned me this week was the remarkable own goal of the books released for Black History Month with 'black' characters such as black Romeo and Juliet, black Frankenstein's monster etc. What shocks me most is that a room full of people must have sat down and, with the best of intentions, decided that was a good idea Then the machinery of a whole industry went into operation and a lot of money was spent to create these books. I can't help thinking that maybe if there were even two people of colour involved in those meetings that they would have piped up and pointed out what a monumentally ill-thought out idea it was. So the first thing the industry needs to do is recruit people who can point these things out. If a few people of colour had been involved in that decision process, the publishers could have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and a tonne of bad publicity.

In fairness, some of the large publishing houses have amended their recruitment policies, doing away with unpaid internships (which effectively priced out most people without a rich daddy or mummy from entering the industry), and some, like Penguin Random House have instigated 'blind' application processes. This is a good start. For the publishing industry to flourish, it needs to reflect the society it purports to serve.

The second issue is that of who  is actually published. I have to acknowledge the strides being made by publishers in the UK to publish more 'non-traditional' voices. In 2017/18 Penguin Random House started their Write Now programme, offering mentorships and publishing contracts to writers from ethnic minorities, working class and LGBTQ+ backgrounds. I've been lucky enough to be involved with this programme and the first fruits of it are coming through now. Other publishers are also creating similar schemes.

My fear though, and I hope that I'm proved wrong, is that these initiatives remain niche endeavours rather than reaching mainstream audiences...which brings me to my third point - Readership

Part of the issue, in the UK at least, is increasing the levels of reading among non middle class people. I saw a statistic a few years a go that said that one in two British Asians had never entered a bookshop, I don't know how such things are measured, but anecdotally, that feels true to me. What's more surprising is that British Asian kids use libraries in greater numbers than any other youth demographic. But something happens that means these youngsters don't become adult readers. That is as much an issue for British Asian communities as it is for the publishing industry, but I feel that until we can increase the number of ethnic minorities and working class people who feel comfortable going into bookshops and libraries, and reading the sort of books that reflect their experiences, non-white, non-middle class writers will always be at risk of being niche.

So there you go. And you thought I didn't do nuance.


Susan C Shea said...

I agree the world of traditional publishing is occupied and controlled almost exclusively by white marketing and finance people who believe stories about other communities than their own can't interest enough readers to warrant spending money publishing their books. I'm glad Pegasus Books didn't pre-judge your wonderful novels through that myopic lens. And I'm thrilled for you that readers and award reviewers didn't buy into that idea either. Maybe the obvious success of brilliant and engaging authors in crime fiction is beginning to open eyes and widen the perceptions of the gatekeepers?

Serious question: Is your reaction possibly a semantics issue? When Danny and I wrote "want to see" would it have been clearer or made a difference if we wrote "hope to see"? Hope as aimed at readers like ourselves and colleagues in the writing business? In any case, I'm genuinely sorry you feel the question is patronizing.

Abir said...

Hi Susan

Thank you for your kind words.

Firstly, you have nothing to feel sorry for and I certainly don’t want you to feel like you can’t ask questions like that. Indeed, it’s a fear of giving offence which often stifles the sorts of conversations we need to have. Quite the contrary -I am glad you asked the question so that we can discuss it, and I would want you to keep asking provocative questions, because we need this sort of discussion.

The first part of the question is vitally important and I am really thrilled you asked it.

As for the second part. I understand that your question ‘what do you want to see from black writers’ was asked with the best of intentions, but I’d ask the following:

- we do not ask this question of white writers, because there is a natural assumption (quite rightly) that white writers can write on a pretty broad range of topics (save maybe subjects that are culturally sensitive - but even then, I’d argue they should be able to write whatever they want to write). By asking ‘what do we want (or hope) to see from black writers’ - it almost feels like we've decided that there is a difference - that non white writers should stick to certain subjects suited to their backgrounds or culture . My answer is - I want to see black writers write on as many and varied topics and genres as white writers. I want to see them write as well - and as badly - as white writers who get published. I want to see them write great literary epics and run-of-the-mill banal boring terrible fiction and still have the same chance to be published as a white person. I want a black writer to be able to submit a murder mystery set on a space station and not be told by an agent or a publisher that it’s not authentically black or asian enough - which I guess was code for - this doesn’t fit my preconceived notions of what people like you should be writing about.

So, please, please don’t think I took personal offence at the question. I didn’t. We need to have this discussion, but I hope you can understand why it riles me. We should have no distinction between white and non-white authors, but the phrasing of the question, in my mind at least, sets a different hurdle for non white writers. The fact that we are also having the discussion in Black History Month also irks me. It’s as though we have one month where we talk about these things and then they’re forgotten about and normal service is resumed. I want to be discussing these things every few months and shouting about them constantly. Again, that is a complaint I have with the publishing industry and not the blog and certainly not with you.

You have been wonderful in raising this issue. I know how difficult it can be for white people to deal with these issues. The whole area of race is a minefield and you deserve nothing but praise for raising it.

If I may leave you with one request, it’s that you keep on asking these questions. Keep on pushing the industry for change and not be put off by idiots like me who are just jaded. We need good people like you to spark these conversations because they’re necessary (and also far more interesting than the ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ type questions writers deal with most of the time.)

Thank you for asking the difficult questions.


catriona said...

Thank you, Abir. I don't know so much about the UK market these days, but I know that the big effort to change and then the slump back to how it was, set on repeat, is the tale over here too. Imprints open with a flourish and then quietly close. Depressing is right.

It was four years ago I was on a team looking at inclusion in publishing and all our experts (writers of colour) said, in a chorus "More black and brown publishers." I think it was Steph Cha who said "Stop talking about fresh perspectives and vibrant new voices and just get MORE BLACK PEOPLE!"

It was like that scene in The Man With Two Brains when Steve Martin is standing in a house struck by lightning, burning down, walls bleeding, mirrors shattering, and he says "Please God, give me a sign."

Oy, oy, oy. But thank you for saying it's better for white people to have these clueless, clunky, uncomfortable conversations than none.

Susan C Shea said...

Thanks, Abir, I appreciate your gracious comments. Yes, I don't know how we go forward without these "clueless, clunky uncomfortable conversations" Catriona describes them, but I know we don't go anywhere if we don't try. By the way, I was on Catriona's team and one really talented black author I interviewed for the project told me she was turned down by one white publisher because her novel wasn't "urban" enough...code for the publisher's stereotype of ghetto life. As she told me, that wasn't and isn't her life so why is she supposed to write it? Good news: she's much published and praised now in the mainstream of crime fiction.

Maggie Chetty said...

The situation would be hilarious if it wasn't so tragic. I spent time as the Director of West of Scotland Regional Equality Council until 2003. In that time we worked with many public bodies to increase anti-racist practice and diversity.Police ,prison service,local authorities
and many more...
What is astonishing to me is that you have to keep repeating the exercise every decade.
Every time a new sector discovers their lack of diversity it is a big Halellujah moment!
I tried to help my friend Suhayl Saadi publicise his first marvellous book.
I wrote a review for the Morning Star because he found it difficult to get coverage with the London luvvies!Life in the bubble-bad enough to be Scottish but to be black and Scottish....

Paul Gitsham said...

Thought provoking addendum: C suggested that perhaps the Asian kids in libraries see it more as a place of learning, which drops off as they reach adulthood. It would be interesting to see if those kids are using the library as a source of fiction or for pleasure - and thus the switch away from reading for pleasure is a real thing, or if the use of libraries in a more utilitarian manner is masking a disparity that starts at a younger age,

Abir said...

Hi Catriona

You're absolutely right. We need to have these discussions. And yes, we need more people of colour at all levels of the publishing industry - to be able to better spot talent which reflects society, and to avoid things like the Black Frankenstein debacle. I've heard agents and publishers say, 'we're looking to recruit more people of colour, but they don't send in applications', or 'I want to publish more books by people of colour, but I don't see the submissions.' My answer to that is that these people and books aren't going to walk in the door. You need to be proactive. Often the people they are looking for have no concept of the publishing industry or ever imagined that they might be the sort of person who gets a book published. Agents and publishers need to get into the schools and target people of colour at an early age. Show them that they might have a future in publishing. It's a long process, but I don't think there's any quick fix.

Abir said...

Hi Susan

I am glad we are having this discussion. Because without dialogue, nothing improves.
Re your comment about the black author turned down by a white publisher because her novel wasn't "urban" enough.- You've hit the nail on the head. Too often, writers of colour are forced into boxes by white people's definition of what it is they should be writing. This is why I was irked by the second part of the question. I know Danny wasn't implying anything of the sort when he wrote it, but that was the subtext I inferred. The idea that we should have an expectation of what we want to see black writers write about is a dangerous one. There was a review of a book in the UK a few years ago - a tale about muslim sisters growing up in London, and the white reviewer (an author and a friend of mine) made the point that she wished there was more about muslim culture and arranged marriages in Theresa nd that if you wanted to read a story about a family, then you should read Little Women. To a white person, that might sound perfectly acceptable, but to an Asian author, it was as though we are seen as one-trick ponies, who should write only what interests or titilates white readers or feeds into their preconceptions. It would be like me reading any novel by any Irish author and expecting it to be solely about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Also, I'm too grumpy for my own good! xx

Abir said...

Hi Maggie

Indeed - that is the problem: having to repeat the same discussion every year. It's exhausting, and it's why we have books like 'Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race.'
I think the solution is that we need to each explain the situation to two, younger people of colour, and get them to have the conversations next year!

Abir said...

Hi Unkown

Re your comment:
' Thought provoking addendum: C suggested that perhaps the Asian kids in libraries see it more as a place of learning, which drops off as they reach adulthood. It would be interesting to see if those kids are using the library as a source of fiction or for pleasure - and thus the switch away from reading for pleasure is a real thing, or if the use of libraries in a more utilitarian manner is masking a disparity that starts at a younger age'

I think there's a lot of truth in this. I'd add that I think a lot of Asian kids are coming from poor homes where they just don't have the space/solitude to do their homework and studies, so the only place they can work is in libraries. I think you're right, in that some of our cultures, there is an emphasis on reading for education but not for pleasure, and I think this needs to change. If minority voices are going to be heard, then minorities need to buy the books written by their kinfolk, which talk about their perspectives and stories. Otherwise these books won't be published. I think this is a huge issue for British Asian communities and probably other minority groups too.