L I TERATURE & POLITICS
The anxieties and complexities of furthering diversity in the literary world
Ino longer possess the wounding rejection letter I received twenty years ago from a literary agent whom I admired, but I remember every word. It began: “Dear Mr Grant, I am not particularly interested in ethnic writing ...”. Whenever I’m asked to be more generous towards fledgling black writers, I recall that discouragement. But isn’t faux praise and elevation of mediocrity just as patronizing as the dismissal of “ethnic writing”?
Last year, for an oral history book on Caribbean migration to the UK, I went to Croydon to conduct an interview with a Caribbean woman whose guileless enthusiasm and reverence towards writers was endearing. On her shelf were three pristine copies of Reni EddoLodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. (My gallant first thought was: “And where are my books?”) She hadn’t yet read the race book, but “the brave and powerful title” had made her “sit up and listen”, she confided, “especially of course because the writer is black”. She’d bought extra copies for a friend and grandchild. It took a while for the tide of jealousy to recede; it probably still hasn’t receded entirely. Even though I’d wanted Eddo-Lodge to delve deeper in her writing, it was undeniable that her book had identified a yearning from politically and racially switched-on readers and sparked publishers’ interest in previously untapped revenue streams. Refreshingly, it seems like a good time to be a black writer, especially if you can pull off the feat of translating the peculiar experience of race.
We have, of course, been here before. In her memoir Stet (2000), Diana Athill recalled that in the 1950s “it was easier to get reviews for a writer seen by the British as black than it was for a young white writer”. Athill considered that “partly out of an optimistic if illadvised sense that a vast market for books lay out there ripe for development, [publishers] felt it to be the thing to encourage those voices”. Many of the new voices emerged from the patronage of the BBC World Service literary programme Caribbean Voices, which had been launched in 1943. Presided over by the patrician editor Henry Swanzy, the programme provided a platform and, importantly, money (a guinea per minute of broadcast material) for burgeoning authors in the Caribbean, many of whom made their way to London, to the great seat of Empire where their work would be judged by metropolitan standards – or so they thought.
More than a decade ago, when I spoke to the Jamaican-born poet John Figueroa, one of the pioneers of the programme, he told me that reviews of the writing that came out of Caribbean Voices were full of patronizing attitudes. Every few months Swanzy would invite English writers such as Roy Fuller and Arthur Calder-Marshall to appraise the work of the West Indians, but it was problematic,
believed Figueroa, because their judgements weren’t reliable:
One of the things was a condescending false praise. For instance, George Lamming’s first book was eaten up; he was the greatest writer on earth. And that also happened to John Hearne, who was so praised. Once I was asked to review a book of his and I didn’t review it very favourably. The programme brought in an Englishman, John Wain, to contradict me, saying it was Oh wonderful. And afterwards, off air, Wain confessed, “Well of course I wouldn’t have said that about an English writer”. The implication was that “he [Hearne] was from the colonies, so he wrote well for a colonial”.
In its short life (1943–58), Caribbean Voices did serve to nurture the careers of writers such as Lamming, V. S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott, but confidence in black authors appeared patchy thereafter. When I was growing up in the 1970s there only ever seemed a handful of black writers of any prominence in Britain. Publishers, arguing that there was no expectant readership for such work, were content to echo the old stereotypical joke: “If you want to hide a five pound note from a black man put it inside the pages of a book”. But the past mantra of “no commercial prospects” that played on the sales and marketing teams’ apologetic lips whenever black book proposals were discussed at acquisitions meetings just a decade ago is not so readily heard now – apparently.
So why are publishers suddenly bending over backwards to fill their schedules with people of colour? Interviewing a range of writers, publishers and other industry professionals throws up complex and sometimes disturbing answers. It’s certainly not only about capitalizing on a trend. Sharmaine Lovegrove, publisher of the Little, Brown imprint Dialogue Books, tells me that it’s partly the result of an evolving culture of shame and embarrassment: “Agents are asking people who have a little bit of a social media presence to come up quite quickly with ideas that they can sell to publishers who are desperate because no list wants to be all white, as it has been”. With the dread of being associated with the hashtag #publishingsowhite, the simplest and cheapest way of adding black names to their lists is to put out anthologies packed with malleable first-time authors and one or two seasoned writers seeded through the collections. (A – presumably – more expensive way is to recruit Stormzy, who launched the #Merky Books imprint at Penguin Random House last year.)
But social media is not the best school for a grounding in literary technique and critical engagement. There’s an obvious correlation between the constraints of writing on Twitter (with its 280 characters), blogs or Facebook and the bite-sized ambitions of the essays that constitute some recent collections. The emphasis in those anthologies doesn’t seem to be on the quality of the writing. Lovegrove, one of the most prominent black women in publishing, has steered clear of the anthology model. She notes with irony that “Dialogue Books as an imprint for inclusive voices and voices from minority backgrounds is actually turning down a lot of black author proposals”, because the fledgling writers aren’t necessarily ready.
Experience of writing is trumped by the experience of black lives as far as the recent anthology Safe: On black British men reclaiming space is concerned. Published by Trapeze and edited by Derek Owusu, it claims to shed light for the first time on hidden lives, but it is not breaking new ground. A century ago, in The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois advanced the notion, contrary to the widely held view in the West, that black people like all other human beings had souls. James Baldwin would later argue that in reality blacks were despised for their humanity; they were the conscience of white folk. Every time a white person encountered a black person they had to face up to the terrible things that had been done to them in their name; black people were a reminder to white people of their soullessness. In many regards, James Baldwin’s extraordinary collection of essays The Fire Next Time (1963) is still the gold standard in informed polemical writing that calls out racism. To suggest, as I’ve heard when touring some publishing houses, that the work of these young black British writers is comparable to his in excellence is not only disingenuous; it is also at odds with the duty of care publishers owe to debut authors still developing their craft.
Reflections on race in the US written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine, Ibram X. Kendi, Roxane Gay and a host of others are more rigorous, says the poet Nii Parkes, as “publishing houses demand black essayists try out their theses in public lectures and discussions around the country before they turn to print”. In Britain, it often seems that a three-minute YouTube video will suffice. Nonetheless, it has been exhilarating to witness the heartfelt, finger-clicking appreciation among black audiences at readings of Afua Hirsch and Akala thrilled that the writers have at last articulated uncomfortable sentiments they themselves have never felt confident enough to express publicly. It reminds me of the excitement my siblings and I felt in the 1970s whenever any black person came on television; never mind what they were saying – they were black and on TV! Other would-be writers have inevitably followed the polemicist approach to publication, but Lovegrove worries that often the work is not rigorously edited because white editors lack confidence around issues of race and fear causing offence. “If a black writer is coming with a piece and saying I’m an expert on this, the editor can’t question them because of the sheer logistics of her/his whiteness. The editors are like, ‘I’ve done my unconscious bias training and as a white privileged woman I can’t possibly ask you that question because you’re obviously right because you’re black.’
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