The much-awaited Man Booker prize shortlist, due to be announced today, might help chip away at a dusty old myth â€“ that the true writers of literature are white and male. Itâ€™s time readers recognised who can and does write fiction.
Odds-on favourite to be shortlisted for the prestigious Â£50,000 prize is Colson Whitehead, whose novel The Underground Railroad has already won a Pulitzer prize and a National Book award. Four more black and Asian writers are also in with a chance: Mohsin Hamid, Arundhati Roy, Kamila Shamsie and Zadie Smith. Shortlisted writers can expect to receive international recognition and benefit from a staggering increase in readers. Sales of last yearâ€™s Booker winner The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, rocketed by more than 650%. But a surprisingly large proportion of readers simply canâ€™t get their heads around the fact that literature is actually written by people of colour. This, despite the fact that the last two winners of the most celebrated literary prize ever, Paul Beatty and Marlon James, are black.
Research published earlier this year by the Royal Society of Literature has underlined just how little books by black and Asian writers register in the public imagination. Of 400 authors named as writers of literature by 2,000 people, only 7% were from black or Asian backgrounds. Incredibly, no writers of colour were listed among the top 20 writers of literature, and only a third were women.
An author actually has more chance of making it to the bestseller list if they are called David than if they are an ethnic minority, research by the Bookseller magazine showed. Fiction readers are undoubtedly a clever bunch, but many apparently arenâ€™t clever enough to judge a book by the quality of the writing, rather than the name on the cover. Without doubt, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens and many more men of letters have done Britain proud. But times have moved on.
A misconception prevails that books penned by non-white writers have limited relevance to the population at large. The idea fails to come into play, however, when authors belong to a white middle-class male heterosexual minority. I have yet to visit a bookshop that offers special interest sections for that group.
Then itâ€™s said that the work of black and minority writers too often explores â€œmarginalâ€ themes such as alienation, identity or belonging. But who doesnâ€™t grapple with these issues? There are debates too about protecting the traditional British canon from attack â€“ a sort of literary protectionism.
Writer Junot Diazâ€™s essay MFA Vs. POC describes how far discussions of literature â€“ or Literature with a capital L â€“ reproduce dominant cultureâ€™s assumptions about race. Literature has a reputation so pure and elevated, it seems, that to include any question of race and diversity runs the risk of muddying the water. Yet the act of reading offers an opportunity to broaden the imagination. Literature can be an incredible force for good.
It is through reading that we encounter groups of people we wouldnâ€™t meet in our everyday life â€“ an effect which can be transformative. A study by New York psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano found that reading literature works to improve peopleâ€™s ability to empathise and recognise the emotions of others.
If more people read a broad range of literature â€“ if more people were able to cross boundaries of race, class, gender and sexuality and get a sense of how others lived their lives, how different would Britain be? If people had read, for instance, the work of Chester Himes or Bernardine Evaristo or Haruki Murakami or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, would we be witnessing such a dramatic rise in hate crime? Would the Grenfell Tower tragedy have happened? Would we be facing the utter mess of a Brexit â€“ which, according to research headed by Rose Meleady at the University of East Anglia, resulted largely from a lack of contact with immigrants?
The term cultural deprivation was developed to describe poor and black people whose surroundings and values inhibited their progress. But judging from the lack of nuanced real-life stories in circulation about marginalised groups, cultural deprivation is a pretty apt description for the condition members of mainstream society find themselves in. Consider, for instance the report of the Christian girl fostered by a Muslim family spun into a far-right fantasy; a story fuelled by paranoia and an evident lack of awareness about the lives of others.
If individuals arenâ€™t willing or able to meet black and brown people in real life, and recognise that we actually eat, sleep, love and argue like everyone else, might not reading literature provide a handy alternative?
The good news is that this year has seen a large increase in the number of books published by writers of colour. And summer reading lists have been trumpeted the work of Teju Cole, Neel Mukherjee, Hari Kunzru, Chibundu Onuzo and Katie Kitamura among others.
The drumrolling around the Booker offers the perfect opportunity to discard dusty old narratives about who writes fiction, and to consider how a truly diverse absorption of literature enriches everyone.
â€¢ Claire Hynes teaches literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia