Lionel Shriver, known primarily for her 2003 novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin, has been no stranger to controversy in the past. Last month, in her article in The Spectator entitled, “Great writers are found with an open mind,” she criticized Penguin Random House (PRH) for its new diversity policy. Terming them “drunk on virtue,” Shriver strongly opposed the prospect of establishing a catalog of literature based primarily on demographics rather than talent, questioning whether this box-ticking approach would keep publishers and editors from selecting quality works of fiction.
The policy in question aims, by 2025, to reflect UK society in hiring and publishing. Their goal, the PRH said, was to be “driven by [their] strong belief that the books [they] publish should reflect the diverse society in which we live.”
Disagreeing with Shriver’s assumption, the PRH reiterated their point that Shriver viewed “diversity and quality as mutually exclusive,” which, according to them, isn’t the case. That actively seeking out writers from communities that have been under-represented and overlooked wouldn’t mean the endorsement of second-rate books but rather would help massively talented authors from these communities to flourish and succeed, which they deserve but so rarely do due to lack of opportunities.
With controversy gearing up on this, Shriver was dropped from a judging panel by Mslexia magazine for her comments.
Similarly, back in 2016, she had made headlines after giving a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival wearing a sombrero, bemoaning the tribalism of cultural appropriation. “Those who embrace a vast range of ‘identities’—ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability,” she had said,“—are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.”
The situation then had, in similar fashion, escalated fast. The organizers distanced themselves from her, disowned her speech, and planned “Right to Reply” sessions in response.
This time around, Hanif Kureishi, bestselling author of The Buddha of Suburbia, joined in on the conversation in favor of the diversity policy, referring to the backlash as “the usual knuckle-dragging, semi-blind suspects with their endlessly repeated terrors and fears.” In an article published in The Guardian, he said, “They appear to believe that what is called ‘diversity’ or ‘positive action’ will lead to a dilution of their culture. Their stupidity and the sound of their pathetic whining would be funny if it weren’t so tragic for Britain.”
According to Kureishi, white men and women had benefited for centuries in this field due to positive discrimination, and that it was only logical that others now deserve a push forward in order to have a fair playing field.
Shriver responded to her critics in a second article in The Spectator, entitled, “Don’t fight racism with racism,” accusing them of willfully misreading her point. She stressed that she wasn’t against diversity but had objected to the way it was being implemented at the PRH, which was through “quotas,” opining that “diversity doesn’t lower standards, quotas do.”
Kamila Shamsie, who has just recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her latest novel, Home Fire, concurred with Kureishi, saying, “To say that by focusing on writers that aren’t white means you are suspending all literary merit doesn’t make any sense. It’s a way of acknowledging that we have a blind spot—whatever industry you are in it’s easier to get noticed if you’re from a certain kind of background so to have a corrective to that seems fine. Class is the biggest issue and the less spoken-about one.” She was, however, against Shriver being fired from the judging panel.
Quotas rarely do help enrich the literary sphere of a nation, for art and artists seldom mirror the demographic makeup of the population. However, it is worth noting that what we often consider as “good literature” is literature written by primarily a specific group of people from a specific place and therefore the possibility of a different type of narrative being labelled as “bad” due to its being different is high. This is a probability that critics of the diversity policy often overlook. That we must, in no circumstance, compromise on quality is obvious. That there needs to be more diverse voices and narratives is obvious as well. The real trick here, then, is to implement a method that doesn’t just stay satisfied with a list that reads “not all white” but one that sincerely delves deep into those under-represented communities and provide their best and brightest writers the opportunity to not only have their voices heard for a change but also to have enriched literature on the way.