Lionel Shriver’s arguments are generally more nuanced than reported and the click bait headlines do her no favours. Underneath the headlines and selective quoting, there are some valid points for discussion.
I am not generally a fan or initiatives that shift the focus from the writing to the writer. Labelling someone ‘a women writer’, ‘a disabled writer’ or ‘a writer from an ethnic minority’, implies the label is significant, a lazy shorthand for someone who writes chicklit, someone who writes about triumphs over adversity or someone who writes about the experience of being from an ethnic minority. Once labelled, it can be hard for writers to escape that label and has a restrictive impact on their writing. It sets the expectation in the reader’s mind that the writer will write in a certain way or even flag a writer as not being for them even if the writer is exploring a topic of interest to them because the reader doesn’t see beyond the label.
The label ‘male, white writer’ is never used because there’s an assumption the default writer is male and white. The work of the default writer has evolved into a yardstick against which all writing is judged. Writing can’t just be measured on objective criteria. You can produce a technically proficient sonnet that’s boring to read. Subjective criteria and cultural values become part of the measurement and, against a white, male yardstick, it’s no surprise writing by writers who are not white or male gets under-represented. Under-representation occurs when writers face additional barriers to publication and when published writers find themselves less likely to get reviewed and less likely to be put forward for prizes.
This is where initiatives to increase representation from under-represented writers have come from. Some of these have been recording statistics on who gets reviewed and who does the reviewing. Some have been in creating new prizes to draw attention to under-represented work. More recently, Penguin Random House have opened a mentoring scheme (publication is not guaranteed) and a crowdfunded anthology focusing on working class writers is underway.
If an increase in representation could be achieved by encouraging under-represented writers to write and submit more work, the imbalance would have been cured by now. It hasn’t done so because “submit more” assumes gate keepers, such as editors, agents and publishers, don’t have biases and work on objective criteria only. Rejection is a key part of being a writer, but writers are only human and no one rises above a long string of repeated rejections, particularly when making submissions to magazines or publishers who don’t publish work by writers like them. For example, if a magazine publishes 40 poems in an issue, each by a different poet, and 35 of those are by men and 5 by women, it doesn’t inspire women to submit work. If women do submit work and get rejected, they are more likely to assume it’s not worth trying again because only 5 publication slots are open to them. A man, seeing the majority of contributors are men and assuming that he has 35 publication slots open to him, is more likely to assume it’s worth trying again.
Balancing initiatives also have to define who they regard as under-represented and assume writers would be happy to identify as the relevant category of under-representation, even if such identification carries stigma and prejudice. Initiatives risk being criticised as filing quotas and possibly diluting the quality of work due to being part of a numbers game instead of focusing on quality. There’s also a risk of alienating those who qualify as under-represented but don’t want to be labelled. Most initiatives rely on writers self-identifying.
Broadly, I think the balancing initiatives have merit, but the debates they’ve triggered need more nuance and less black-and-white thinking. Immediate responses to click bait headlines or selectively quoting to support an agenda is not the way to contribute to the debate.