When I worked in publishing in the early Noughties, “nobody is going to buy a book with a black girl on the cover” was a thing that people still said, out loud, in professional settings. The received wisdom was that books by and about marginalised people wouldn’t sell. At another meeting (a friend in marketing reported), a male sales rep scoffed that he’d never be able to sell a book because the cover model, a young woman with a Kardashian-esque physique, was “too fat” to be relatable.
That the industry had a diversity problem was impossible to argue with: “an analysis” of the gender makeup of the New York Times list shows how heavily it once skewed male — and how, in the last decade, a massive push to diversify publishing has enjoyed no small amount of success.
But God help any writer bold enough to say so.
When James Patterson noted in an interview last month that older white men weren’t getting writing jobs as easily as they used to, outrage ensued. After being savaged for a week online and in the media, Patterson apologised (not that this mollified his critics). This week, Joyce Carol Oates kicked the same hornet’s nest, writing on Twitter that “a friend who is a literary agent told me that he cannot even get editors to read first novels by young white male writers, no matter how good; they are just not interested”. This state of affairs, she added, was “heartbreaking for writers”, particularly those with the self-awareness to be duly aware of “their own privilege”. But the response from within the literary community was not sadness, but fury.
The outpouring of replies were split between people who argued that Oates’s assertion was false and people who argued that it was true but not heartbreaking, and in fact a real and unmitigated good. And then there were the people who argued both of these things simultaneously, sometimes even within the same breath. For whatever reason, this type of self-refuting argument is particularly ubiquitous on Twitter; the fallacy, which some have termed The Law of Salutary Contradiction, is best summed up as: “this isn’t happening, and also it’s good that it’s happening”. One representative reply read: “I am a literary agent. This is not so. And why ever would we invest our hopes in the continued success of white men in an industry which persists in shutting out queer and BIPOC authors?!”
Is it happening? With more than one extremely high-profile person flat-out accusing Oates of lying, it’s worth surveying the statistics. This is only an informal snapshot of the data, but one that still tells a story: of the 100 most recent debut book deals listed on Publisher’s Marketplace, 83 went to women. Of the remaining 17, 12 went to white men — ten of whom appear to be under the age of 40, and thus young by literary standards. It’s not a total shutout, of course, but it’s also not parity. And the same trend can be observed in terms of not just who’s published, but who’s celebrated; for instance, of the 13 books on the Booker longlist, released this week, three are by white men, none of whom are under 45 (one is the oldest ever recipient of a Booker nomination).
Link to the rest at UnHerd
Would PG be completely wrong if he regarded Wokeness as just another form of bias against persons based upon a characteristic they cannot change?
Looking back at his personal observations of bias over the years, biases come and go.
When PG was a tiny little chappie, in more than a few places in the United States, bias towards Negroes (an obsolete term now, but not then) was a common standard in many parts of the United States. Some states had explicit laws restricting Negroes from engaging in certain activities open to Whites. Moe than a few colleges and universities prevented Negroes from enrolling.
It was quite common both in areas regarded as part of the South and elsewhere for deed covenants and restrictions to prevent Negroes from purchasing homes in a residential neighborhood.
However places not usually considered as Southern also had covenants and restrictions that prevented Negroes from living in a subdivision or neighborhood.
Here’s an example of such a covenant from Prairie Village, Kansas, a wealthy suburb of Kansas City:
“None of said land may be conveyed to, used, owned, or occupied by negroes as owners or tenants.”
Here’s another from a suburb of St. Louis:
“… no part of said property nor any portion thereof shall be for said term of fifty years occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race, it being intended thereby to restrict the use of said property for said period of time against the occupancy of owners or tenants of any portion of said property for residence or other purpose by people of the Negro or Mongolian race.”
And from El Cerrito, a neighborhood in San Diego:
“(15) That neither said lots nor portions thereof or interest therein shall ever be leased, sold, devised, conveyed to or inherited or be otherwise acquired by or become property of any person other than of the Caucasian Race.
“(16) That neither said lot nor any portion thereof shall ever be lived upon or occupied by any person other than of the Caucasian strictly in the capacity of servants or employees actually engaged in the service of such occupant, or in the care of said premises for such occupant, such circumstances shall not constitute a violation of this condition.”
PG has mentioned before that, among those who came of age in the United States during World War II, more than a few ended up being racially biased against Japanese and, in some cases, anyone who looked as if they might be Japanese.
Back to Wokeness today, quite a lot of elite colleges and universities display bias towards Asian-American students in their admissions decisions.
From The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper at Harvard University: