Kirsty Gunn: Just like Lionel Shriver, we need to talk about hyper-liberalism

Lionel Shriver highlighted Penguin Random House's 'politically correct' agende for new hires and authors
Lionel Shriver highlighted Penguin Random House's 'politically correct' agende for new hires and authors
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When it comes to publishing, it’s the writing, not the writer, that counts, says Kirsty Gunn

Hooray for Lionel Shriver! The British-based American author of We Need to Talk About Kevin has spoken out against what the philosopher John Gray has called “hyper-liberalism” – a sort of contagious form of self-righteous do-good’ishness that is all about ticking every single politically correct and quota-filling inclusivity agenda at the expense of individual deliberation and debate.

Hyper-liberalism is insidious, suggests Gray, promoting consensual agreement and a kind of creepily fake liberal group-think over independent intellectual enquiry and aesthetic excellence. While seeming to be all about decency and fairness and wanting everyone to have an equal shot at things, it is, in fact, he suggests, deeply and scarily restrictive in nature.And now it seems, having run riot through universities and public debating spaces, where all sorts of conversations have been deemed to be “inappropriate” or “no platform”, hyper-liberalism has also come home to roost in the midst of one of our oldest and most established forms of media.

Lionel Shriver has been highlighting the decision of Penguin Random House to opt for promoting a politically correct agenda for “both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025” as described in an email from the company to agents and the press in, as Shriver puts it, “shouty boldface” type. “I’d been suffering under the misguided illusion that the purpose of mainstream publishers like Penguin Random House was to sell and promote fine writing,” she wrote. But instead we find the publishing agenda is to be driven by the company’s proud claim to have “our authors and new colleagues reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability”. What does this mean? she asks. For books and for life? And goes on to worry at the problems of privileging – she uses that word carefully – a certain kind of social or ethnic profile over another. How can tick-boxes on the Penguin questionnaire for authors and applicants, she wonders, be both alarmingly overly complicated – with a myriad of race-based and sexual options to choose from – and simplistic. For white, she observes, is only White: British, White: Irish, White: Gypsy or. . . . White: Other. “If your office is chocka with Greeks, Spaniards, Danes . . .” her list goes on, and “together speaking dozens of languages and bringing to their workplace a richly various historical and cultural legacy, the entire workforce could be categorised as White:Other. Your office is not diverse.”

How brave this author is, to be highlighting the ethical dangers – and idiocies – of promoting one type of person or another over expertise and quality of work. For of course Lionel Shriver is not saying, as some have claimed, that being of a certain ethnic group or from a particular kind of background should prevent anyone’s practice from being taken seriously. The way the word diversity is now used has “little or nothing to do with the productive dynamism of living and working alongside people with widely different upbringings and beliefs,” she sensibly explains. She’s a writer after all. Writers love gorgeous big mixed up diverse lives. It’s what they’re all about, and what Lionel Shriver’s own fiction draws upon so powerfully.

Yet immediately her words set loose a storm of effrontery and upset on social media and she was dragged on to Radio Four to defend herself and was fired from her position as the chair of a judging panel on a prominent women’s writing magazine. What gives? Can no-one express an opinion any more without being berated as a monster who has no understanding of or care for those writers and professionals who might not have shared a position within the so-called “mainstream”? When did it become the case that we all became so “offended” at being offended? Is it really such a big deal to talk about one’s belief in excellence and doing something really, really well, over the banalities of following some directive or other so you look good on the news?

Agendas, agendas . . . They’re everywhere. The other real-life nightmare clouding notions of freedom of speech and independence of thought and the creative act is the so-called “Morality Clause” that is now finding its way into publishing. So you must not only tick all the boxes for the minorities, you have to behave yourself at the same time. Literary agent Caroline Michel has said that the clause, generated in the United States and with wording that cautions writers on “past and future conduct” else their contract will be cancelled, is increasingly in use in the UK – “especially Penguin Random House” she says.

Mmmm, well. I happen to love Penguin books. Always have. When I was a child my mother established for me my Puffin Library – and I was allowed a new title every month to build up my shelves with volumes I passed on to my own daughters. I’ve felt a happy glow when I see that penguin symbol on the spine of a book ever since. Plus I read loads of wonderful Penguin books, know some of their terrific authors and publishers. But this news coming from them now that you don’t need a university degree to work there, must prove in your relation to them their mission statement to “reflect UK Society by 2025” and have authors who toe lines . . . It all smacks of something that has little to do with publishing and everything to do with politics. Special clauses, special pleading, controlled thinking – that’s not what books and imagnation and ideas are about. What would the great Scottish publisher John Murray have said to Byron when the poet delivered his manuscripts and folios? Sorry, mate. You’re too white, too posh and too naughty. He knew, as we do, that it’s the writing, not the writer, that counts.