#DiverseAuthorDay: A reprise

Cover imageBack in July I was approached to take part in a Twitter initiative to promote diversity in writing under the hashtag #DiverseAuthorDay. This was, of course, long before the announcement of both this year’s Man Booker shortlist, let alone its gay Jamaican winner. You may have seen a few tweets on September 24th, the elected day. We were all delighted when it started trending. Who wouldn’t be? I was pleased to be asked to take part although I have to admit a wee bit puzzled. I live in a whitebread town, have worked in whitebread jobs all my life and – truth be told – this is a bit of a whitebread blog, nothing very adventurous. Several participants contributed blog posts but I never quite found the time although I did think about writing one on the lack of diversity in publishing and why this might be a factor in the need for something like #DiverseAuthorDay so, rather belatedly, here it is.

I’ve spent much of my working life in the book trade. Every so often, perhaps every other year, a cri de coeur goes up in publishing about its lack of diversity, often resulting in a piece in The Bookseller. It’s usually the lack of ethnic diversity which is lamented although I’d add class to that – internships have been the way in for some time and as a great deal of publishing is still Londoncentric that requires a comfortable background. Perhaps I should include regional diversity in the mix here, too. There are many small, and a few not so small, publishers outside the capital but generally they’re Londonistas. When I was thinking about this I remembered that Kerry Hudson had raised the question of diversity, or the lack of it, in publishing much better than I could in her ‘provocation‘ at the ‘Lost Stories, Unheard Voices’ event earlier in the year. It boils down to this, I suppose: the more diverse your company is the more diverse the authors you’re likely to publish; the more diverse your authors the more diverse the readers you’ll attract.

I enjoyed taking part in #DiverseAuthorDay and was introduced to the work of many authors I might not have come across otherwise. Rosie at Greenacre Writers, whose initiative it was, decided to follow it up with a few posts highlighting some of the reviewers who tweeted on the day and I was flattered to be the first on her list. It’s an interesting initiative and one for which I wish there wasn’t a need. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that not all authors were pleased – some felt pigeon-holed, and not happy about it. What do you think? Is it worthwhile or might it be construed as patronising? Do you think about diversity in your reading or do you think it’s irrelevant?

If you’d like to read some reflections from other participants on how they felt about #DiverseAuthorDay, you can find them here.

18 thoughts on “#DiverseAuthorDay: A reprise”

  1. I didn’t see some of the negative reactions you mention from authors so I don’t know exactly what they said. But I suspect so e of them didn’t want to be recognised simply for their colour/ethnic origin – they wanted to be recognised simply because they are a good author?

    1. Yes, that’s it exactly. It’s a difficult issue, and one I’ve struggled with as regards to women and the glass ceiling.

  2. I too wish there wouldn’t be a need for this initiative – but, as with female quotas in business and government, sometimes it’s the only way forward. I know a number of very talented authors who were told that their English is ‘not standard enough’. I suspect that if they were being translated from another language rather than writing in English directly, that might just about be acceptable…

    1. Yes, it’s a very difficult debate. As a woman I’d far prefer to be recognised for my own abilities and have always been troubled by the idea of quotas but it’s hard to know how else to advance given inequalities in representation in Parliament here, for instance, let alone anywhere else. And that’s before we even start thinking about other under-represented groups, in all spheres.

  3. As you know, this is my ‘big thing’ this year (although it won’t just be this year, it will be all the time). I agreed to take part in the day because I knew there were writers of colour taking part, I wouldn’t have otherwise. For me supporting diverse authors isn’t about me, it’s about amplifying their voices and their books, recognising the need for all voices to be heard and books not just to be about the white middle class who have dominated for so long. I completely agree that diversity isn’t just race or ethnicity, it’s also class, sexuality, transgender men and women, those who are differently abled and people who intersect some or even all of these categories.

    If I remember the tweets correctly, one of the reasons some authors objected to the day was because, as you noted, every so often there’s a lot of noise about it and then it dies down again. It shouldn’t be one day, it should be a permanent part of our society so yes, writers of colour or anyone else who doesn’t fit the white/heterosexual/cis norm are treated as humans like any other. Unfortunately, society isn’t there yet. Or even close.

    I’ve started to feel like every time a prize list comes out, I’m there with my big counting stick tallying how many women and how many writers of colour are on the list. But I was talking to a writer of colour on Saturday about the Bailey’s Prize and this year’s Booker Prize and they were saying how important it is that the Bailey’s exists and the Booker was so diverse this year, otherwise many books just aren’t seen because they aren’t covered in the broadsheets.

    So, to answer your questions: yes, absolutely it’s worthwhile as long as the voices of all writers who don’t fit the normative are amplified and I think diversity in reading is hugely important. Reading’s one of the ways in which we learn to empathise with people who have stories different to our own.

    1. I knew you’d have something interesting to say on this, Naomi! I particularly wanted to mention class in this post as it’s so rarely addressed. I think that Kerry Hudson’s is the first voice I’ve seen raised about it. Too an extent, it’s an invisible division. Although the post was triggered by #DiverseAuthorDay I wanted to explore a more general point about the way in which who publishes reflects who’s published and, of course, promoted as that’s how most readers learn about books.

      1. I think the class issue is partly to do with it being easy for working class voices to be ignored. James Kelman’s been talking about it for years but it’s easy to dismiss him as some shouty, Scottish bloke and what’s that got to do with white, middle class London? I think Kerry Hudson’s been brilliant in using her platform not only to raise the issue but to do something about it with the WoMentoring Project.

        Unsurprisingly, the make-up of the publishing industry was discussed on Saturday. The only people of colour in the room were the two nominated writers. Of course, class is more difficult to comment on because, as you say, it can be invisible (and affects people of colour too, meaning they’re struggling against barriers of class and racism). You’re absolutely right though and the issue is that centuries of structural inequality mean there’s no easy solution. I don’t really like the idea of quotas but I’m yet to see anyone come up with a better solution (and as Caitlin Moran points out we already have positive discrimination, it’s allowed inadequate white men to be promoted above their capabilities for centuries).

  4. I don’t know much about this apart from this post, so please forgive me if I am not completely relevant. I think as soon as you make a ‘big thing’ about including women, ethnic minorities, gender orientation, people from certain social strata or whatever into ANYTHING, you become patronising and actually highlight the divide. As ‘Booker Talk’ said, surely they should be known for the quality of the writing, and nothing else. If I was a Jamaican born lesbian from a Manchester sink estate, I’d want people to like my books because they liked my books, not because they were being consciously ‘diverse’. The problem would be getting my work talked about in the first place; this would only happen if people were genuinely open-minded, not ‘doing their bit for the non-middle class Londonistas’ during one week of tokenism. On the other hand, the fact that some people discovered writers they might not have otherwise heard of can only be good.

    1. Thanks, Terry. I think you’ve put you finger on part of the problem when you mention getting your work talked about. The internet has offered a great platform for a wider range of books to be discussed and reviewed which is a big step forward from the days when the broadsheet reviews dominated everything but mainstream radio, newspapers and magazines tend still to feature what they’re sent by publishers. Hard to get your book covered there if it isn’t included in those lead titles to which most of the marketing money’s devoted.

  5. This is a sensitive issue, for sure, and makes me think of what is going on here in Canada right now. Our new Prime Minister recently selected his cabinet, and for the first time in history we have a 50/50 split of men and women. He also included other minority groups that are often overlooked for cabinet, but the emphasis and the discussions about it were primarily around gender. Many people felt strongly that the members should be chosen strictly on merit, but others are saying that if you don’t make a conscious effort to choose a certain number of women for the job, it may never happen. Right or wrong, for better or worse, as it stands now because of what he did, there will probably never again be a Cabinet made up of mostly men and not enough women and other minorities. And, that must be a good thing, right?

    1. Thanks so much for this, Naomi. I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t aware of it. It’s a very difficult question but hard to argue with the idea of a cabinet that properly refelects the people that it’s there to represent. You’ve reminded me of a shot of an EU summit I saw recently on the news in which every single person was male – Angela Merkel wasn’t in it for some reason. Shocking!

  6. Your post is the first I’ve heard about the day and the initiative, although it doesn’t surprise me that it exists. And on the whole, good, I’m extremely glad that it does. I think we’re all interested in learning about excellent new books and authors aren’t we, wherever they come from, and if this initiative highlights a whole bunch, that’s a great thing. Sartre worked to promote Francophone literature and now a whole area of critique exists, a fascinating one, that might not have done otherwise.

    But when I was on the Junior Research Fellowship committee, I strenuously argued against the woman who said we should positively discriminate. I had no desire to perpetuate the myth that women aren’t good enough as they stand, and need some patronising ‘helping hand’. Bring those diverse books to our attention, and then let them stand or fall on their own merits. All authors have to create novels and non-fiction that draws readers’ attention towards them.

    1. On the whole, I’d agree with you. I certainly have no wish to see mediocre work preferenced over excellent writing. My concern is that a publishing world lacking in diversity might well lean towards writers who reflect themselves. It’s a fine line and there have been some interesting views expressed about it.

  7. I missed this on Twitter, and seemed to be late to the discussion here, but I do think it’s important that culture reflects the diversity of our communities. It’s not just the authors but the fictional characters who need to reflect this, but sometimes straight white writers are afraid of getting it wrong. This article I wrote my own experience of creating a marginalised character addresses this, but of course it’s nowhere near the entire solution:

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