Diverse Books Needs to be More Than an Online Trend

We need more books and readers.

A recent article in The Guardian by Nikesh Shukla questioned how to make the publishing industry less ‘posh’, ‘white’ and ‘male’. In the article Shukla suggests that the “absence of any black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) writers on next year’s World Book Night list [has] provoked an outcry” and asked various writers and prominent figures within the publishing industry for their take on diversity within British publishing and what, according to them, could be done about it.

I have major reservations with Shukla’s statements and would counter that he is jumping to conclusions and displays his own prejudice to what he perceives as some imaginary ‘old boy network’ operating in the publishing industry attempting to silence writers from ethnic backgrounds. He seems to think there is some vast conspiracy against all writers who are not white or male. This is clearly not the case if you look at the previous winners of prestigious literary awards such as the International Dublin Literary Award or a recent article in the same week which stated that women dominate the 100 greatest British books list.

We also need to question what exactly Shukla means when he so derisively refers to ‘white’. Is he referring to Anglo-Saxons, Basque, Bretons, Catalonian, Celtic, Cornish, Croats, Hispanic, Flemish, Gael, Germanic, Latino, Roma, Scandinavian, Scottish, Slavic, Turkic, Walloons or Welsh? According to Shukla’s logic, ‘diversity’ only applies to BAMEs and does not take into account the diversity among ethnic Europeans.

But what really gets me is being spoon-fed ‘diversity’ by someone who obviously spends too much time being outraged every time a World Book Night list is announced or whenever he spots the absence of an ethnic writer in a literary award. Are we to be reduced to the colour of someone’s skin or do we judge a writer on the merits of his or her book? If a book is any good it will be picked up and read. We don’t need Nikesh Shukla, the self-styled ‘diversity cop’ looking through our books and telling us we need to have an ‘equal opportunity’ bookshelf?

Rather than alienating readers with accusatory statements Shukla should focus his attention on encouraging more people to read, particularly men. There is a risk that by making blanket accusations that he ghettoises writers of colour further in much the same way that #BlackLivesMatter has ghettoised an important cause with what many people see as an association with rioters.

The bottom line is that publishing is a business. Publishers take on a big risk when they decide to publish a book. They need to shift books in large enough quantities to cover their costs. Internet memes such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks may make the social justice warriors who post them feel good about themselves but it doesn’t consider this economic reality. Technology is available to everyone which levels the playing field allowing writers to self publish their stories. I wonder if Nikesh Shukla has considered this option or is he too much of a snob to consider self-publishing or even independent publishers who are crying out for diverse books?