Why haven’t I been invited to the party? or why is British publishing so posh and white

The first part of the title is what was used in the print edition of the Guardian in this article while the second part, as you will see, is what has been used in the online version. It was prompted by the fact that World Book Night’s 2016 selection was entirely books written by whites. It consists of a series of contributions by various people as to why British publishing is so posh and white and what can be done about it. Not surprisingly the contributors invariably take the view that this is a very much the case and something needs to be done. While I certainly do not dispute the basic premise of their arguments, I think the situation is more nuanced than they suggest.

Let us look first at the Word Book Night books. The organisers point out that the books were chosen by the publishers, not them. If I am a publisher asked to contribute books to World Book Night (which involves giving books away for free) there are going to be three reasons why I am going to give away these books.

1) I have a whole stack that I cannot sell and might as well give away
2) I have a new author whom I want to promote
3) I have an existing author who is not selling as well as s/he should/used to and maybe this will give a kickstart to sales of this book or, at least, bringing the author’s name back into the limelight

I highly doubt that there will be any other motive, be it racism, sexism or anything else that drives the decision. Looking at the books, I have read one – The Rotters Club. It was first published in 2001 so I am guessing is not selling very well at the moment. You can get a used copy for 1p from a well-known online book shop, where it is ranked number 212,252 in sales. In other words, the publisher had a whole load spare. Of the others I have heard of Band of Brothers but not read it. It is also available for 1p and also was published in 2001. I have heard of Carol Ann Duffy but not read her. However, poetry, as we know, does not sell well. I have not heard of the others. So no conspiracy here, just a desire by individual publishers to offload a bunch of books. Indeed, the contributors should be flattered that no BAME (the term they use – it stands for Black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers are included, as this implies the publishers are not trying to offload them.

That the publishing industry is dominated by posh white people is probably true. We have seen this issue raised in a whole range of other fields: Parliament and the police, for example. You could, of course, also point out the lack of representation of other groups: women, LGBT, state school-educated, disabled and so on. But with books it is more subjective.

80% of the population of England and Wales is white British but the remaining 20% are not all BAME. Indeed, this report suggests it is more likely around 12%. The big issue with UKIP is EU immigration and most of them will be white. There are, for example, nearly 700,000 Poles in the UK. White people, if they read books at all, are going to read books by and about white people. That means that publishers, many (though, thankfully, not all) of whom are in the business to make money, are going to publish books that appeal to the largest audience, which is white.

I read more books than most and have probably read more books from other countries than most people. I read books that I want to read but, I must admit, I do at times read books that I feel that I ought to read, some of which I enjoy and some of which I do not. I have just added the 500th English book to my website. Yes, I have read and enjoyed books by Monica Ali, Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi, Helen Oyeyemi, Zadie Smith and other BAME writers but the overwhelmingly amount of English books on my site were written by white authors and will continue to be so. I will not deny that I feel more comfortable reading white writers from the UK, as their experience and concerns are more akin to mine. I can enjoy, for example, African or Arab writers from African and Arab countries but then I can appreciate them as exotic and different. When I read BAME writers from England, writing about England, I recognise that they are writing about my country but I do not fully recognise their experience, which is removed from mine but not removed enough to be exotic. Is this a form of racism? Almost certainly, but it is almost certainly one all but the most saintly are guilty of. And if I, who consciously makes an attempt to read those writers, feel this way, I suspect many people do. I shall continue to make an attempt to read such writers and will enjoy many of their works but I am certain that I will read more white English writers.

Xenophobia is not, I suspect, a minority experience. Donald Trump may have taken it to a new level but 35% of Republican voters share his views and I have no doubt that many other Republicans and, indeed, Democrats feel a certain degree of xenophobia i.e. opposed to the mainly Hispanic immigration, uncomfortable with other ethnic minorities and so on. This is not, of course, unique to the USA. Marine Le Pen has just gained a large number of votes in France. Nigel Farage’s UKIP gained four million votes at the last election in the UK, far more than the Scottish Nationalists. The rise of ISIS and the refugee crisis have led to increased and more overt racism across Europe. I would point out that the most anti-Black racist comments I have heard were not made by white thugs but by ordinary Indians. In short, if we are honest, we are nearly all racist to some degree or other.

I fully share the aims of the writers in this article. It would be great so see more works by BAME writers, to have more BAME people in the publishing and literary establishment and for more people in this country to read works by BAME writers. However, as I have shown, it is more complicated than some of them imply. Many of the initiatives mentioned will be preaching to the converted. Others might interest readers who are more adventurous, probably a small minority. I read a lot and still find that there are thousands of books, yes, thousands, that I would love to read but will almost certainly never get around to reading. Friends who read less seem to stick to certain core books/authors or pick up recommendations from like-minded friends. They read Knausgaard or Ferrante or McEwan because their friends have read them and they read about them in the weekend newspaper reviews, not because the reviewers are racist but because they know that that is what their readers will be comfortable with. Yes, they review Monica Ali and Zadie Smith, because they are very good writers but can you see the Daily Telegraph reader even wanting to read Marlon James? No, nor can I?

So I wish all these people good luck with their initiatives and I shall certainly try to read BAME English writers, but they will have to take their place in the queue with the 217 other nationalities and the white English writers and, I am afraid, it is a long queue.

Leave a Reply