“Drunk on virtue”: Penguin Random House’s new diversity rules

Author Lionel Shriver, subject of several posts on this site, has become a vociferous opponent of the claim that authors cannot “culturally appropriate” the lives of those who don’t share their gender or ethnicity.  She’s also spoken out against literary censorship of the kind that would ban Huckleberry Finn from American public schools.  Now a letter from Penguin Random House (PRH, my publisher in the U.S.) has fallen into her hands. Apparently intended for authors and employees, it promotes the goal that “both our new hires and the authors we acquire. . reflect UK society by 2025.” That’s a clue that the letter is for the UK branch of PRH; were it my own US publisher, I’d be as irate as she about the questionnaire that, as she describes, was sent to PRH authors and potential employees.

Click on the screenshot below to see her short piece at the Spectator:

She’s brutally critical of the questionnaire:

The accompanying questionnaire for PRH authors is by turns fascinating, comical and depressing. Gender and ethnicity questions provide the coy ‘prefer not to say’ option, ensuring that being female or Japanese can remain your deep dark secret. As the old chocolate-or-vanilla sexes have multiplied into Baskin Robbins, responders to ‘How would you define your gender?’ may tick, ‘Prefer to use my own term’. In the pull-down menu under ‘How would you define your sexual orientation?’, ‘Bi’ and ‘Bisexual’ are listed as two completely different answers (what do these publishing worthies imagine ‘bi’ means?). Not subsumed by that mere ‘gender’ enquiry, out of only ten questions, ‘Do you identify as trans?’ merits a whole separate query — for 0.1 per cent of the population. (Thus with a staff of about 2,000, PRH will need to hire exactly two). You can self-classify as disabled, and three sequential questions obviously hope to elicit that you’ve been as badly educated as humanly possible.

And check out the ethnicity pull-down. ‘Asian or Asian British’ may specify ‘Indian,’ ‘Bangladeshi, ‘Chinese’, or ‘Pakistan’; the correct adjectival form of the latter nationality seems to be mysteriously unprintable. ‘Black or Black British’ may identify as ‘Caribbean’ or ‘African’. ‘Mixed’ allows for the options ‘White and Black African’, ‘White and Black Caribbean’, and ‘White and Asian’, but any other combo is merely ‘Mixed: Other’. As for us crackers, there’s ‘White: British’, ‘White: Irish’, and ‘White: Gypsy or Irish Traveller’, but the rest can only tick ‘White: Other’.

Let’s unpack that pull-down. If your office is chocka with Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Germans, Danes, Finns, Bosnians, Hungarians, Czechs, Russians, Americans, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, Argentines, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Romanians who aren’t travellers and South African Jews — I could go on — 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.

Sadly, I have no access to the questionnaire. I didn’t get one, as I write for PRH US.

Shriver has a point here, although the rest of her article is a bit overly heated. Perhaps PRH is going about this in a ludicrous way, but it’s not out of line to see if there is indeed a bias—not among authors, but among employees. As I’ve seen from my own dealings with publishers, I don’t think they care much about the ethnicity or gender of their authors so long as they produce books that are good and books that will sell. When your agent submits a prospectus to a publisher like PRH, nobody specifies your ethnicity, though I suppose your gender may be revealed by your name. But perhaps it’s worth examining if the publisher itself employs a paucity  of minorities, and then to figure out why. If it’s bias, fix it. If it’s for other reasons, like differential interests of different groups or a small hiring pool of minorities, ponder whether any action is necessary.

Shriver sees two problems with this kind of diversity vetting. The first is that it neglects other kinds of diversity, including that of “life experience”.  As we all know, promoting diversity has largely become a euphemism for “acquire more oppressed minorities,” and by “oppressed” it means “brown, black, or female.” Readers may ponder if this kind of diversity is the only kind worth striving for. I, for one, think it must go beyond this.

Second, and more convincingly, the search for “more diverse authors” may dilute the quality of a publisher’s output. As she says,

. . . dazzled by this very highest of social goods, many of our institutions have ceased to understand what they are for. Drunk on virtue, Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books. Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision. Thus from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some.

The last sentence sounds a bit bitter and, frankly, a bit bigoted. Nobody wants to read bad books just because they’re written by “diverse voices,” but there is a point in looking more widely for those voices. After all, minority readers do want to read about people like themselves. Not always, to be sure; and the best literature, even if written by a minority member or portraying a minority culture, should appeal to people from many backgrounds, regardless of gender, nationality, or pigmentation.  The question is whether Penguin really will reduce their literary standards to “mirror the UK population”. I doubt it. But they might have a look at their employees.

h/t: Michael


  1. Merilee
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink


  2. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    So they’re going to employ murderers, rapists, thieves, peadophiles etc. While they may be minorities, these people are a part of society and if they want their workforce to reflect society then they will have to employ them. I’d love to sit in on those job interviews.

    • Posted June 10, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Non-serial killers have been writing about mass murderers for years and most of them have never even tasted a human liver. It’s cultural appropriation, that’s what it is.

      • nicky
        Posted June 10, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Permalink


      • Heather Hastie
        Posted June 10, 2018 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        There is at least one very successful author who killed two people who writes murder mysteries. Hint: ‘Heavenly Creatures’.

        • Posted June 10, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          I didn’t know two were killed. I’ve only read about the killing of the mother.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted June 10, 2018 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

            I might be wrong. Don’t quote me. It’s a very old memory and I could be getting mixed up.

            • Craw
              Posted June 10, 2018 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

              Two killers, one mother.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted June 10, 2018 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

                Oh yeah, right. So, each of them only counts as half a killer. 😉


        • mikeyc
          Posted June 10, 2018 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

          Kate Winslet in an early role. Rowr.

          • BJ
            Posted June 11, 2018 at 9:08 am | Permalink

            And directed by Peter Jackson.

  3. mikeyc
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    The question I’d pose to PRH is; “if you find a preponderance of the wrong kind of people in your employ should we expect to see ‘white men need not apply’ in your want ads?”

    • AC Harper
      Posted June 11, 2018 at 2:23 am | Permalink

      According to a 2016 Guardian article:

      A survey of American publishing has found that it is blindingly white and female, with 79% of staff white and 78% women.

      so perhaps we should expect the want ads to show ‘white women need not apply’.

  4. rom
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if the writing of non fiction and science books can be appropriated?

  5. Jon Gallant
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I thought the most revealing bit of Shriver’s article was this: “Will Norman, London’s ‘walking and cycling commissioner’, bemoaned the fact that too many cyclists in the city are white, male and middle-class. ‘The real challenge for London cycling,’ he declared, ‘is diversity.’” So, worship of Diversity as the summum bonum has now spread from the academic world to, well, everything. Might we soon expect Airbus executives to emphasize that diversity in airplanes is more important than such lesser qualities as, say, staying up in the air.

    • mikeyc
      Posted June 10, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      This will come as no surprise to anyone here but in the Pacific North West, specifically, BC, Canada* that hiking is too white.

      You heard that right. Getting out on the trails in the wilderness is now too white. Thankfully, this pressing issue of white supremacy is in the sights of SJW snipers.

      I don’t want to live on this planet any more.

      *but there are also rumblings here in the states; https://www.sierraclub.org/outdoors/2016/12/unbearable-whiteness-hiking-and-how-solve-it

      • Posted June 11, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        BC has a large Native American population. I think a “Who are you calling white, pale face?” might be in order.

    • Posted June 10, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      The challenge for London cycling is not getting knocked down.

    • ChrisS
      Posted June 10, 2018 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

      Diversity might be the new conformity.

      Or have I unknowingly “appropriated” someone else’ smart-arse line?

    • Gareth
      Posted June 11, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      The difference between ‘white’ and ‘BAME’ levels of cycling in London (self reported at least one a week afaik) is about 0.2% or so. The difference by income group was about the same.
      For context, older generation Moroccan born Dutch women cycle more than ‘white’ people, fact.

      The challenge for London cycling is not being such a craphole for cyclists.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I sided with Lionel Shriver when she got tagged with “cultural appropriation” for her fiction, but she seems here to have lost perspective — to have become drunk on her own indignation, one might say.

    • mikeyc
      Posted June 10, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Do you think she has a valid point here, if overblown?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted June 10, 2018 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        Abso-freakin’-lutely, Mikey.

        It’s just that she seemed like a paragon of equanimity when first she spoke out on this issue. Not so much anymore.

        • mikeyc
          Posted June 10, 2018 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

          Yeah she really threw down. About time, IMO.

  7. Posted June 10, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand “Romanians who aren’t travellers”. I suspect there is a confusion between the people of Romania and the people who before the PC era were called Gypsies.

    • mikeyc
      Posted June 10, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      I’ve seen this many times. They get the name mixed up with the Roma. To understand who these people (or at least one group) are, I like to recommend they watch this https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107376/

      • Posted June 11, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        Romanians, Romans, Roma, Romulans, and the surprisingly large number of Poles called “Roman”. (I actually don’t know how many of the latter there actually are, but I have run into a few in person and historically, so I wonder …)

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted June 10, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      According to noted sociologist Guy Ritchie, the travellers are the gypsies of Ireland — or at least that was my take-away from Brad Pitt’s performance as a Pikey in Snatch. 🙂

    • PeteT
      Posted June 11, 2018 at 3:47 am | Permalink

      In parts of the UK (for example Slough) there is a large Romanian population who are also travellers. Because the positive predictive value of someone being a traveller if they are Romanian is so high in these areas, the terms ‘Romanian’ and ‘Romanian Gypsy’ have become colloquially synonymous and hence the need for clarification. The transient population of Romanian Gypsies are said to have produced considerable challenges to local education and healthcare providers in these areas and are commonly blamed for various social ills. Referring to someone as ‘Romanian’ in these parts would not be considered a compliment or have anything to do with being from Romania.

    • Posted June 11, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      I understood it as poetic license.

  8. Heather Hastie
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Maybe this is a time to be pleased about my disability. Of course, that same disability means writing is a very slow business. Swings and Roundabouts I suppose.

    There does appear to be a genuine lack of women writers in every area except romantic fiction. I don’t believe women write less well than men, or want to write less than men. I have no idea whether there’s still any prejudice against women writers, but I’ve heard about studies that show an unconscious bias.

    • Posted June 10, 2018 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      I could be wrong, but I think women writers who write subjects for women are well aware of the advantageous market potential for what they write.

      However, as you point out above, there is at least one “very successful” author that we know is female. Many of us I could name a very large number of successful female authors writing in many genres. We may not be proportionally represented in the stats, but there are so many more of us than there used to be. I have hope that ever more women will want to share their diverse thoughts and experiences.

    • Bob Murray
      Posted June 10, 2018 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Heather, I would disagree to the extent that Crime fiction seems to have a fair number of very successful female authors. If I was asked to name a crime writer the first name I would think of would be Agatha Christie. This seems to have been a strong field for females for decades.
      It may be that I have an English perspective on this, but there seems to be a decent amount of American female crime writers at the present.
      Sci-fi and Fantasy have an encouraging number of bestselling females past and present. The number of female writers in Sci-fi especially, seems to be growing all the time.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted June 11, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        There have been simple tests done where a bookshop reverses the spines of every male author. The results are revealing. You can probably find lots if examples if you Google it.

        Possibly the fact that you can think of lots of good female authors is because they have to be better on average than men do to be published in the first place.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted June 10, 2018 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      ‘romantic fiction’? – oh, Mills & Boon. But how do we know the author of ‘Passion in Paris’** isn’t some cynical whisky-guzzling cigar-puffing old bachelor in a flat in Bayswater?

      In the stylized genre of detective fiction Agatha Christie is the obvious counter-example but possibly a rare one.

      I have to agree about the low proportion of women writers. If I’m reading a book I take no notice whatever of the gender (or race or politics) of the author. However a quick mental scan over my overstuffed bookshelves does confirm that they’re maybe 90% male. This is not by intent at all. So either women writers are in a minority (in the fields I favour), or for some (unconscious) reason I have selected against them.

      It could possibly be that women tend to have a different style of writing from men*** (admitted this is a sweeping generalisation) and insofar as I have a very strong bias for the style and the language of books I read, I suppose that could effectively amount to an unconscious bias against women writers, statistically speaking. If that were true then if a woman were to ‘write like a man’ (if that has any meaning at all) then presumably I would favour her books.

      That said, Sturgeon’s Law applies. 95% of everything is crap. I sometimes despair looking through second-hand bookshops or book sales, at the amount of potboilers and unreadable junk piled up on the tables, in which, buried like a diamond in a sewer, there is presumably some literary gem which would delight me to read but which, like a weary tosher, I do not have the mental stamina to find.

      I doubt Random House are going to improve my odds.


      ** I made that title up but I bet it exists

      *** I have no idea whether this is true or even how one could determine it. It would seem to be a valid and interesting topic for someone engaged in ‘literary studies’ to follow up if pomo didn’t derail it.

      • Barney
        Posted June 11, 2018 at 3:09 am | Permalink

        As well as Christie, there’s been Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell … it seems a genre in which women are well represented, to me.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted June 11, 2018 at 3:39 am | Permalink

          Let’s not forget Patricia Highsmith – best of ’em all! 🙂

          • Posted June 13, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

            Sarah Pinborough, Patricia Cornwell, …


            • Merilee
              Posted June 14, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

              Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes

  9. Michael Fisher
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    The below is from Penguin Books Ltd offering 10 paid traineeships, but you MUST be ‘minority ethnic’ and/or “socio-economically disadvantaged”


    At Penguin Random House, we publish a wide range of authors, characters and stories: from Malala Yousafzai to Wiley to Peter Rabbit.

    The Scheme is our early career programme, which values ideas and potential over experience and qualifications.

    This year, we’ve ten paid editorial traineeships on offer, starting in September 2018 for six months.

    It’s a chance to experience life in a publishing house, to find out what editorial work is like and to build the basics you’ll need to start a career in publishing.


    We need our teams to reflect and represent the rich diversity of UK society. Which means this year, we’re asking for applications from people from two specific groups.

    To apply, you need to be from a BAME (Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic) community, and/or from a socio-economically disadvantaged background. You can find more details here.

    And don’t worry if you don’t know the first thing about publishing. You just need an interest in storytelling, an enthusiasm for new ideas and a desire to communicate those ideas.

    Sounds good?

    Well then, pull up a chair.
    It’s time to become part of the story.

  10. Barney
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    It’s worth pointing out the ethnic classifications she takes 2 paragraphs to talk about come from the national census: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classification_of_ethnicity_in_the_United_Kingdom , so if they’re going to compare their workforce with national figures, those are the most meaningful to use.

    • Posted June 13, 2018 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      True, but still reflecting a narrow view of “diversity”.


  11. Divalent
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Approximately 15 per cent of people in England are ‘functionally illiterate.’ Surely it is a handicap to be functionally illiterate in our modern society, and doubtless these functional illiterates have a unique perspective on that. Shouldn’t 1 out of 6 Random House employees be functionally illiterate?

    • Jon Gallant
      Posted June 10, 2018 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      Surely at least 1 out of 6 are functionally illiterate among the editors, and even more in executive management and marketing.

  12. XCellKen
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    My orientation is “BUY Sexual”

    If I want sex, I hafta BUY it !!!

    • BJ
      Posted June 11, 2018 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      Well done! I’ve never heard that before.

  13. Craw
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m with LS on this one. Her last line is not any kind of racist. It is a hypothetical. She is saying that if Penguin is going to use a match-the-demographics approach to deciding what to publish – which is their stated aim and which this questionnaire seems to be in furtherance of — then that is an abandonment of standards. Which it is.

  14. BJ
    Posted June 10, 2018 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never understood this idea that if you aren’t reading or watching people who look exactly like yourself every day, you will somehow not have anyone to look up to or fantasize about being. I never grew up watching a Jewish superhero (or anything else) on TV. I fantasized about being Captain Sisko (a black captain) on the warship Defiant. One of my female friends fantasized about being like James Bond, and she didn’t need “superspy Barbie” to do so. And I didn’t need Captain Mort Goldstein to fantasize about being the captain of a starship fighting the evil Dominion (not that the people pushing for this crap care about Jews anyway).

  15. Gareth
    Posted June 11, 2018 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    UK census ethnicity labels are for sure less absurd than their US equivalents, but do throw up odd results. British citizens of Turkish Cypriot heritage for example, largely prefer to tick the ‘white British’ checkbox, and its not hard to see why, no other possible relevant category plus not wanting to be associated with ‘other white’ which many people take for East European.
    Not to mention, British born people from a formerly British ruled island wanting to assert their Britishness, madness.

    I suppose the idea of letting people choose their own ethnicity is a bit too radical, inventing new genders on the fly is clearly much more reasonable.

    • Barney
      Posted June 11, 2018 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      Presumably there are Eastern Europeans who would feel just as offended by being in the same group as Turkish Cypriots, if that is a typical attitude.

      I really can’t see why “any other white, please describe” is more of a problem for those of Turkish Cypriot descent than for anyone else who doesn’t fit into the “British”, “Irish” and “Traveller” categories. If ‘please describe’ isn’t good enough for Turkish Cypriots, we could probably list 20 other “white” ethnicities of similar size that would need to be explicitly listed.

      • Gareth
        Posted June 11, 2018 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        They apparently tick ‘white british’, not ‘other white’. Its meh to me, its apparently a problem for some of the people who designed these categories and pushed for their inclusion in the UK census beginning in 1991. Attempts to add ethnicity earlier was actually opposed by many ethnic minority groups, I would assume, Trevor Phillips’ generation.

        Currently live in the Netherlands, where its based on nationality, includes categories for non-independent territories (last I checked there was exactly one person from Guam in NL).

        Both the Russian and Indian censuses manage fine with over 100 categories for ethnicity.

        SO it is absolutely doable, I suspect the resistance in the UK is more institutional inertia than anything else.

        • Barney
          Posted June 11, 2018 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

          I think a preference for a form that doesn’t list 100 different choices for one question is more likely than “institutional inertia”.

          I’m fine with them ticking “White British”. It’s obviously not a problem for the people who designed these categories; it’s a problem for some people of Turkish Cypriot descent who want a category for that, and are too lazy to write in “Turkish Cypriot”, but not to then complain about it to someone else.

          Their pride in their ethnicity must be minuscule if writing 2 extra words is too much of a faff.

          • Gareth
            Posted June 12, 2018 at 11:09 am | Permalink

            It is regarded as an issue by some of the people who create the categories as they constantly float ideas of adding a generic MENA category for precisely this reason.

            You might want to read up on the history of ethnicity in the UK census, its quite interesting.
            Ethnic minorities were originally very opposed to its inclusion as they feared it could be used by the government to deport them.
            Then there was opposition to the option of allowing mixed identities outside of a generic ‘other’.
            Then ‘other’ itself got split up as it was the fastest growing ‘ethnic’ group. And so on.
            And a former head of the CRE thinks the categories are bollocks, and reckons machine learning could make them obsolete.

            Personally I can see the census adding more and more categories to keep itself relevant.

  16. Posted June 11, 2018 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Hey, I’m not a cracker, I’m a honky!

    (If I understand the anti-white slang correctly.)

    • GBJames
      Posted June 11, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      I’m a gringo.

  17. Jim Smith
    Posted June 11, 2018 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Google ‘bbc pidgin’ if you want to see the future of Penguin publishing.

    • Merilee
      Posted June 11, 2018 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

      BBC does Nigerian pidgin?? All da news in one minute? Who knew?

    • Posted June 13, 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      I think that’s great.

      And Penguin UK should publish novels &c. in pidgin if there’s a market for them in the UK, as for any other language (e.g., Welsh). Why not?


      • Posted June 13, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        It’s difficult to find, but Penguin do publish some books in Welsh. Well, at least one.


  18. Posted June 13, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    “I suppose your gender may be revealed by your name.”

    But clearly not in Lionel’s case!

    I work with international clients and it’s very difficult to predict the gender of others on a conference call from their names. Even among white Americans there are some names that wrong foot you or are ambiguous: e.g., Leslie (almost always male in the UK; female would be Lesley); Jody (which I knew only as a female name).


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