BAME Authors, the Literary Establishment and the Publishing Industry in the UK
This essay discusses the creation of literary canons of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) fiction.
A Blog Article by Izabella Penier.
Literary canons are instruments of creating national identities. As Benedict Anderson has observed, the print culture, and particularly the genre of the novel, played a crucial part in shaping “imagined communities” of nations (Anderson, 1991, p. 39). In that process, literary criticism is hugely influential – the critics decide which texts will be anthologised, taught and critically revisited. Nonetheless, before the evaluation and elevation of novels to the status of national masterpieces can take place, the publishers, editors and literary agents make the first fateful decisions about which manuscripts will make it to the print. Therefore, I would like to argue, the publishers and agents, like literary critics, are the gatekeepers of national canons and, by extension, architects of national identities.
One of the first critics to elaborate on the role of publishers as creators of national canons was Wendy Griswold. Her article “The writing on the mud wall: Nigerian novels and the imaginary village” discusses the influence of the British publishers on the rise of the Nigerian village novel. Griswold documents how “concerns of British Editors who are themselves imagining what their readers want and Nigerian authors seeking a market for their books and ideas” (1992, p. 719) led to the creation of the genre of village novel1 that has dominated the Nigeria literary canon and market in the United Kingdom (UK). The article shows how a typical picture of African rural life before and after the colonial encounter has been moulded by “the exigencies of literary production” that is by popular demand for postcolonial novels that dramatize the conflict between indigenous pre-colonial culture and modernity; community and society; communitarianism and atomisation; essentialist and constructivist models of identity. This demand was, in fact, created, mediated and exploited by British publishers acting as gatekeepers for African literature, contended Griswold. While the majority of Nigerian novels are about urban themes, more than a half of Nigerian novels published in the UK are village novels offering British readers “a window into a little-known world,” which, according to Griswold, illustrates “the selection bias of British publishers” (1992, p. 721).
In the multicultural society of Great Britain, where it is estimated that “[b]y 2051, one in five people …. [will] be from an ethnic minority” (Kean and Larsen, 2015, p. 2), the questions about who gets past the publishers’ gates and who receives critical acclaim are of paramount importance. These questions are particularly pertinent for Black, Asian, Minority and Ethnic (BAME) writers concerned with the extent to which publishers and critics view their work through what Osborne called “the ethnic-racialising matrixes” (2016, p. 10), i.e. mainstream cultural biases and value judgments. These concerns seem legitimate given the uneven development of BAME fiction. BAME fiction was briefly fashionable in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the next generation was far less successful (Kean and Larsen, 2015, p. 1).
Written by Izabella Penier
Edited by Pablo Markin
Anderson Benedict, 1991. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
Griswold Wendy, 1992. The Writing on the mud wall: Nigerian novels and the imaginary village. American Sociological Review, Vol. 57, No. 6 (Dec.), pp. 709-724 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2096118 [Accessed 27.10.2018].
Kean, Danuta and Mel Larsen, (eds.) 2015. Writing the future: black and Asian authors and publishers in the marketplace. London: Arts Council of England.
Osborne, Deirdre (ed.), 2016. Cambridge companion to British black and Asian literature (1945-2010). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
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- The village novels follow a certain pattern 1) they begin with a presentation of a traditional social order; 2) an external force (associated with colonialism/modernity) disturbs the traditional order; 3) the villagers attempt to restore the ancient order; 4) in the climax, “the forces of restoration and the forces of change” clash; 5) disintegration is the last stage of the plot, in which even if “the traditional order is restored, the village is usually left far less stable and peaceful than it was at the outset of the novel” (Griswold, 1992, p. 714). Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart, is a prototype of such a novel and “by far the best known, most read and most cited Nigerian novel” (Griswold, 1992 p. 716). The novel was written with English audiences in mind, argued Griswold, and it was published by Heinemann. It “appeal[ed] to British editors and to their sense of what the British public was interested in reading” (1992, p. 717).