To hell with woke publishers

The gatekeepers of the creative industry are riddled with a nasty strain of identity politics.

Gareth Roberts

Topics Books Culture UK

ASH Literary is on the hunt for budding children’s book authors. ‘We are actively seeking voices that have historically been underrepresented’, the submissions section of the agency’s website tells us. ‘For example, we are not interested in stories about white, able-bodied [Second World War] evacuees, but would welcome that story from a disabled, LGBTQ+ or BIPOC [black, indigenous or people of colour] perspective’, it explains.

Leaving aside for a moment the big question of what on Earth the term ‘indigenous’ could possibly mean in a British context, this reads like a sophomoric parody of the modern publishing industry. But I’m afraid it is real. And when we stop laughing at the thought of a blue-haired ‘nonbinary’ stepping nervously off a train at a remote rural station in 1940 – which would be rather like Neville Chamberlain bopping along to some Chiptune – there is something quite troubling about this stuff, uncovered among other examples by Charlotte Gill in the Sunday Telegraph.

The nub of things comes a little later on the same page of the ASH agency’s site, which reads: ‘If your book is about an identity that is not yours, we will not be a good fit.’ What a grim traducement of the power and the purpose of literature – of humanity, even – that nasty little sentence is.

The so-called creative sector is awash with such hogwash. The gatekeepers – casting directors, commissioning executives, agents and administrators, in particular – are absolutely riddled with the imported Californian cant of the DEI-HR ideology. ‘BFI Discovery and Impact feature funding awards money from the National Lottery to support original live-action and animation feature filmmaking’, the website of the British Film Institute proudly declares, before going on to present a long and arcane list of pettifogging ‘eligibility criteria’ for its golden pot of lotto cash. The BFI’s diversity targets aim for 18 per cent of the money to go to people with disabilities ‘including those identifying as deaf or neurodiverse or with a longstanding physical or mental diagnosis’; 30 per cent to people who are ethnically diverse and live outside of London; 50 per cent to women (who ‘identify within the gender binary’); and 10 per cent to ‘LGBTQIA+’ people, ‘including those identifying outside the gender binary’.

This call for diversity is highly ironic. Let’s just say that the gatekeeper class is demographically slender and, in my ‘lived experience’ of the creative sector of over 30 years, getting ever slenderer. A mate of mine calls it the ‘Alicetocracy’, though not in public. (ASH Literary is, inevitably, run by an Alice.)

Like so much of the racial and identity discourse of our age, this is really a proxy class war between white people. Actual minority people are totally incidental to it, mere props used to goad, wheeled on like dressmakers’ dummies to provide some colour. To say the correct things, to be good little serfs and parrot the lines of their betters. Woe betide the minority person who says the ‘wrong’ thing.

This can often feel like being asked to be a performing seal. I was once asked by someone punctiliously woke to add some of ‘your gay humour’ to a script.

ASH Literary’s suggestion of an LGBTQ+ evacuee of colour is a perfect example of this syndrome – it will provide some juicy racism, a bit of Empire, a soupçon of provincial working-class ignorance – tick, tick, tick. All to firm up the high-status opinions of the contemporary white upper-middle class. And what does that leave you with in a book? Less a story, more like an index, and about as satisfying a read.

This has led, inevitably, to the ghastly spectacle of good writers straining to get some ‘social justice’ into their work, just to get their foot in the door. I recently read a cracking contemporary thriller by someone who bish-bash-boshed the racism quota in two excruciatingly written pages. The story, and the talent, were interrupted mid-flow, as if by a particularly inane advert in the middle of a gripping YouTube video. At least in this particular case, the writer had the nous to get it over and done with tout suite before going back to normal.

All culture now comes to resemble the clunking ‘pamphlet’ moments in an episode of Eastenders. The likes of ‘Ere, Kathy, ’eard the latest about Mark’s HIV diagnosis?’ now sound positively naturalistic.

Yes, fiction obviously can be about social issues and identity, but that requires a rare talent to pull off. It can also be about freeing yourself. If literature has a higher purpose – and does it need one? – it’s surely about putting yourself, writer or reader, into someone else’s mind and shoes. I recently read Under the Net, the astonishingly accomplished first novel by Iris Murdoch, which vividly captures (among many other things) the interior life of a somewhat louche young man. There are countless other examples – James Baldwin was writing from ‘an identity that was not his own’ as the narrator of his masterpiece, Giovanni’s Room.

The current idea in publishing that we are incapable of understanding people who are different to us, that human beings are divided inescapably by race, sex and class, is obscene. It is really not all that different from the ideology of the far right. It is like Nick Griffin but with an MM LaFleur suit and a crisp little salad for lunch. To hell with it.

Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Culture UK


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