Yesterday I went (via the power of Zoom) to a panel event at the first under-represented writers’ festival from Untitled Writing – you may recall I had a story in their first journal a few months back. The theme of the panel was What We Need To Do, i.e. how do we get more/better representation for those writers we currently don’t hear much from. Hosted by Ollie Charles who co-founded Untitled Writing in 2019, the panel was made up of Abi Fellows (agent at The Good Literary Agency), Andrew McMillan (poet and lecturer), Yvonne Battle-Felton (author and lecturer), Paul Burston (author, journalist, founder of the Polari Prize), Nelima Begum (from The Literary Consultancy), and Ben Townley-Canning (poet, editor of fourteen poems). Interestingly – and not to take away from any of the discussion, particularly since I’m about to argue we don’t need like for like representation – that’s 3 middle-aged gay white men on a 6-person panel, no mention of disability until the audience questions, and only a brief mention (from Abi in the context of having children) of caring responsibilities. More of all that anon…
Ollie began by mentioning the recent report from Spread the Word and Goldsmiths, Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing – if you haven’t read it, give it a look, they make recommendations as well as spelling out the problems. However, as Yvonne pointed out, in the eight years since she moved over from the US to the UK there’s been plenty of robust research but nothing much has changed as we (by which I mean UK writing and publishing as a whole) don’t seem that good at translating it to meaningful actions.
One of the stumbling blocks, which the Spread the Word report mentions and which Paul brought up in the discussion, is relatability. The publishing industry in the UK, which is predominantly white, middle-class, and London-based, have a sort of default reader/book-buyer in mind who is female, white, middle-class, and probably London-based. If this reader doesn’t ‘relate’ to the characters in a novel, the idea goes, then they won’t buy it. Sounds reasonable, until you realise that by ‘relate to’ the publishers seem to mean ’embody’.
I agree wholeheartedly with Paul that it’s insulting to readers to suggest they can’t relate to characters from vastly different backgrounds from them, but it’s still used as a publisher’s excuse for not wanting to take on novels with gay, BAME, disabled, working-class etc main characters, which often equates to not taking on gay, BAME, disabled, working-class etc writers. Andrew (representing the strongly-accented north on the panel, as well as gay poets) likes to point out on Twitter that 83% of the English population lives outside London. And yet we’re all expected to want to read London-set books.
Having said all that, I also agree with Andrew’s point that it can be restrictive if a writer is expected, even allowed, to write only about the subject that makes them a minority. While it’s entirely natural for the main characters in your novel to share your background, your disability, your sexuality – that is, after all, the easiest way to make sure you’re fully inside that character’s space and representing it to the best of your ability – it should also be possible to write outside of that. Andrew pointed out that his latest poetry collection is heavy on gardening, now he’s middle-aged, and Paul’s current novel has no gay characters because that’s what he felt best served this particular plot. That is their choice and their prerogative. Paul should be free to write gay characters in his novels without publishers thinking it makes it a niche ‘gay-interest’ novel, and also free to not have any gay characters without then being seen as short-changing people who he’s been marketed to in the past as a ‘gay novelist’, or as doing it to blend in (somehow letting down fellow gay writers). I’ve seen BAME writers in particular who are damned as niche if they want to write about their own background, and damned as somehow ‘not BAME enough’ if they don’t. This is one of the obstacles we need to get past.
Despite, as I mentioned at the start, there not being what you might call a full range of minority interests on the panel, there was a wealth of understanding and I think this is a key point. Everyone is an individual, people have different intersections and different priorities – their class might feel more of an issue than their sexuality, for instance – so it’s not necessarily about finding someone who has the exact same problems as you, it’s about finding someone who understands there are barriers and is willing to listen to what yours are and help you get around them.
Yvonne talked about feeling unwelcome at certain events, not necessarily because of who she was – as a black American woman in the north of England she said she wasn’t expecting to run into anyone quite like her – but because the events were not welcoming, seemingly to anyone. I know exactly what she means, and I also know that feeling of being made to feel like you do belong, you are meant to be there, regardless of who else is in the room – those are the best kinds of events, and given the prevalence of imposter syndrome in all kinds of under-represented writers, it’s that kind of generally welcoming atmosphere that we should be aiming at.
On a related note, Paul mentioned the reduction in the number of editors and agents from working-class backgrounds he runs across now, compared with say twenty years ago. In itself this doesn’t matter, but when they don’t get your characters and therefore assume no-one else will, even though you know that anyone from a similar background to your own would recognise those types of characters immediately, it becomes a gate-keeping problem. Replace working-class here with BAME, disabled, any other under-represented characteristic and you begin to see why it’s so hard to break through, particularly with novels. The number of agents I’ve either crossed off my list or approached with extreme caution because of their English degree from Oxford, or their alienating London life as evidenced on social media, is ridiculous. They are the single person who gets to say whether a novel even gets as far as a publisher, most of the time, and if they don’t click with characters who aren’t like people they know in real life, that’s a whole swathe of novels they’re rejecting straight away. It makes me wonder if there should be slush readers from different backgrounds you could go through instead – this manuscript has faithfully represented Cumbrian farmers and anyone in the rural north will recognise these dilemmas, I endorse it for the agency…
It can take a long time to build up a career, or break through. I think I’ve said before how wrong it seems that there are so many age based opportunities, as though if you’re over 30 you’ve missed the boat. Many people don’t have the confidence, or the leisure, to write until later life. A lot of attention (and prizes) go to debut novels, so it can feel like you only get one shot at success. Andrew said that writers need ‘the gift of time and patience’ from editors, and I think he’s right. If you have an illness that ebbs and flows, if you have caring responsibilities, if your day-job has peaks of overtime or exhaustion, then you’re not going to be able to write steadily and progress smoothly, either.
Andrew mentioned patience as well as time. You may not know ‘the done thing’ if you don’t know anyone in the business – I’ve submitted scripts to various BBC opportunities over the last five years or so, diligently following the templates on the BBC website. I did wonder how someone reading the script was supposed to know to read a particular character in a Geordie accent, but nowhere on the template was there a place to put that kind of information and I decided it must be considered amateurish to do so, like sprinkling it with too many parenthetical instructions. An acquaintance with Radio 4 experience kindly offered via Twitter to look at one of my scripts recently and his first comment when I emailed it to him was about the lack of a voice list – how was he supposed to know what register each character was speaking in? I had applied to the BBC’s Galton and Simpson bursary that week, with – you guessed it – no indication of how the characters in my sitcom spoke, and I felt wretched and like I’d wasted yet another opportunity.
Writing and publishing, in fact the arts in general, can seem like a bit of a club sometimes, one where knowledge of the unwritten rules is used to screen applicants. What’s wrong with transparency? Sabrina Mahfouz wrote a useful guide to applying for arts funding, aimed at working class artists but really for anyone lacking relevant experience, and there’s a new list of successful funding applications so you can go see how it’s done. There are all sorts of highly specific things to master, like synopses and covering letters, and it’s no use saying ‘write it like you’d write any other business letter’, when some of us have never written a business letter. Setting out requirements clearly, giving examples, is helpful to everyone unless you really are trying to keep out the plebs.
Coincidentally yesterday, Frances Ryan had written an article in The Guardian about the need to ‘make room for disabled authors’ which I finished reading moments before I entered the Zoom room for the under-represented writers’ festival. That, I guess, is why I particularly noticed there being no mention of disability during the main panel discussion. Frances Ryan uses a wheelchair, and that’s the first and sometimes only thing people think of when they think disability. We’ve made the conference wheelchair-accessible therefore we’ve ticked accessibility boxes, we’re welcoming disabled writers. In reality it’s a vast area: mental illness, hearing or sight loss, dyslexia, mobility problems, chronic pain, things that are made obvious by a walking stick or hearing aid or can be completely hidden to anyone you don’t choose to confide in, things that are always there or that come and go, things that affect your ability to write itself and things that affect only the necessary extras like festivals or agent meetings.
Because of musculo-skeletal problems stemming from a slipped disc more than 5 years ago, I sometimes struggle with a half-hour train journey or can’t face the prospect of sitting in an unsupportive conference-room chair for an hour and wouldn’t want to have to stay overnight in a strange bed, but other times I’m fine. I never tick the ‘yes I have a disability’ box. I don’t like Zoom but I can’t deny that it’s allowed me to attend all sorts of events in lockdown that I wouldn’t have otherwise been to, and that’s the case for many other people whose disabilities or lack of train fare or caring responsibilities (or all three) normally stop them from travelling long distances. I wouldn’t want Zoom to become the only way of doing it, because some people manage better face to face and not everyone has suitable equipment but it should surely become part of the toolbox, there should be no excuse for saying if a writer can’t get to London for a meeting they must forfeit this opportunity.
There is no single solution, is what I’m saying. Except trying to be inclusive. Listening to people say what their barriers are, and trying to take away as many of those barriers as possible. So fair play to Untitled Writing for trying to prompt another conversation, and for giving under-represented writers a voice, even if they can’t pay them. Their deadline for issue 2 of Voices is September 11th, details are on their website.