Hong Kong (AFP) – As the film and music industries grapple with the fallout from the race rows that dogged the Oscars and the Brit Awards, English author Bali Rai warns publishing too has a serious diversity issue.
The award-winning writer, who has Indian heritage but was born and grew up in Leicester, echoes critics of Hollywood and the Academy Awards when he suggests gatekeepers are only recognising a narrow band of talent and ideas, which does not properly reflect society.
He explains: “Publishing in the UK is a white, middle and upper class monolith. Britain is 14 percent non-white, yet how many authors reflect that? If it’s more than 0.5 percent, I’d be shocked,” Rai tells AFP, in an interview ahead of his appearance at the Hong Kong Young Readers Festival.
“It is a sad fact that non-white people, the LGBT community and many more do not see themselves in UK fiction from childhood. So many — including me to begin with — grow up thinking that books are about middle and upper class white people,” he adds.
The 44-year-old, who specialises in teen fiction, describes his background as “multi-cultural, working class” adding that traditionally, “people like me don’t become authors”.
He says: “It’s about more than racism in society — although that exists — it’s about publishers being unwilling to think outside of their narrow ivory-tower worlds and break with tradition.
“Imagine if Harry Potter had been called Harish Patel or Hamza Pathan, for example? Would those books have been published, never mind become the mega-successes that they became? Right now, in the UK, the answer is no.”
Rai acknowledges J.K. Rowling’s first book was rejected by many houses, but insists “no ethnic minority authors or characters” would be able to make such an impact.
– ‘Advertise the risk takers’ –
Diversity has been a watchword for the arts in 2016 so far — the lack of ethnic minority nominees for the Academy and Brit Awards, were the subject of social media campaigns under the hashtags #OscarsSoWhite and #BritsSoWhite.
Even US President Barack Obama addressed the issue, telling regional television anchors: “I think that when everyone’s story is told then that makes for better art… And I think the Oscar debate is really just an expression of this broader issue. Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?”
Rai concedes that although diversity is being discussed more in publishing, the industry is only paying lip service to the idea, with token minority authors, rather than making wholesale changes to improve the situation.
He warns this reluctance to take risks, challenge orthodoxy, and seek out unheard voices in society is not only failing aspiring writers, but readers as well.
“If I were dictator for a day, and could change publishingâ€¦I would give my entire advertising budget to the rebels and the risk-takers, and the least represented,” he says, adding: “It might not make as much profit possibly, but it would add much more to literature.
“Mainstream publishing at present is staid and overly reliant on tried and tested formulas.”
– Literacy undervalued –
Rai, whose debut novel (UN)arranged Marriage has been translated into 11 languages and appears on the GCSE reading list, is also calling for more public libraries and a re-think on the importance of reading and literacy in the UK, which he says are undervalued.
A 2013 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found young adults in England scored among the lowest for literacy in the industrialised world.
“When we look at falling literacy rates in the UK, or decreasing attention spans, this has coincided with the rise in time spent online, and I truly believe that we will eventually understand that there is a causal link from the latter to the former,” Rai posits.
“People flit around, at speed, from one link to another, with constant new links vying for their attention. This is not conducive to high intellectual endeavour. I believe itâ€™s the recipe for anti-intellectualism,” he says, adding that by contrast recent research by Stanford University has found reading for pleasure boosts brainpower.
The writer admits the Internet is “a great tool, but one of many at our disposal”.
The amount of time young adults spend online in the UK has almost tripled from 10 hours and 24 minutes each week in 2005 to 27 hours and 36 minutes in 2014, according to the latest figures from British media regulator Ofcom.
Blockbuster franchises such as The Hunger Games, and Twilight, still attract young readers, arguably driving interest in dystopian fiction, and dark romance, but Rai says publishers desperation to find “the next big thing” has flooded the market with this type of fiction.
His own novels, which are informed in part by his own work and life experiences, tackle issues such as suicide, honour killings, drug abuse, and racism, and are hugely popular with young adults, though the subject matter is known to make some parents nervous.
Rai is unapologetic: “Teenagers, in my experience, are their own best censors, anyway. They simply put down books that they donâ€™t like or canâ€™t deal with.”
* Bali Rai is speaking at the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival, 7-18 March.
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