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Arts Books Features Lionel Shriver

A reply to my critics: Don’t fight racism with racism

Dear 2016 WriteNow mentees, Thanks so much for your open letter to me. It seems only good manners for me…

June 22, 2018

1:39 PM

22 June 2018

1:39 PM

Dear 2016 WriteNow mentees,

Thanks so much for your open letter to me. It seems only good manners for me to write back.

You’re rightly proud of having been admitted to a challenging programme at Penguin Random House that mentors gifted young minority authors and helps to cultivate their talents. My own publisher, HarperCollins, runs a similar programme, which enjoys my full support. Such proactive outreach is exactly the approach I endorse for helping to vary the voices on our bookshelves. That is why my column of a fortnight ago said not one discouraging word about WriteNow. Indeed, I made no reference to your programme whatsoever.

Apologies to Spectator readers, any number of whom have contacted me to express their agreement with my real point, and none of whom seemed confused about that point, or ashamed of themselves for concurring with some bigoted screed. To most of them, this column will seem a tortured rehashing of what was perfectly clear the first time. But we live in a dour and censorious age. Perhaps in future it will prove necessary to write every column twice, the original with wit, playfulness and brio. Then I’ll draft a pedantic, leadenly prosaic rendition without any jokes.

To recap: I took specific exception to PRH’s declared intention to have both its staff and list of authors mirror the UK population by 2025 in regard to race, ethnicity, class, disability, sexuality and gender. (As for the last, the company may have to sack a raft of women, who are over-represented in editorial.) These demographic proportions are statistically ascertainable. So while PRH may claim that the planned reconfiguration of its workforce and catalogue over the next seven years is an ‘aspiration’, the aspiration is to pursue numerical quotas.

I do not like diversity quotas, in publishing or anywhere else. They can tempt HR departments to value hitting arithmetic targets over hiring competent workers and tempt editors to value category-bulking authors over the most exceptional writers from any background. To the degree that PRH genuinely aims to ply its wares amongst minority communities with historically few readers, brilliant. That is thinking like a publishing company, whose driving purpose should be expanding its market and selling more books. Nevertheless, the manifestation of a narrow, rigid version of diversity, rather than strong book sales and literary excellence, can too easily become an end in itself. With the relinquishment of judgment abundantly on merit, quality could suffer.

Hitherto, the UK has not extensively employed positive discrimination, which may still seem innocently benevolent in Britain. But, as Coleman Hughes explains, the US has rigorously pursued what we call affirmative action, especially in education, for nearly 50 years. The American experience is cautionary.

Combating injustice with more injustice, and racism with more racism, is philosophically contradictory and pragmatically ham-fisted. In the US, affirmative action has entrenched racial divisions and pitted minorities against one another.

These finger-on-the-scale policies have often benefited the economically well-off who happen to tick a racial box. Intrinsically paternalistic, affirmative action has stigmatised and demoralised the very populations it was designed to help. (You observed how hard WriteNow was to get into, and what stringent standards you had to meet. You want to have been selected because you’re especially talented, right? Not because you improved a PR statistic.) Though brought in to compensate for historical prejudice, this redress has no endpoint. It is never over. Bring in affirmative action, and you’re stuck with it.

Although still defended by most progressives, affirmative action policies have embittered not only America’s white citizenry, but also our large East Asian community, many of whose children have been actively discriminated against in college admissions because they work too hard, excel too much, score too highly on standardised tests, and make too many sacrifices of ordinary teenage pleasures in the interest of career advancement. These applicants have not only been roundly punished, but insulted as well — for the only way that colleges have been able to keep admission numbers down among, say, diligent Chinese and Koreans is, as Coleman Hughes points out, to give East Asians systematically low marks on ‘personality’. So maybe they’re smart, but they’re not nice or interesting people. That racist enough for you?

The suit lodged recently against Harvard University by aggrieved Asian applicants is likely to land in the US Supreme Court, and I wish them success. Mind, the last time affirmative action came under the gavel in DC, the decision hinged on whether the University of Texas was employing quotas — exactly what I object to PRH installing, explicitly or implicitly. Across the board, elite American universities have been accepting roughly the same proportions of each racial category for decades, regardless of variations in rates of application. By stealth, these schools are pursuing quotas, which is unconstitutional, and that’s why college admissions offices are more secretive than the CIA.

The gist, then, is I don’t want to see the UK go down this unfair, anti-meritocratic  and culturally destructive road, in either education or commerce. But that’s not how you interpreted my last column, is it? And your imputations to that piece were mild in comparison to the shriller hysteria I’m told can be found online. The leap is Olympian: Shriver thinks only white people can write. Shriver wants to protect publishing from the barbarians. Shriver thinks diversity necessarily translates into rubbish books. Shriver is a literary white supremacist.

That column wasn’t hard to understand, and I can’t imagine your reading comprehension scores are quite that low. So we’re dealing with what I can only call malicious misinterpretation. No writer can defend against wilful misreading. On the contrary, a text entails a contract between authors and readers: authors will endeavour to deliver their message as clearly as possible; in exchange, readers will meet writers halfway, and make an effort — for reading is an effort, which is why it’s a decreasingly popular medium in an impatient age — to correctly digest this message, even if in the end some of that audience may still disagree with it.

Outrage being the left’s contemporary drug of choice, addiction levels seem to have got so high that it’s not enough to get indignant about what’s actually out there; it’s now necessary to make enraging stories up. But I have a hard enough time sticking up for what I actually believe, and actually put in print, without defending against all the things I don’t believe, and didn’t put in print. I’m afraid this is a textbook instance of what’s becoming all too common: an internet mob effectively rewrites your views, the better to attack them. But a world in which you have said, not what you said, but what other people say you said, is a world in which savvy people stop writing and shut up. After all, this column — it won’t make any difference, will it? The verdict is in.

Tell you what. This is what I don’t hope for you: that you all have long literary careers, weathering many a struggle, setback and disappointment along the way, and finally establish yourselves as authors to be reckoned with — only to discover that when you write the word ‘red’ your readers picture aquamarine, and when you write ‘carrot’ your readers conjure a tractor. The result is something between cynicism and bewilderment.  As Spectator readers may recall, one of my earlier columns described the discouraging experience of having your prose so twisted by its audience that you lose faith in the tools of your trade. In a polarised and broadly illiterate digital universe, full of predators gorging on animosity who are determined to read whatever they wish to, words cease to function. All nuance out the window, the language no longer serves to communicate, and what we writers do for a living is worse than pointless. When others can overwrite our work with whatever they feel like, using our text like a blank screen on which to project their personal power-point presentations, at best tearing scraps of our prose out of context to construct their own gaudy collages, writing anything at all, much less putting truly controversial ideas into the public sphere, becomes too perilous to be worth the risk.

At least you mentees and I do share the same ambition: that in due course, after enough open-mindedness, mutual curiosity and steady incremental progress, occupations like ours are naturally and effortlessly populated by folks from a wide range of backgrounds. We only differ on how we get there. I wouldn’t do it with quotas. Because diversity doesn’t lower standards. Quotas do.

Wishing you the best of luck in a damnably difficult job, 

Lionel Shriver.


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