Jamal Mahjoub on why publishers need to recognise the world’s complexity
Filed under: Publishing
Photo by Aisha Seeberg.
About ten years ago I learned that a novel of mine had been turned down by a well-known mainstream publisher. Such things happen; I wasn’t particularly upset. I was, however, surprised when the editor invited me in to explain that, while she had liked the novel, the sales and marketing department felt she already had too many difficult names on her list.
The idea that a novel should be judged not by its literary value but by the familiarity of the author’s name struck me as being not only hugely unfair, but also completely absurd. The streets I walked down as I left their offices in something of a daze were rich with the ethnic and cultural diversity for which London is famous. Britain’s uniqueness stems from the way it has absorbed people from all over the globe. Yet marketing rationale dictated that a name like mine might prejudice sales.
A friend urged me to go public with the story but I refused: I knew that I would be labelled for ever. I imagined absurd conversations between sales reps in roadside pubs, whining about the unpronounceability of the writers they were obliged to flog. I never revealed the name of the editor in question, knowing it would deflect attention from what was clearly standard practice.
I’d like to think that things have changed, but a report published in the middle of last year (Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place) showed a decrease in the representation of minority writers. When they do get published, these authors are encouraged to write about exotic elsewheres rather than the here and now: it is more convenient to view them as envoys bearing news from distant lands and alien cultures than as figures of dissent in the societies we live in. Writers are obliged to comply for their own survival. Personally, I shall be happy if I never see another writer of Muslim heritage waxing lyrical about the 1,001 Nights.
The problem is that modern literary culture is fundamentally opposed to complexity. The publishing world has created a conflict-free zone for itself where difference is excluded or marginalised, even as it is praised for its beauty. This form of cultural segregation implies that we live in a harmonious, post-racial world devoid of historical memory or responsibility. Market pragmatism seals off all other options.
The more commercial end of literature – and here I am thinking mostly of crime fiction – is even more culturally and racially homogeneous than literary circles are. None of this corresponds to the complex, diverse, contradictory elements that rule contemporary society. Once the exotic alien is revealed to be our next-door neighbour, the paradox becomes apparent.
Somehow, this needs to be reversed. We must overcome our resistance to uncomfortable narratives that do not conform to stereotypes, that deal with the sticky bits, the loose ends. It is not simply a matter of rejecting exoticism, or embracing unfamiliar names. It’s about allowing for complication – to see (as Philip Roth once wrote) where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being; to allow for the chaos, to let it in.
I was born in London over half a century ago and find it absurd that my name still defines me as an outsider. Literature has become a cosy parody of itself. Britain is not alone in this. Across Europe, a similarly blinkered attitude exists towards so-called ‘immigrant’ writers. Literature is one of the last bastions of cultural parochialism, which seems paradoxical when considering the nature of literature itself.
Daniel Defoe satirised the absurdity of racial purity in his poem, The True-Born Englishman, back in the eighteenth century, and yet here we are 300 years later still struggling with the same issue. When François Hollande declared the Paris atrocities an attack on ‘France in its diversity’, he was making a valid point. But it is difficult to conclude that this war we are currently engaged in will be won by airstrikes rather than by demonstrating to the world that the middle ground, where the majority of us reside, is open, strong and truly confident in its own diversity. There has never been a time for literature to be more honest with itself than the present.
Jamal Mahjoub’s latest book (writing as Parker Bilal) is ‘The Burning Gates’, published by Bloomsbury.