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Lionel Shriver and the rigging of the book market

June 15, 2018

10:08 PM

15 June 2018

10:08 PM

Should the arts reflect the demographic make-up of their society, and be subject to quotas and affirmative action, in the name of diversity? Or should they be exempt from the imposition of quotas, as a meritocracy in which the only affirmative action is the one that recognises talent? This, I reckon, is the question at the heart of this week’s media case, The People (on Twitter) versus Lionel Shriver.

Shriver, born in Gastonia, North Carolina, is a American export to Britain, and much appreciated over there for her novels and journalism. This week, she was persecuted by a less welcome American export, the modern Salem that is trial by Twitter mob. Her crime was to have ridiculed a ridiculous letter that Penguin Random House has sent to literary agents. Penguin has identified a ‘new company-wide goal’, in addition to the old company-wide goal of drinking at lunchtime. From now on, Penguin wants ‘both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025’.

‘I’d been suffering under the misguided illusion that the purpose of mainstream publishers like Penguin Random House was to sell and promote fine writing,’ Shriver wrote in the London Spectator. She then drew the reasonable conclusion that, when Penguin are looking for manuscripts, ‘from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability sexual preference and crap-education boxes’.

Shriver was accused of racism, just as she was in September 2016, when she pointed out that the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ runs counter to the principles of fiction, and even the right to an independent imaginative life. She was publicly dropped as a judge for a writing competition run by the women’s magazine Mslexia; no one seems to mind that the magazine’s crass title is insulting to dyslexics. Hanif Kureishi, who happens to have a new book to promote, has jumped in, and accused Shriver of ‘knuckle-dragging’ and ‘a conservative fear of other voices’, as well as the familiar feminine errors of ‘stupidity’ and ‘pathetic whining’.

Anyone who bothers to read Shriver’s original article knows that this is mere malice. Then again, anyone who looked at Penguin Random House’s catalog for Spring 2018 will see that Penguin has a sex problem. Of the thirty-two authors in the Allen Lane imprint, only two are women. The Pelican imprint, 11-3 in favour of the chaps, is little better. On the bright side, Allen Lane is well ahead on its quotas for gay and East Asian writers. About 2 percent of Britons identify as gay, but Didier Erebon (Returning to Reims), raises Allen Lane’s gay quota to 3 percent. Singapore’s Kishore Mahbubari (Has the West Lost It?) puts the East Asian quota close to a nationally representative 4 percent.

Over at the Particular imprint, however, Penguin needs to dump some minority writers if it is to conform to British demography. Two of the three authors are women, and both of the women (Meera Lee Patel and Yrsa Daley-Ward) are writers of colour. The non-white population of Britain is about 12 percent. This means that Penguin should publish a book by either Patel or Daley-Ward about once a decade. And as both of these books came out in 2018, no other non-white writers need apply to Particular until 2038.

The problem with universal principles, or even with principles that purport to be universal, is that, if they are to be universal, they should cut both ways. So let’s apply them to all forms of entertainment. Obviously, there are too many Jews in the publishing business and on the book shelves. While Penguin Random House cuts its number of Jewish employees to a UK-standard 0.2 percent, the agents can establish whether any Jews are slipping under the Judenradar, and cull them from their lists. Perhaps a court case or two will establish whether a Heine-style conversion will still be a passport to civilisation, and whether a writer with one Jewish parent will be treated as a literary mischling.

Why stop there? Depending on the method of counting, African Americans constitute somewhere between 12 and 18 per cent of the total population, and Whites between 62 and 77 per cent. Yet in 2015, 74.4 per cent of NBA players were African American. Clearly, it is morally urgent that three in every four African American players in the NBA be kept off the court. Once the reasons have been explained, they won’t mind moving over, say, for Asian Americans, who constitute 5.6 per cent of the population, but only 0.2 per cent of NBA players.

Now, who would claim that the quality of the NBA would be improved by purging its most talents players? Who would claim that the quality of rap music would be improved by raising the numbers of White rappers on the radio and television to demographically appropriate levels, and cutting the number of African American rappers? And who would claim that the quality of British literature would be improved by demographic tokenism?

The primary purpose of art and entertainment is not the reflection of the management’s political principles. At least, it isn’t like that in free societies. It has, however, always been like that in unfree societies. There is a word for that sort of thing: propaganda. A free society also requires an educated public. It is there, in the schools, that the public is failed by neglect. A pity, then, that soon the public will also be failed by the rigging of the book market.

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