The Artistic Value of BAME Literary Texts, the Popularity of BAME Authors and the British Publishing Industry
This essay discusses the decline in the interest in Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers, which has triggered in academic circles and in the mainstream and trade press a debate about the artistic value of BAME texts.
A Blog Article by Izabella Penier.
The debate deals with both political and aesthetic questions surrounding production and impact of minority texts as Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) novels engage with issues of national identity and social exclusion and they often do it in an idiom that is different from the mainstream British fiction. Their critical reception raises questions about national literary canons and openness of the publishing industry and market in the UK to ethnic/minority fiction: what support have the BAME authors received, for example, did they have agents; what publishing houses took on their books; what awards the novels have been put up for; how were these novels pitched to particular audiences; which aspects of the novels were stressed in their promotion? If they were critically and commercially successful, what did their success depend on?
To understand the fluctuation in the popularity of BAME authors, it is necessary to gain an insight into the forces driving the publishing industry and literary criticism and explore the barriers to entry both onto the publishing markets and into the literary establishment for aspiring BAME authors. The publishing industry in the UK has to respond to the ethnic and cultural complexity of British society but does not reflect it in terms of the ethnic make-up of its editorial workforce. Consequently, there are many barriers to entering the publishing market for BAME authors connected with the “homogeneity of the UK publishing and agent community” (Kean and Larsen, 2015, p. 8). BAME communities will make 30% of the population by 2050 (Kean and Larsen, 2015, p. 2). Nonetheless, as Akbar has asserted (2017), UK publishing industry is still “hideously middle-class and white.” Only 8% of people in the industry identify themselves as BAME, 74% of the industry employees and 97% agents are white (Kean and Larsen, 2015, p. 19).
According to Kean and Larsen, one of the reasons why the British publishing industry is out of touch with the reading public is because the industry is circumscribed by the limited cultural awareness of agents and editors who have deeply ingrained ideas about the literary canon (Kean and Larsen, 2015, pp. 8, 15). This canon, in the words of one anonymous BAME writer, is shaped by “posh boys” and “girls” who constitute “the relative monoculture operating in British industry” (Kean and Larsen, 2015, p. 15). This dominance creates what Osborne has called “a critical grip” (2016, p. 14) that defines the narrow circle of privileged texts that go to print. The “cultural illiteracy” (Ledent, 2016, p. 247) of Oxbridge agents and editors has created “reductive critical frames” (Osborne, 2016, p. 15) into which BAME authors need to fit.
Cultural illiteracy also affects the marketing of BAME novels. According to 2015 Report, publishing is “a risk-averse culture … that focuses on the most obvious aspects of an author’s life for marketing and publicity” (Kean and Larsen, 2015, p. 13). Marketeers highlight the authors’ status as “anthropological, ‘ethnic informers’” (Osborne, 2016, p. 8) or “totems for their communities” (Kean and Larsen, 2015, p. 14).
There are several subject matters that, as many critics have observed, increase BAME authors’ chances of publication. First of all, their novels are expected to explore “the insider-outsider dynamics” (Osborne, 2016, p. 14) and the “psychological two-ness” (McIntosh, 2016, p. 196) of minority characters. They should focus on migration, (un)belonging (Osborne, 2016, p. 9), “fixation on place and displacement” (McIntosh, 2016, p. 196). In the critical parlance, such fiction is often approvingly described as “authentic” or “exotic.” In the words of Sunny Sigh (qtd in Kean and Larsen, 2015, p. 11), BAME authors “feel that their work is often marginalised unless it fulfils a romantic fetishisation of their cultural heritage.” This “exotic” literature often exemplifies what Paul Gilroy has called “a postcolonial melancholia” – an inability to process the loss of empire (Gilroy, 2004, p. 98). Osborne calls this policy “ethnic-cultural ghettoisation” (2016, p. 14) while Floods describes it as “pigeonholing” (Flood, 2015).
Written by Izabella Penier
Edited by Pablo Markin
Akbar, Arifa, 2017. Diversity in publishing – still hideously middle-class and white? The Guardian. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/09/diversity-publishing-new-faces> [Accessed 27.10.2018].
Flood, Alison, 2015. Report finds that UK books world has marginalised and pigeonholed ethnic minorities. The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/15/report-books-world-ethnic-minorities-london-book-fair> [Accessed 27.10.2018].
Gilroy, Paul, 2004. After empire: Multiculture or postcolonial melancholia. London: Routledge.
Kean, Danuta and Mel Larsen, (eds.) 2015. Writing the future: black and Asian authors and publishers in the marketplace. London: Arts Council of England.
Ledent, Benedicte, 2016. ‘Other’ voices and the British literary canon. Osborne, Deirdre (ed.) Cambridge companion to British black and Asian literature (1945-2010). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 241-255.
McIntosh Malachi, 2016. Post-colonial plurality in fiction. Osborne, Deirdre (ed.) Cambridge companion to British black and Asian Literature (1945-2010). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 193-210.
Osborne, Deirdre (ed.), 2016. Cambridge companion to British black and Asian literature (1945-2010). Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Featured Image Credits: Nnedi Okorafor & Ken MacLeod, Scottish Pen Talk, Newington, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, June 14, 2014 | © Courtesy of byronv2/Flickr.