Well hey Toby Young liked it

Lionel Shriver wrote a thing in the Spectator a few days ago – a sadly prolix, bad-tempered, sneery, predictable thing, one that could have been written by anyone of that Tendency – Steve Bannon, Jordan Peterson, Grumpy McGrumpface, anyone. It’s a “what’s all this fuss about diversity you stupid snowflakes” piece, and it’s every bit as interesting as it sounds.

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.

Stop right there. That’s the very first sentence and already we’re in trouble, because that’s a crock, and she only said it for the sarcasm. The purpose of mainstream publishers is first of all to remain solvent; they want fine writing if they can get it without repelling buyers, but what they want ahead of anything else is writing that people want to buy.

And it’s all like that – stuffed with clichés and lacking actual thought and precision and clarity. The result, ironically, is pseudo-fine writing as opposed to the real thing. Kind of wannabe Mencken or Hitchens but actually just Milo.

A colleague’s forwarded email has set me straight. Sent to a literary agent, presumably this letter was also fired off to the agents of the entire Penguin Random House stable. The email cites the publisher’s ‘new company-wide goal’: for ‘both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025.’ (Gotta love that shouty boldface.) ‘This means we want our authors and new colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.’ The email proudly proclaims that the company has removed ‘the need for a university degree from nearly all our jobs’ — which, if my manuscript were being copy-edited and proof-read by folks whose university-educated predecessors already exhibited horrifyingly weak grammar and punctuation, I would find alarming.

Etc etc etc. You know what it says without having to read it. She may have a ghost of a point, in that publishers and others shouldn’t focus on demographic markers to the exclusion of substance, but then again that’s probably not what Penguin has in mind in the first place, is it, and Shriver probably knows that, doesn’t she.

Drunk on virtue, Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books. Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision. Thus from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some.

Blah blah blah ha ha ha except that’s a caricature, and too broad and sloppy to be really amusing.

The BBC reported on this item and got a response from Penguin:

A Penguin Random House spokesperson said: “Our company-wide goal is driven by our strong belief that the books we publish should reflect the diverse society in which we live.

“After all, books shape our culture, and this should not be driven only by people who come from a narrow section of society.

“We acquire all our writers on talent, first and foremost.

“However, in setting this goal we recognised that we needed to do more in actively seeking out talented writers from communities under-represented on the nation’s bookshelves.”

It’s a matter of seeking out, and of correcting the unconscious tendency to prefer people more like Oneself. It’s not a matter of Shriver’s snide parody.

The Guardian reports today:

Lionel Shriver has been dropped from the judging panel for a writing competition run by magazine Mslexia, after the author slammed publisher Penguin Random House for its diversity and inclusion policies.

Debbie Taylor, editorial director and founder of Mslexia, said that Shriver’s comments in a piece for the Spectator magazine were “not consistent with Mslexia’s ethos and mission” and would “alienate the very women we are trying to support”. Consequently, Shriver would no longer be a judge on their annual short story competition, she said.

At first blush that looks like punitive censorship, but then again if you were entering a writing competition would you want Shriver judging your entry? Would you suspect she would apply criteria that had more to do with snobbery than with quality? Or to put it another way that snarly piece comes across as just mean first of all, as childishly insulting, as hostile. Trumpish. Hostility might not be the best quality for a writing contest judge.

Shriver’s comments were widely condemned over the weekend – one author called the piece “deeply embarrassing” – but gained support from journalist Toby Young.

Ah yes, Toby Young – well he’s another, isn’t he, another of those sneery types who aren’t as clever as they think they are.

It takes a lot of talent to be a good curmudgeon. There aren’t many of them.

18 Responses to “Well hey Toby Young liked it”