Written By: Alison Flood 9/7/15
Novelist Kerry Hudson is setting out ‘a provocation’ calling for wholesale change to encourage and reflect broader spectrum of voices.
The award-winning novelist Kerry Hudson is set to make a bold call for change in UK publishing, which she believes is failing “to reflect the extraordinary spectrum of communities in this country”.
Hudson, author of the prize-winning debut novel Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, will call on Thursday evening for the publishing industry in the UK to ban unpaid internships and commit to a living wage for entry-level publishing positions, in order to “create a workforce which is able to relate to, and champion, more diverse voices, thus making them more visible”.
Speaking at the Untold Stories, Unheard Voices event on diversity in London, part of a series of debates around the country led by Writers’ Centre Norwich, Hudson will lay out a “provocation” on why she believes change is needed.
Identifying herself as working class and queer, she will point to the statistic from Spread the Word’s recent Writing the Future report, which found that only 11% of publishing house respondents had recruitment ties with non-Oxbridge universities; she will highlight the lack of audits for diversity in publishing, and the industry’s predilection for unpaid internships, which exclude those unable to afford working for free.
“We are losing stories in the UK. We are narrowing our literary culture. We have a publishing industry which continues to perpetuate its failure to reflect the extraordinary spectrum of communities in this country and so we are losing that potential vitality, social exploration and innovation in the books we publish,” she will say.
“Unless we tackle this lack of inclusivity, the mountains marginalised writers must climb in order to get and stay published, we may never reach our true potential as an industry.”
Thursday’s event follows the publication earlier this year of Writing the Future, a major piece of research into diversity in publishing which found that “an old mono-culture still prevails” in the industry. Also speaking will be Bloomsbury editor-in-chief Alexandra Pringle, the writer Nikesh Shukla, and the editor and Booker judge Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. Danuta Kean, author of Writing the Future, will also be present.
Meatspace author Shukla, writing about his experiences before the event, spoke of how, prior to his debut Coconut Unlimited being picked up by Quartet Books, he sent it to every agent and publisher he could find.
“They all rejected me, because, they said, the story of three hip-hop obsessed Asian boys was too niche. One agent, white, told me that she didn’t feel the characters were ‘authentically Asian enough’. I asked what she meant. My characters were drawn from my own authentically Asian observations and experiences. I was baffled. She said that none of them acted in a way that readers would identify as Asian,” he wrote in a piece for Writers’ Centre Norwich.
Shukla, who recently made a call for “white people … to write about non-white people”, added that a reviewer once wrote of one of his short stories that “he was glad to see Indians going through the universal experience”.
“The characters weren’t Indian; one was Bengali, one was Pakistani, one was from Watford. That wasn’t even the issue for me,” wrote Shukla. “The thing I found most problematic about this comment was that it was even a question – that an entire subcontinent might miss out on ‘the universal experience’. It’s ‘universal’. That means it applies to everyone.”
Chris Gribble, chief executive of Writers’ Centre Norwich, said that “you don’t get change unless you initiate change, and unless we start to hear these voices and stories, we don’t know what we’re missing out on and become impoverished as readers”.
“We need publishers to back us in that effort, and understand that diversity brings creative and commercial advantages – that it is in everyone’s interests,” he said.
Eva Lewin at Spread the Word revealed that since the publication of Writing the Future in April, “we’ve had emails of support from writers including Philip Pullman and meetings with both HarperCollins and Penguin Random House to discuss the report’s findings”.
“We intend to repeat this research in three years’ time to see what has changed, and in the meantime to work with the publishing industry and the literature sector to promote the fantastic range of BAME authors already published – but who just don’t get the attention they are due – and to support the emerging BAME writers through information, training and networking opportunities,” she said. “It’s about keeping the heat up and demonstrating that the writers and the readers are out there – we all deserve a literature that truly reflects the diversity of the culture we live in.”
Kean added that she was “impressed with the seriousness with which some publishers have responded” to the report, but said “we want more in order to see lasting change. There are still conversations and commitments needed from other publishers – conglomerate and independent. It’s only when we have that commitment and a rigorous desire to get away from tackling diversity only at entry level that we will see lasting change.”
Hudson, this evening, is due to echo her words. “Without making change and making change now we risk turning our proud literary legacy into a factory producing monocultural, ‘safe-ish bets’ based on the success of previously published books on similar models,” she will say. “This is our society and from the top down (more diversity in our boardrooms, an investigation into the glass ceiling existing for senior management) and grassroots up, each of us must take an individual responsibility to ask ‘what can I do?’”