In this time of instant gratification and Instagram, getting your work seen or heard as a creative can be instantaneous. Whether you’re a visual artist, a musician, or even a writer; there are about ten times more opportunities to get your art out there compared to what was available 20, 10, or even 5 years ago.
For the aspiring writer, you can now get your words out in 140 characters on Twitter, with a status update on Facebook, via your own blog, through online writing competitions, or even by submitting your work to a plethora of online magazines and publications. There’s just so much opportunity out there, right? Well recently I’ve begun to wonder about that.
I’m a big fan of the long form myself, and by that I mean, that I’ve always had some pretty lofty dreams about becoming a novelist. As a child I was (and still am) obsessed with books and hoped to one day muster up enough endurance to complete my own personal Everest and write something book length. However, when I finally did, I had to come down from my cloud of fantasy about immediately getting a publishing deal, fairly quickly. Instead I found that I had to start thinking about selling myself and what would make me sound interesting as a writer.
I was naively convinced that publishers and literary agents would only be interested in how good my book was, not my back story. I know that as a reader, all I care about when I pick up a work of fiction, is how engrossed I’m going to get into the book, and what other readers have said about it. I might glimpse the author’s biography afterwards if I really enjoyed it, but even then, the chances that I’ll do that are slim.
However, I accept that others may not be that way inclined. Plus, all the guidance I read on getting published seemed to heavily push the “back story angle” as a debut novelist; as if a few short sentences in a bio could make or break your career as a writer. I found myself beginning to use phrases to categorise myself when submitting my work to agents, like “previously worked as a psychotherapist”, “Charity worker”, and even “a Ghanaian raised in London”. I wanted to be all about the story I’d written and nothing else, and I knew my personal ethnic heritage had little to do with the main themes of my book; my ethnicity was simply by the by. Yet the advice online and in all the ‘getting published’ guides seemed to hint at pushing what was interesting about you as the author, and a non-white British ethnicity was definitely an interesting thing, apparently.
I wondered about other writers who made it to the mainstream bookshelf, and especially those who fell into that often vague category of “Black British”. Did they ramp up the importance of their own ethnicities so that their fictional stories were put on the path to getting published? And would that be what we all had to do in the end?
So I did what any sane person with a laptop and too much time would do: I Googled “Black British Authors” just to see what was out there. I was mildly surprised to find very little actually. The usual names popped up (Ben Okri, Zadie Smith and Malorie Blackman) but the list was short and historical by publishing standards. This took my search in another direction, where I was looking for any Black British author published in the last few years. I wanted some current evidence of those voices that can be so insightful, complex and elusive all at once; the ones that come from having an eclectic and sometimes misplaced background. I wasn’t looking for specific stories about a typical black experience (as if there is such a thing); I was just looking for the authors.
Instead I stumbled across a very poignant Guardian article written in April this year about the extreme lack of diversity when it comes to writers getting published in the UK. The article included a review of the Writing the Future Report about the “publishing industry’s poor commitment to diversity”, and within it literary agents themselves admitted that the number of non-white authors successful in engaging the UK publishing industry in the last ten years is at an all-time low. Of course there could be a number of reasons for this, which are explored in the report, but the anonymity of the sources suggests that it’s not because of a lack of talent. As an aspiring writer of colour, this kind of news is disheartening at best.
You mean my imagination is also screened by race?
I’m being glib, but I think it’s necessary. This wasn’t the first time I had heard about the struggles to get published when race was brought into the frame of conversation; and not always by the non-white author. As I wrote in an article about African Romance, a prolific romance novelist recounted how she opted to self-publish her work because her characters were successful black Africans and her publishers wanted something more in the frame of “mud huts”. She understandably backed out of a deal with them, but her experience isn’t a lone one.
Within the same Guardian article mentioned, it was found that many non-white authors were encouraged to edit their manuscripts with more details that “conform(s) to white preconceptions”, in a bid to make their work more marketable in the UK. This of course implies that you’re more likely to get published as a black Brit with stories of slavery, tribes and perhaps a stereotype of a black experience that the western world is comfortable with. And what if you’re not even writing specifically about a black or non-white experience at all, in any frame; is there really a place for you on the UK bookshelf?
I’d like to think the answer to that is a resounding YES, and that any good writer knows that if you’re not writing about what you feel most passionate about (whether it’s a rich and historically accurate account of a slave experience, or it’s cowboys in space) then you’re probably not producing your best work anyway.
Still, I cannot pretend that being Black and British has no relevance to the opportunities available, especially in an industry that is hundreds of years old and still has a ways to go in becoming more educated about the modern world. Personally I think that diversity should be celebrated, but that’s just me.
What is encouraging though is that now the inequality in the publishing industry is being talked about and highlighted. The Writing the Future Report has made big leaps in awareness-raising, and the internet is starting to take notice too. At the end of my search, not only did I find a website dedicated to Black British Women Writers, but I also found an 88 strong list of Good Reads by Black British Authors; compiled by a kind and considered reader. It boasts a list of accomplished writers whose stories shout volumes above their bios and their origins.
The existence of the list itself shows that we haven’t yet gotten to a place where we can fully take the ethnicity of the writer out of the equation, and perhaps for now we shouldn’t have to. Indeed, the fact that I searched specifically for that list says something important about wanting to see the Black British voice represented.
As a struggling writer, the odds are against you regardless of background, and the chances of getting to the status of Bernadine Evaristo or Helen Oyeyemi are slim, but not impossible. And yes, the struggle is probably much harder for those from non-white backgrounds, but since when did we ever let that stop us from succeeding?
Written for Idan Quarterly in 2015.
Image credit: Reading by Laymik from the Noun Project