Why it’s important to rebalance the books

As part of our year-round work developing new writers we are proud to partner with Penguin Random House’s WriteNow programme, which seeks to change the face of the nation’s bookshelves by discovering, mentoring and hopefully publishing writers from backgrounds that are currently under-represented by the industry. We worked with this project to support it to happen in Newcastle in 2017 and are supporting a second outing in Liverpool this September.

Last year, Penguin Random House stated that it has an aspiration for ‘both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025’. Recently, Lionel Shriver wrote in the Spectator that ‘from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes.’

Although we support freedom of speech, we also believe Shriver’s comments are both offensive and wrong.

For her assumption is based on a belief that the cream will always rise to the top. That ‘literary excellence’ will always find its way to a finished manuscript landing neatly on the right editor’s desk; that the recipients of the highly competitive junior roles in the publishing industry will always be the brightest and most promising candidates.

We disagree. Our experience of working in the North and of working with new writers and young people since 1996 demonstrates to us every day that this is not the case.

We believe that talent is everywhere, but that the industry and our sector (like wider society) does not currently function in a way that promotes equal opportunity. And we think it is worth putting the extra effort into seeking out the writers that might be outside your regular networks.

We believe that talent is not necessarily well connected. That talent cannot necessarily afford a Creative Writing MA or to compete for an unpaid internship in London. That talent does not exist in a vacuum where all the other expectations, responsibilities, and duties of life cannot get in the way. That talent is not the same as self-assurance. That talent’s face does not necessarily fit. That talent did not study at your Alma Mater. That talent might face barriers to achieving its writing ambitions, which are not immediately obvious to everyone else.

Does Shriver really think that the publishing industry is already harvesting all the talent that is out there and bringing it to the fore as published authors and publishing professionals? That it can’t get any better than this?

Fortunately many publishers and writing agencies like New Writing North don’t. Penguin Random House should be admired for stating its aspirations to cast the net further in search of talented authors and professionals, and for working to make those aspirations a reality. As a leading publisher they are also pushing this issue within their industry and publically making commitments to change. Because ticking boxes alone won’t change anything.

We work hard throughout the year on developmental and mentoring programmes like WriteNow. Our Northern Writers’ Awards programme – founded in 2000 – awards work-in-progress from writers across the North who we believe can be supported towards publication and broadcast. Our young people’s programmes like Young Writers’ City work intensively in areas of lower cultural provision, because we believe that all young people should have the chance to become writers.

We do this because we believe there are brilliant writers who are slipping through the net. We want to hear their stories and we want to read their books. And the reason we want to find them is exactly as self-serving as any other reader scouring the shelves of a bookshop in search of their next read: the pursuit of literary excellence.

WriteNow is open for applications for writers until Monday 9 July and for illustrators until Monday 23 July.

The Northern Writers’ Awards 2018 will be announced on Tuesday 26 June.