The Dominance of White Publishing: In Response to Lionel Shriver

Poppy Jennings


It’s no secret that the publishing industry is seriously lacking in BAME voices (Black and Minority Ethnicities). And as much as publishers are striving to be more inclusive through writing schemes and internships specifically for black and ethnic minorities, this venture for inclusivity is still met by some with aversion.

A few weeks ago, Lionel Shriver slammed Penguin Random House about their intentions to diversify their staff and book lists to match our country’s wealth of cultures and ethnicities. Lionel Shriver is best known for writing the book-turned-film We Need to Talk about Kevin. From a middle-class white writer with questionable opinions about cultural appropriation and misrepresentation of diverse groups, a statement slating publishers for wanting to diversify the literature they publish isn’t very surprising.

The controversial and ill-received statement came about after Penguin’s inclusion policies, the aim to reflect society’s level of diversity in literature they publish by 2025. Basically, Penguin have recognised that our society is not simply made up of middle-class white people and it’s about time the industry started striving to offer more representation and stories for people that are not middle-class and white. But also, and just as importantly, they want to share diverse stories with the middle-class white people in the UK that would not necessarily otherwise engage with those stories. It’s important to represent various walks of life, and not just through the eyes of white men and women who benefit from a privilege and aesthetic that separates them from other ethnicities.

Lionel Shriver said that Penguin are “drunk on virtue” and that “literary excellence will come secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference, and crap-education boxes.” Just take a moment to digest that statement, and the barrier Shriver places between literary excellence and identifying as a minority of some kind. Is it such a ridiculous thought for Shriver to comprehend, that a person with a disability or from an ethnic minority background could write a piece of literary excellence despite their day to day discriminations rather than get published because of their discriminations?

Let’s consider for a moment that Shriver is genuinely concerned about the quality of writing in regards to this new inclusivity policy. It would be irresponsible and equally discriminatory for editors or agents to acquire manuscripts simply because that writer ticks a box. But no one is disputing this. No one disputes it in relation to the extremely gruelling BAME Graduate Schemes that publishers have, nor do Penguin, in particular, dispute this when considering who to take on for their incredible #WriteNow program. What publishers are recognising, albeit a little late, is that minorities and their stories have been discriminated against in this industry because the assumption still exists that UK readers only want to read white middle-class voices, rather than a range of culturally diverse stories.

So Penguin, amongst others of course, are making a stand. They’re contacting literary agents they receive manuscripts from and asking them to consider this inclusivity policy, promoting positivity with the agents when they’re looking for authors. It isn’t in place to push agents to only accept manuscripts from minority writers, not even close, but it will encourage agents to consider stories about cultures and experiences that they previously might have thought ‘too different’ from the status quo of modern publishing. They’ll be made sure that Penguin, for one, will be more inclusive of manuscripts they are sent from minority writers that they may not have in the past.

Our society is made up of an incredible number of cultures and religions, and yet, when walking into a bookshop and browsing whichever genre you may be interested in, it’s less likely you’re going to find those diverse stories. Our publishing industry does not reflect our society and a huge amount of people find themselves lacking representation in literature. This is what Shriver seems unable to grasp.

With the thousands of books published every year, an incredibly worrying amount of them being from white middle-class writers and experiences, why does she have such a problem with publishing companies increasing their intake of more diverse stories? Could it be because she benefits so incredibly from white privilege in every aspect of modern society that she’s grasping for any reason she can to quiet those voices crying out for more diversity and representation? Coming from a person who believes everyone who works in publishing needs a degree to do their job, it’s not totally out there to assume her stance is so discriminatory.

When weighing the seriousness of the situation, it’s always nice to have some facts and statistics to go along with the discussion, right? Here’s a shocking one:

The CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) released a study earlier this week called Reflecting Realities – A Survey of Ethnic Representation within Children’s Literature 2017. Of the 9115 children’s books published last year in the UK, only 391 of them featured BAME characters with only 1% featuring a main character that was BAME. To compare, 32% of pupils in schools are of minority ethnic origins. As this only applies to children’s literature, there’s no telling how vast the lack of representation in Fiction and Non-Fiction adult titles is.


We need to strive for better representation. It’s ridiculous to raise children on stories that rarely present characters that reflect them. It’s damaging for children from ethnic minorities to be force-fed white characters over and over again with no representation of African, Asian, or South American heritage, to name a few. Not only white people read, so why are we only catering to them? Why is our representation of our own society so bad? Because we have a systemic problem with racism and discrimination that is still so heavily ingrained in our industries.

We have people like Lionel Shriver who believe stories about other ethnic and class backgrounds compromise on quality, that put their opinions out into the world in an attempt to keep white privilege in control of our industries. One amazing thing that did come out of Shriver’s ridiculous and offensive statement is that she was dropped as a judge for a writing competition hosted by Mslexia. They felt it would be inappropriate to have someone with her opinions judging the writing of an incredibly varied list of writers across the UK. *insert applause here* This, coupled with the backlash from publishers and literary lovers everywhere, is exactly the kind of stance we all need to be taking to make our society better for everyone.

Book Recommendations from Poppy and Beth:

To end this article on a better note, here’s a handful of book recommendations by some amazing BAME writers across a range of genres so there’ll be something here for everyone. Do you have any favourites?

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Brit(ish)by Afua Hirsch
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Quicksand by Nella Larsen