Saturday, 16 June 2018

Some Thoughts on Diversity in UK Publishing

Lionel Shriver’s response to Penguin Random House’s diversity policy resulted in many, many responses, but of all the responses to Shriver, Peter Gordon’s stood out, because for someone like me who is an author as well as a reader, this passage from his response shows that Penguin Random House AND Lionel Shriver are right, and that it is precisely because of this that self-published works are the future both for authors and readers:

A Chinese author from China in translation adds just as much diversity – arguably more – than an emigrĂ© writing in English or a second-generation British-Chinese or Chinese-American writer. From my viewpoint in Hong Kong, writing from an ethnically Asian writer in the US or Britain is not necessarily terribly Asian at all: a Chinese-American novel, for example, often has more in common with mainstream American fiction than it does with Chinese fiction written in China in Chinese.

I consider that such sentiments were written without understanding what ‘Asianness’ and ‘Chineseness’ are, and without regard to the completely different novel-writing traditions which exist in Chinese and English, but I digress. In the light of the above, the following examples must be considered to see why both Penguin Random House AND Lionel Shriver are right, and the implications for readers if a publisher or literary agent shares the same views as Gordon.

Lu Xun, Albert Einstein, Sax Rohmer, Pearl S Buck, Amy Tan, Kevin Kwan, and Pingping Wong have all written 'fiction about Chinese people’. Lu Xun was ethnically Chinese, lived in China, but was multilingual; Rohmer an Irish reporter in Britain who did not speak, read, and write any Chinese, never visited China, and based his novels about Chinese people on the few he wrote about as a reporter (and yes, they were criminals, but bear in mind that he was a reporter); Einstein a German Jewish scientist who did not speak, read, and write any Chinese and visited a small Chinese city over two days; Buck a white American missionary who was born and lived in China, spoke and wrote in Chinese, and had a Chinese name; Tan an ethnic Chinese, culturally a mix of American and Chinese, who has lived all her life in the US; Wong an ethnic Chinese born and raised in London, and culturally a mix of Singaporean, British, and Chinese, while Kwan is ethnically Chinese, raised in Singapore and the US, but culturally a mix of Singaporean, American, and Chinese. 

If Gordon’s thoughts were policy, then only Lu Xun’s writing would be published, and it is solely for this reason that I, as a reader, must disagree with him. I insist on having the choice to read all of these authors' works. For publishers, the benefits should be clear: more money will change hands for works a reader likes (hello Lu Xun, Pearl S Buck, Amy Tan, Kevin Kwan, and Pingping Wong; bye-bye Albert Einstein (I'll buy his physics-based works only, very reluctantly) and Sax Rohmer). 

And this leads to a more pertinent question: given the current emphasis in UK publishing on an author’s identity and background, would Einstein’s observations be more publishable than Rohmer’s, Lu’s, Tan’s, Wong’s, Buck’s, and Kwan’s, simply because Einstein was a celebrity/scientist/‘white man’/German Jew and therefore ‘more trustworthy’ or ‘more sellable’? 

Instead of addressing these issues, authors’ personal backgrounds are now used to market works, and this has led to concerns that authors of fiction are not free to write about characters and topics of a different background to the author's, but if the examples above continue to be used, the question changes. Essentially, should Einstein and Rohmer not be published because ‘Einstein’s and Rohmer’s portrayals of Chinese people were based on fiction that arose from silly, prejudiced views which can only be spotted by a small, tiny group of readers' (which is sometimes dramatically worded as 'some minorities find Einstein and Romer's portrayals of Chinese people racist')? 

I believe that the solution is simple: it is down to a reader to make a choice to accept or reject a work, AND to choose to distinguish whether a work is grounded in fact or whether it is grounded in fiction that results from prejudiced views. 

Those who think that works of fiction can be used to teach others about emotions and about real peoples and cultures will find themselves sadly mistaken, because works of fiction (especially novels and novels in translation) are fiction, but emotions and real peoples and cultures are real. 

In many instances, having a traditional publisher behind a translation also does not guarantee quality. Having authored ‘The Prophecy’ and ‘The Vision: Part One of The Norse Myth Soap Opera Trilogy’, which are fantasy novellas based on Norse mythology, I had to do some research (because I asked too many questions) and came across a gazillion scholarly translations from Old Norse into English of a poem called ‘Voluspa’, which I eventually based all my novellas on. I have seen ‘Voluspa’ rendered as ‘The Seeress’s Prophecy’, ‘The Vision of the Volva’, as well as ‘The Sayings of the Wise Woman’, and to top this off, there is a long Voluspa  and a short Voluspa, and there are actually three versions of the long Voluspa because two original Old Norse texts were combined to create a third text! For one poem alone, information had been added, removed, or made up because of a translator’s bias towards or against people, ideas, or things in Norse mythology and culture, and if this could be done in scholarly studies (NOT retellings, which are subject to a reteller’s imagination) of Deities of ‘white’ culture, imagine the damage done to mere mortals like me who come from a culture which is seen as 'not white/of colour/BAME and therefore automatically inferior/disadvantaged/possessing an advantage of some sort which is not liked by whites'.

The only way for us readers to get a sense of what will nourish us in mind and soul is to distinguish whether we are reading fact or fiction; to ask why we are reading (is it to learn? Or to be entertained?); visit and/or live in as many places as possible; listen to and empathise with a wide variety of people from backgrounds different to ours; and read works in the language they were written in, not works in translation.

Similar actions, I believe, will give authors an edge because it is only through a combination of experience and talent that an author can make a reader feel what his or her characters are feeling; immortality for an author beckons when a reader starts to see characters as real people. Apart from this, I think that timing and luck also help. For example, there were not many authors writing in English when ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets were published, and likewise, there were no English-language novelists around when ‘Robinson Crusoe’ appeared.

Once we get a sense of what we want to accept or reject, we as readers can then distinguish between works that we are made aware of, and decide whose works we want to keep reading and buying.

That a box-based mindset based on identity has been allowed to sink itself, tooth and claw, into the very industry where only the written word and its power to evoke should reign supreme must be balanced with considerations of whether content should be deemed to be publishable, and what content is publishable.

Solely centering discussions around identity has polarised society at large unnecessarily and detracted from the real issue of some authors and readers not actually engaging with the world anymore. As traditional publishing in the UK has failed to address this, thus leading to unsatisfactory reading experiences and missed opportunities to unearth and nurture new talent, authors and readers like me have mined the exciting, fresh, and brave new world of self-publishing and found hidden treasures and sheer, unparalled diversity in authors, readers, and books. With the advent of the internet and cheap flights, we readers must not rely on the outdated mindset of using fiction (such as novels, and especially novels in translation) and the flawed reporting of facts to learn about real peoples and cultures anymore, but actively seek to live in and be part of the changing world we all share, and to enjoy each other for who we are.