Lionel Shriver’s comments show why Penguin needs to increase representation
19 Jun 2018
“Drunk on virtue, Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books…from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling. Good luck with that business model.”
– Lionel Shriver for The Spectator, 9/6/2018
I’m an expert on the reading habits of white middle-aged men. I was iconically promiscuous throughout my twenties. My daddy issues coupled with an only partially psychoanalysed valorisation of whiteness meant my particular brand of rebellion involved sleeping with decidedly average Caucasian males. I always made sure to discuss literature afterwards in the requisite post-coital pillow talk.
While they went to the loo for a piss, I would pop my knickers back on and wander over to their bookshelves for a perusal. More often than not, I would be disappointed to find out that their definition of the literary canon on full display was abominably narrow. Ironically, this mirrored my Zimbabwean father’s opinions. He attended a Jesuit boarding school in the countryside of a nation lumbering under the weight of a name of a man who believed the scientific racism of his time was accurate and kind of cute: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” In spite of my father’s opposition to the racial segregation suffered by the black indigenous population, the way he talked about language and culture confirmed that most difficult terrain to decolonise is the mind:[On Zadie Smith] “Well it’s not really literature is it?” [On Alice Walker] “She hates black men.” [On colonialism] “They were evil, but at least they gave us trains and writing.”
“Lionel Shriver, the rich man’s Katie Hopkins, is now entrusted with the honour of baiting lefty snowflakes into conflict by being a libertarian snowflake”
My father, who ironically was considered ‘woke’ for his times, is now woefully anachronistic and would undoubtedly be savaged by Black Twitter if given a platform. Thankfully no one’s disturbing his retirement to ask his opinions on diversity, identity politics and publishing. Lionel Shriver, the rich man’s Katie Hopkins, is now entrusted with the honour of baiting lefty snowflakes into conflict by being a libertarian snowflake. The We Need to Talk about Kevin author is a columnist for The Spectator, a publication that seems to love to court controversy by publishing the opinions of people who miss the freedoms they enjoyed in the Victorian age. Take Boris Johnson, for example: “The continent (Africa) may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.”
It would be silly for us to think that this sort of toffy racism isn’t being lapped up by a readership who don’t want to lose their grip on mainstream cultural conversation. Lionel Shriver’s introduction to pro-Brexit voting middle England was gleefully heralded in by Fraser Nelson, who announced that “her first piece is a brilliant evisceration of the movement against historical statues.” Here she warns us to hold our horses about making Rhodes fall. Maybe bloodthirsty conquistadors like Columbus, who felt genocide to just be the right thing to do, deserve a bit more celebration in public space?
We should always be wary for those who feel we are going too far when we have barely even started to disrupt the structures that ensure their safety and success, or rather the safety and success of people they value. This is a libertarian who feels the #MeToo movement may have gone a bit far by disclosing our experiences of sexual violence and harassment in unprecedented numbers, as she thinks that “misogynist is a strong word thrown around with well too much abandon”.
But libertarians who claim to adore meritocracy, objectivity and free speech remain imbalanced as to who they defend. They seem to only talk about the virtues of meritocracy when it looks like entrenched white supremacy is about to be dislodged; they complain about the dangers of identity politics when they feel their white identity is under threat. I am yet to see a self-identified libertarian defend the free speech of a black woman they disagree with. It’s what the great Voltaire would have wanted? Except, awkwardly this grandfather of the Enlightenment felt that Africans had “only a few ideas more than animals and [only] more ability to express them.” Alas, I’m sure Lionel Shriver would still find the time to defend to the death his right to say that – on principle.
People like Lionel Shriver construct the enemy of the rabid smelly vegan social justice warrior as the enemy at the gate, no matter how reasonable or tentative the person promoting social change. She was outraged at the “shouty boldface” in a colleague’s forwarded email that stated Penguin Random House’s company wide goal that they want: “both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025.” Hardly a revolutionary statement but nevertheless her blood pressure was raised that someone who did not go to university might be considered to have enough grammatical knowledge to proofread or copy edit.
I also personally got the message that the trans community has been taking up too much time and attention. I am the “gay transgender Caribbean“ she refers to and then goes too far in positing that I must have dropped out of school at seven, and tries to find ableist comedy in the idea of me “powering around town on a mobility scooter”. Those who are so frightened of intersectionality as a concept for political analysis find a home in the ridiculousness of hyperbole. What frightens me is that years ago my confidence was so thoroughly crushed by the white friends of North London I used to have. It stopped me from considering myself worthy of being a writer and assured me that I would never be read. The men I tried to love did the same.
“What frightens me is that years ago my confidence was so thoroughly crushed by the white friends of North London I used to have”
Initiatives like Harper Collins’ BAME traineeship, Write Now Live and Harvill Secker x Bloody Scotland by Penguin Random House are light showers that barely scratch the surface. Affirmative action benefits white women the most, as it always has. Yet, once they have broken through the glass ceiling, be aware that libertarians like Lionel Shriver will blame the glass in their wounds on you. They will kick the ladder you were holding to help get them there as they tell you the reason you cannot gain the benefits of their platform is because you do not work hard enough and lack their talent. Their experience of a publishing world where everyone looks like them confirms this. Statistics and reports and empty promises of incremental change will no longer suffice. They are scared and they should be. Lionel Shriver can feel her days of going through life without thinking of how her whiteness has never been an obstacle in her life are numbered: “I don’t want to be told I’m privileged. That word, I’m sick of it.” Unfortunately for her, we are sicker of white supremacy. She will face the consequences of unexamined white privilege poo-pooing the efforts for societal change so ignorantly.
Penguin Random House is not “drunk on virtue”. The shifting cultural landscape and the diversification brought on by the digital revolution means that we are set to be “tipsy on representation”. It was not until 2014 when I first found a real-life story that mirrored mine in Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. It was not until 2015 that I read about a world I could exist in comfortably without fear in Woman on The Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. It was not until 2017 I discovered Sharmaine Lovegrove, a black woman who made me feel that maybe one day I could make it in publishing. The 12-month literary course being organised by gal-dem in collaboration with Sharmaine Lovegrove is way too necessary. Reading may not make you into a radical but writing yourself into existence definitely will. No matter how much shade Miss Thing, Lionel Shriver, tries to throw, she can’t do much about the fact that, in the fated words of RuPaul, “THE LIBRARY IS OPEN!”