It is the Oscar’s this weekend and La La Land is favoured to win Best Picture.
In this op-ed piece for the Independent, Amrou Al-Kadhi laments the way Arab characters exist on the periphery of most Western cinema.
Stories onscreen have the rare ability to arouse empathy for diverse characters in audiences across the world, so leaving out Arab and Muslim voices in such a context of global Islamophobia is particularly damaging. With masterful directors, sublime works like Moonlight happen; now the story of gay black masculinity in the Miami ghetto has become that much more relatable and mainstream. It is my genuine belief that if the TV and film industry had been more diligent in representing Arab characters – with all our humane, complex, intersectional three-dimensionality – xenophobia would not be as pandemic as it is today.
Reading this challenge to the film industry, I naturally began to think of how the literary community measures up on the same issue. Although I don’t exactly work in the publishing industry, English PEN works closely with publishers and writers, and the debate over who gets published and what gets published is always close and loud.
As with film, literature also has that “rare ability to arouse empathy for diverse characters” and my sense is that the literary community is acutely aware of its cultural influence in this regard. We see new literary prizes, like the Jhalak Prize and the Guardian/4th Estate BAME short story prize, being set up to laud literature from under-represented groups. I see editors seeking to redress the imbalances in the industry, through anthologies that platform writers of a particular demographic (current examples include Sabrina Mahfouz’s The Things I Would Tell You or Nikesh Shukla’s projects The Good Immigrant and Rife). Some publishers have even vowed to spend a year only publishing women writers and others are saying they will do the same for writers hailing from the seven countries on Donald Trumps travel ban list.
So there is a case to be made that, even if the publishing industry is by no means perfect, it is at least awake to the problem, and accepts that it has a responsibility to fix it.
I worry, however, that this optimism might be too parochial. Perhaps I see these initiatives because I am looking for them, and work for an organisation that has a particular mandate to promote such projects.
But (as a friend of mine asked me yesterday), does it make a difference to the person on the street? Does it make a difference to the average reader, or indeed the average non-reader who may have been turned off literature because there are not enough books written for and about them?
Another huge question follows: who is publishing the kind of books that correct the imbalance? The few examples I listed above are all from small, independent publishers. But what are the larger publishers doing to correct the imbalance?
This question has a clear analogue in the film industry too. Is it safe to say that the films which do a better job of representing diverse characters and their stories are produced by independents? How well do the big studios fare in this regard? In recent years, there have been high profile, high budget films like the Ghostbusters reboot and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which were praised for casting decisions that did not fill the heroic leads with white men… but those films are still probably the exception rather than the rule.
Articles, blog posts and panel discussions on this subject usually end by saying that the industry (whether that’s TV, film or publishing) needs to “do more” (or to be more “vigilant”, as Al-Kadhi concludes in his op-ed). They often say that audiences should “demand” better casting and better stories. But what are the practical steps to achieve this? Independent publishers, prizes and production companies can raise the bar and demonstrate proof-of-concept, but how will the bigger commercial players change their preconceptions? Do we just have to wait for expectations and tastes to change over time? Or are there one or more short-circuits or ‘hacks’ that could force more rapid change?
In the modern parlance of start-up culture: How does the great work done by indies to platform more diverse voices ‘scale’ to the larger publishing and production companies?
Update: The influence of publishing on film
A quick addendum: We should also note that the film industry feeds off the publishing industry. Many of the most popular films are adaptations of books and comics. So if the publishing industry were ‘better’ at giving us diverse characters, perhaps the film industry may be forced into doing so too!?
Update 2: Big publisher initiatives
There are some initiatives going on with the major UK publishers. I just read this Bookseller piece which points out, for example, that Hachette has a ‘diversity group’ looking at the problem, and Penguin Random House UK has a WriteNow initiative to encourage more people to write. But here’s a killer fact:
No publisher The Bookseller spoke to holds data on the ethnic background of its authors.