It’s not that the Margaret Busbys, CLR James’s and Una Marsons of the world never existed. The mostly white publishing industry barely considers us, let alone celebrates us, writes S. Reinhold
When I turned 17 I started fantasising vividly, almost involuntarily, about meeting Virginia Woolf.
We’d be gossiping, chain-smoking and downing glasses of champagne at her Mecklenburgh Square flat in London, obviously. Sometimes Duncan Grant (with whom, like many other queer teens, I was having a passionate affair) would be there, sometimes EM Forster or Ottoline Morrell.
Then one day, Woolf looked at me and delivered a stream of racist abuse in front of everyone. Everyone laughed (even Duncan) and I was expelled, abruptly, from my own daydream.
“I love Woolf but the fact remains it’s a very English very stylised, very upper-class, very…”
“… racist,” Nick Laird interjects.
“Racist, yes racist … You know, as a kid you always think: I love this writer, could I have tea with them? And if you’re a black woman writer the answer is always almost ‘no.’”
I have given an inordinate amount of energy to reconciling a love of certain kinds of writing with my race and class. This tends to be experimental modernist prose like Woolf’s or writing from the same period belonging to a tradition of queer English fiction – baroque, marginal, high-camp – like Denton Welch and Ronald Firbank’s.
Such work has been a source of conflict, sitting uncomfortably with my economic reality, with an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial worldview, and above all, with my race.
Susan Sontag (not uncontroversially) characterised a tension between her love of what she considered a gay realm of apolitical art and her own politicised Jewish cultural identity. But such dichotomies generally prove unproductive, not to mention false.
This did not become fully apparent to me until I encountered black writers like the Harlem Renaissance aesthete and eccentric Richard Bruce Nugent, who painted ornate multicoloured phalli on his walls and partied at EM Forster’s country house; who cultivated the frivolous and experimental, showing me that baroque, marginal, queer prose did not belong to elite white novelists, nor did a love of it approach anything like assimilation.
It was a matter of exposure: my identity and tastes only seemed at odds to me due to a wider cultural neglect of diasporic arts. I, likewise, certainly didn’t know at the time of being ejected from my Bloomsbury reverie know that black and brown people were everywhere in modernist Britain in creative capacities. Like the Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand, who worked at the Hogarth Press; or the Trinidadian Marxist CLR James, who could be found debating with Edith Sitwell and was also published by Hogarth; or the black models (and boyfriends) of Duncan Grant; or the black and brown women painting at the Slade in the Twenties; or the sculptor Ronald Moody who lived in Peckham in the Thirties alongside the likes of poet and BBC broadcaster Una Marson.
They were not just influences on white bohemian life, but all writing and painting themselves, with experiences of racism and erasure that could have provided a blueprint, or least comfort, for later figures of colour who went on to experience the same.
Why did it take me so long to learn of Margaret Busby, who, 40 years after these figures, became the first black woman and youngest publisher in Britain, and whose recent New Daughters of Africa shows black women writers in Britain well before the arrival of the Windrush generation.
British publishing is, for the most part, relentlessly heterosexual, pointedly white and fuelled by a diehard parochialism. Fiction especially. A recent report by the Authors’ Licencing and Collecting Society looking at demographics found that 94 per cent of authors in the UK are white. Just 1 per cent are black.
It also confirmed reports of the publishing industry’s London-centricity, with most writers living in the southeast. (But since demographic data also tells us more than 40 per cent of people in London are non-white, it doesn’t actually reflect the capital.)
These figures show little change from those that circulated in 2016 which told us “out of 165,000 new titles, only 100 were by writers of colour. 33 were cookbooks. 33 were self-published.” Out of that remaining 34, we might ask, how many were novels?
How many were black British novels? (It would, given the above, be less than 0.02 per cent). And what about black literary fiction? (0.002 per cent?) Experimental fiction? We do know that there was only one black debut by a man three years ago. We also know that when black writers are published, they are less likely to be supported.
In a 2015 article, author Courttia Newland pointed to the results of another report: “Of the 203 published novelists based in the UK who took part in an online survey, 30 per cent came from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (Bame) background, and 47 per cent said their debut was agented, compared with 64 per cent of the white novelists.
“Once published, 53 per cent of Bame authors remained without an agent, compared with 37 per cent of white authors.”
Black writers are also less likely to be reviewed or republished. In 2014, another black British author, Irenosen Okojie, described the historical precedent for allowing black British writers to slip out of public view and out of print: The industry tends to focus on a few at once and when other black writers are celebrated, they tend not to be British.
There’s something about fiction that publishers and critics genuinely struggle to correlate with black British people. I’ve wondered if this resistance has anything to do with the novel being a historically bourgeois form and one currently far more entrenched in capitalism than poetry or art.
It is inherently more conservative, but curiously, when it comes to the novel, as you veer away from the commercial towards the dubiously named “literary” and into the apparently rarefied heights of the experimental, black writers become less visible.
The recent diversity drive lacks the specificity to deal with this (all AME and no B), and on top of being commercially geared, recent schemes often feel like hollow vanity projects compared with the longstanding efforts of publishers like Margaret Busby and Peepal Tree Press, or writers who have seen diversity trends come and go like Bernardine Evaristo, Ben Okri and the late Andrea Levy.
Jacaranda Books, founded in 2014 and already committed to black and brown literature, has launched an initiative to publish 20 black British writers in 2020, something that will visibly change the publishing landscape and single-handedly more than double the number of black debuts in Britain compared with those in 2016.
Novelist Isabel Waidner recently asked why “are most contemporary, politically acute avant-garde writers coming through poetry, performance, art, film, you name it, and not prose literature?”
This is particularly true of black writers. British fiction publishers are often shocked to learn that, compared with arguably more capitalist-contingent models like fashion (by no means a progressive haven), they are behind.
But fashion has done what publishing has not. It has celebrated designers grounded in radical black politics and poetics, like Grace Wales Bonner. However wary of this celebration we might be, British publishing, by contrast, has barely conceived, let alone celebrated, the black novelists in its midst.