The Winds of Diversity Sweep Through the Halls of Publishing

“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”
― Socrates

Gossip kills. Or at least it kills careers. Whispering Hit Men have taken out a hit on publishing in the last week with another round of so-called scandals, but really are they any different to the ‘news’ that a Virginian democrat wore blackface thirty years ago? These sorts of stories are indicative of society at large. Whether it is fake news or personal vendettas, the news has been weaponised. They are simulacra, problems that merely look like problems and that resemble problems more with every angry Tweet and opinion piece. What has got everyone so riled up now?

First there is the sad case of Amelie Wen Zhao. She had a fantasy novel coming out, hotly contested by publishers at auction. Last week a Twitter mob attacked her, accusing the book of perpetuating racism, enabling ableism and other crimes against humanity. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before, and in fact I have previously written about such cases. The difference now is that Amelie is Chinese herself and should have plenty of experience with censorship. What is scarier about Western censorship is that we do it to ourselves. The mob looks for any discrepancy they can find and amplify it to such a degree if only to show in-group adherence. Amelie has now decided not to publish the novel and publicly apologised for her atrocious and unthoughtful behaviour. It is clear that many people were enraged but never even read the book (this selective fact finding is indicative of all  ‘important”political’ discussions) and merely jumped on a hate wagon to complain about, among other things, plagiarism (apparently whole sections were stripped from The Hunger Games). The fact these people don’t know their history and cannot see the similarities between this and being denounced by the Red Guard is not surprising, but it is frightening. This was her public apology, the equivalent of being made to stand in the town square with a board around your neck as your neighbors hurl rotten fruit at you.

From what I can tell the book seemed to be trying to tackle the issue of slavery from her unique perspective, but it seems blacks and black history is still top of the hierarchy and she didn’t do a good enough job. Oh well, live and learn, Amelie! May your dreams never be crushed again.

The second major case of gossip is the ‘unmasking’ of Dan Mallory. Author of bestselling book The Woman in the Window under the pseudonym A J Finn, he has had a tell-all hit piece published in The New Yorker by a journalist who not only digs up dirt on his publishing career, accuses the book of plagiarism and harasses his family, but takes way too long to read. Seriously, this could have been edited down just a bit. This kind of gossip masquerading as news is the new normal, and reminiscent of the Russian collusion stories that come out every now and then. Heck, both stories even involve urine which of course had the entire publishing industry giggling like schoolchildren. Of course, besides the fact that no one takes any of it with a grain of salt (how true is it, and how can we know when all we have to go on is the article), it was immediately picked up as an example of ‘mediocre white men failing up’. No, not of a literal psychopath scheming and getting what he wanted, but it was generalized to all white men in the industry, and presumably all industries. Like you could call this sort of heist mediocre, anyway. Bitches.

Events like this allow those with an agenda to beat their war drums and march on the White Man. Wei Ming Kam and others are calling for a witch hunt, stating that if Mallory was able to do this, then just think about how many others like him are out there. Of course, all this does is stoke paranoia rather than seeing it as an exception. Mallory has come out and said the lying about the brain cancer did happen, which means that some of his other tall tales are probably somewhat true, but overall does it take away from his book success? Don’t you get paid well and climb the corporate ladder by bullshitting anyway? What exactly did he do wrong except make some social faux pas most probably as a result of serious mental issues? That is for the crowd to decide. I am reminded of Jon Ronson’s book on shaming and events like the dentist whose business was destroyed on Yelp because he was a big game hunter. Things are much worse now.

The flip side to all this shouting down White Men is the articles and essays complaining about how hard it is to be in the industry if you aren’t a White Man. Take for example this quote:

But at her new company, Scholastic, she was one of few queer women of color.

No shit, that by its very definition is going to be a rare bird. Exactly how many queer woman of colour does a company need to be diverse? You want to give me a quota, sweet cheeks?  Now check out this delicious sentence:

A Black former editorial assistant says she was satisfied with her starting salary until she discovered a few months later that other women of color in the same role were getting paid more, even though they had less experience.

Don’t you just love the infighting? Newsflash, people, you get paid for what extra you bring to the table, not your ability to complete a set of tasks. And we notoriously overestimate our own ability anyway.

Complaining about the supposed inequalities is a deliberate tactic because suddenly the reader of articles such as this is made to think that this is a Bad Thing in and of itself. It’s insidious and constant and publishing is slowly succumbing. Just yesterday I walked past the meeting being held by our Diversity Committee (all white girls) and I shuddered as I felt their collective psychic energy wash over me. If it is deemed that there is a problem, well, you have to fix that problem! But is it about representation or do these women just want more money?

“I don’t think promotions correspond to someone else’s other life choices,” says Yee, who now works in San Francisco, Calif., as an editorial coordinator for a different academic publisher. “How well I do at my job should be based off of how I’m doing, not whether someone else takes maternity leave.”

The trope of the promotion is people competing for it. That is, competing for an opening. Promotions are not just handed out because you did a gold star job. Publishing budgets are tight, the competition for jobs is fierce and yet these brown girls think they deserve handouts for doing what essentially anyone could do and plenty of others want to do. They don’t want to pay you more because the big houses are beholden to shareholder profits, and the small houses literally don’t have the money. When someone like Mallory is earning $200,000 a year it’s because they are signing significant authors.

Fundamentally, Dan Mallory got promoted because he’s extremely clever and charismatic. Brown girls don’t get a promotion because they are none of those things, and in fact probably create resentment. Feeling entitled won’t help, but maybe being loud enough will.

That said, publishing houses are famously cumbersome beasts, giant tanker ships that take forever to take a new direction. That’s why companies like Wattpad are going to start to tackle this diversity issue head-on. They have started their own publishing imprint based on algorithms and with an eye on inclusivity. I say good luck to them, especially with those pesky racist AIs. But if small publishers and start-ups are going to take this market, why should the big houses bother? I don’t see much potential in the woke market. I mean, sure the white population that makes up the huge markets of the US, Canada and Commonwealth rights is slowly declining and being edged out by endless brown people, but as we see in the case of Amelie, they will eat themselves. There are too many markets to attend to. Yes, there are the odd foreign or immigrant stories that take off, but by and large men like to read thrillers and women like to read Liane Moriarty. Like a democracy, publishing requires a homogeneous reading public in order to work at scale. In order for this to work in the shifting demography of the West, expect books to get even more bland and inoffensive.

Publishing is legacy media, but it is and will outlast the news industry. Thankfully profits were never high in the book trade, so it’s not hard to keep expectations reasonable. But there is still a worry that publishing will follow the same mistakes as newspapers and digital media companies like Buzzfeed. Publishing is counter-intuitively safehoused because they offer one thing and one thing only: stories. The internet has too much noise at times to sell those stories, too little prestige to make them worth picking up. The technology of a paper book is yet to be surpassed. The only worry is that publishing houses will try to move outside of what they do best. The more you try to push LGBTQI themes or refugee sob stories, the more people you are going to push offside. Don’t get political; it is not our job to push a political agenda. It is our job to publish good books. This reminds me of a wonderful anecdote I overheard the other day. A WOC I work with (try saying that five times fast) said that her friend in another house voiced their opinion over the publication of a book about the First Fleet. This friend was told by management to ‘keep your politics to yourself’. There is hope out there, after all.

This is all to say that nothing above is new. Authors have always been censored. Publishing frauds are a dime a dozen. What is new is that a supposedly diverse book is self-censored, and a fraud is exposed that has nothing to do with the book itself. (The hit on Mallory seems more fit for the likes of a gossip rag if you ask me. The word ‘schadenfreude’ springs to mind.)  Publishing houses will always move into new markets but they need to keep scale in mind. Gossip hurts and it will end up hurting not just individual authors, but bottom lines too. If these examples are anything to go by the voices crying out to white-ant publishing are only going to get louder and meaner.

Unable to See the Majority For the Minority

As I keep noting on this blog, publishing is gripped by diversity mania. There is an obsession with inclusion and stories from outside the realm of White Man territory. The Man Booker Prize is not safe from this either, and indeed the world’s biggest literary prize is a locus point of SJW energy. And as usual it is The Guardian that leads the way with its ‘unique’ criticisms of authors, publishers and prizes.

But why is diversity such a big deal? Aside from the obvious acceleration towards ‘equality’ across the entirety of popular culture, the reason is people. The real question should be why it has taken so long for the voices within publishing to get so loud. Publishing is 70% female across the Western world, though men do make up a sizeable chunk of senior management. In the last few years young women with gender studies degrees have probably managed to get a foot in the door, and are starting to shift the focus at a faster pace. They bring with them the usual baggage of intersectionality and the need to have perfectly balanced gender ratios. I have plenty of my own horror stories from listening to these young female ‘professionals’. But despite ‘improvements’ it is, of course, never enough.

Literary prizes are the perfect grounds to attack white privilege. Not enough BAME authors are getting recognition. The situation is so bad that The Guardian recently posted an article titled How Many Man Bookers Must Writers of Colour Win Before They’re Accepted? (which kept in theme with last years article called Man Booker Prize Longlist is a Disappointment for Diversity). But I want to focus on the former piece and why exactly this is all madness.

The author, a creative writing professor, makes a number of spurious claims. The main gist of the piece though is that despite the last two winners of the Man Booker being black, readers still don’t recognise books written by minorities as literature. Of course, the reality is that there are much bigger issues at stake than her hyperbolic theory. She uses this study, a study that states that, ‘90% of people who have read a novel in the last 6 months consider that novel to be literature.’ Let’s keep in mind that about 75% of the general population has read ONE book in the last YEAR, and that men read far less than women. Here are some of the authors these people consider ‘literature’:

  • Jeffrey Archer
  • Danielle Steel
  • Lee Child
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Agatha Christie
  • Catherine Cookson
  • James Patterson
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Dan Brown
  • J R R Tolkien
  • Enid Blyton
  • The Brontë sisters
  • George Orwell
  • Stephen King
  • Jane Austen
  • Roald Dahl
  • J K Rowling
  • Charles Dickens
  • William Shakespeare

I’ve marked in bold those that are actually literature. William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens probably count, but at the time of their writing they were ‘popular’ literature. However, if you are looking at these results and complaining about the lack of brown people, you have an agenda. The true problem is that people read shit books by shit authors. They read the same authors over and over. The real problem is that if we consider J K Rowling, Dan Brown and Lee fucking Child as literature, then we as a civilisation are lost. (Oh yeah, and one twat called Reza Aslan a writer of literature.) If you look at the full list of authors, there are clearly some real writers there, and also some minorities. These names were probably given by REAL readers, ones who appreciate and understand what literature is. So the author of The Guardian piece is cherry picking the data and coming to absurd, and frankly frightening conclusions.

Is it really a surprise though? You are polling the general public, of course the results are going to skew towards popular literature. Look at the stats for the full list of authors:

  • 31% are female
  • 7% are Black, Asian or Mixed Race in ethnicity
  • 44% are non-British (mostly American)
  • 51% are living writers.

The fact is that most people are going to consider old, dead authors (who, shock of shocks, will be mostly white) as literature. Americans feature heavily because American culture is so ingrained across the world. 7% minority is pretty good given the statistics for readers (from the same study):

raceandreading

If you have fewer readers of literature, then you’re going to have fewer writers. The fact of the matter is that the majority of readers in Britain (and indeed in the Western world) are white, female and educated. Shockingly, this is also the largest demographic for social justice warriors, which I’m sure is not a coincidence.

The author of the piece has issues she wants to make relevant, so fuck the actual problem. She makes some infuriating claims, such as:

Without doubt, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens and many more men of letters have done Britain proud. But times have moved on.

Given she is a professor of creative writing, I find her beliefs disturbing. Literature is not a moving object, one that floats with the tide. It is quite fixed, in that what most people consider literature is writing that has stood the test of time (hence Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens). That’s what makes it capital L literature. And while the writer can make claims about the stupidity of readers and their inability to consider minorities as writers of literature, she herself is too dumb to read into the numbers, saying:

A misconception prevails that books penned by non-white writers have limited relevance to the population at large.

If the audience is mostly white, female and educated, then unsurprisingly books written by POC authors about POC themes are probably not going to appeal to all of them.

She then cites a 2013 study about literature and empathy, which of course is a line that geeky SJWs love to throw out at every opportunity. ‘Reading makes you a better person!’ the headlines scream whenever a new study linking literature to altruism/empathy/long life/better memory/clear skin comes out. Not only are the studies dubious (like most studies you find written about in the MSM) but the notion that you can magically read a book and become a Good Person is absurd, and is not a line that should be pushed by anyone, least of all a creative writing lecturer. That said, I’ve never met a group more self-righteous and sure of themselves than those undertaking or teaching a creative writing degree. Books do not make you more humble, it seems.

Then she tries to link this idea with real life events. Mentioning both hate crimes and Brexit, she actually has the audacity to pose the question that perhaps if more people had read literature by minorities the Grenfell Tower tragedy would never have happened. Fake news gets a mention, saying:

But judging from the lack of nuanced real-life stories in circulation about marginalised groups, cultural deprivation is a pretty apt description for the condition members of mainstream society find themselves in. Consider, for instance the report of the Christian girl fostered by a Muslim family spun into a far-right fantasy; a story fuelled by paranoia and an evident lack of awareness about the lives of others.

Correct me if I am wrong, but that is a true story that actually happened? Or is she referring only to the dumb Photoshop job by the paper that originally reported on it? Whatever. She decries race elitism while displaying her own elitism and disdain. The only conclusion I can draw is that the writer wants to eliminate white written culture and force minority writing on the majority. Perhaps she’s just mad she can’t get her novel published.