The Brunel Writer Prize is awarded to the student(s) who achieves the highest graded 600 word article submission for the Creative Industries module on Brunel University’s Creative Writing programme. This year’s prize is shared between two students: Renée Dacres and Russell Christie. Renée’s article discusses diversity in the publishing industry and a new publishing venture that aims to address diverse representation in children’s books. Russell’s article focuses on autobiographical writing and in particular, perceptions related to working class fiction and autobiography.
Congratulations to Renée and Russell.
THE KNIGHTS OF CONUNDRUM:
Is the publishing industry really changing?
by Renée Dacres
So, you want to be able to sniff a freshly printed book hot off the press? Maybe even a book you’ve had a hand in publishing?
As Creative Writing students, it’s often assumed that many of us have a love of books (but don’t worry, I won’t tell Will Self if you don’t). To that end, it’s also assumed that many of us want to get involved with the publishing industry.
As a Brunelian, you are part of a very diverse community and some of us may be guilty of taking that for granted at times. University is enough of a bubble in its own right, without taking into consideration what and who comprise our environment.
The Equality Act 2010 prompted the start of Brunel’s Student Success Project following their five-year plan for 2015-2020. The scheme looks specifically at why there are gaps in the attainment of 2:1 and first class degrees for BAME students. Whether there is actionable proof of improvements is unknown because of the lack of available data.
The progress of racial diversity within the publishing industry is also questionable. There is certainly a push to encourage more BAME candidates to apply for entry roles, what with initiatives like Hachette’s Fresh Chapters eight-week internship programme or HarperCollins’ BAME Traineeship . If you ask me, it seems likes these schemes amount to noise and not much else. After all, research by The Publishers’ Association from 2018 shows that the percentage of BAME respondents to the Diversity and Inclusion survey fell from 13% to 11.6% compared to 2017. The 1.4% fall suggests that these schemes aren’t doing enough to encourage BAME candidates to apply for roles.
Let’s compare these figures to those of us studying at Brunel.
In 2014, there were 14335 students at Brunel. Of those students studying at Brunel who are UK-domicile (i.e. home students) almost 38.8% of the total student population was classified as BAME, not accounting for those who did not wish to disclose their ethnicity. That is around 5590 students. If the publishing industry was to use the student body at Brunel, they would have to increase the number of BAME employees by 27.2%.
That’s over a quarter of the entire workforce!
However, with the birth of Knights Of, it seems that there is actionable proof that the publishing industry is trying to change. Knights Of is a publishing house dedicated to increasing diverse representation in children’s books.
Their shake-up of the submission process is also worth logging in your writer brain. Authors are free to pitch their novel ideas through a “Live Chat” function with one of the team and if they like your idea enough, they’ll ask you to send over a synopsis. This seems a lot less scary than submitting to an agent or publisher the way we normally would, don’t you think? I think this level of approachability is very important; not only when it comes to encouraging BAME authors to submit their novels, but also when it comes to making job applications. The publishing industry is notoriously aloof, so it seems that a shift in tone is necessary if the PA truly wish to achieve their goals of improving ethnic diversity.
The Publishers’ Association suggests that 15% of employees should be Black, Asian and minority ethnic. This is despite the fact that the 2011 census data suggests that 24% of the population in England and Wales would be considered BAME.
Alternatively, the publishing industry should be aiming for a workforce which is representative of the country’s demographics. Hence, they should aim for closer to Brunel’s representative 38.8% BAME demographic. After all, even if that target is not met, it’s still a significant improvement on current conditions.
Maybe if more of us felt like we were represented by the books being published and the people who publish them, we wouldn’t be so worried about offending Professor Self? Because we’d all love books.
Renée Dacres is a writer of stories, screenplays and personal essays hailing from the grey area that is the Essex/ London fringe. Which one is it? Nobody knows. She has hopes of writing a novel in the future, with interests in both publishing and television development. If you have penchant for ramblings, you can find plenty on her blog.
by Russell Christie
Unfortunately, the Spread-the-Word, life-writing competition email didn’t tell me why my submission had not made the longlist for this year’s prize, just that it hadn’t. Leaving me to my own speculations as to why my story had not made the cut. Was my life-writing too fictionalised for their category? Memoir may be the new novel, but is novel the new memoir? What is the relationship between autobiography and fiction and how does the autobiographical fiction I had submitted differ from what is categorised as life-writing? And: is memoir what it used to be?
An event at Brunel – an examination of autobiografiction in light of The Burnett Archive of working class autobiographies – offered to further stoke my grief-fuelled speculations, or ameliorate them with free wine!
Working class investment in writing autobiographically based fictions has historically been modulated by conscious political positioning of the texts by the genre’s major exponents, apparently. Autobiography fictionalized enables distance and circumspection in using the material of a life. It is a different mode of exposition from the promised authentic intimacies of memoir: it takes place in a fiction form. Significant scenes are often transposed onto other incarnations and protagonists in a distancing that mediates against easy nostalgia. Stripped of the requirement for a psychological accounting of self, this fictionalising ‘shows’ the basic facts. The distinction between fiction and memory in this context is one of genre markers based on style and perspective rather than documentary truth. Fiction is showing, memoir is telling, life-writing is telling by showing.
I reflected that the frequent designation of working class fiction as inherently autobiographical, characterizes working class people as inescapably marked by their situation in a way that middle class writers supposedly transcend. Working class fiction gets categorised as autobiographical because it is suffused with a coal dust which does not appear in the milieu of a middle class oblivious to its own saturated marking with clean crockery and Evelyn Waugh conversations. The middle class, of course, are equally marked by the biographical limitations of the bourgeois imagination. Aren’t they, Alan Hollinghurst?
Denying autobiographical pertinence to your writing – even to speculative fiction – is to pretend that the imagination is undetermined and un-situated: a standard bourgeois conceit and ideological ploy. Fiction no more exists than freedom. Everything I write displays my historic circumstances. I cannot help but express the autobiographical configurations of my life, channelling the people who have influenced me, the travel I have been privileged to, the language that gives birth to this tongue and no other. How would I write outside of this? There is no universal writing, or even any universal to know, apart from this binding we are all subject to: this thrown-ness into our own narrow and total worlds, which we then only transcend through sharing as a limitation, as a specific embodiment, as ourselves.
And where is the proof that would differentiate fact from fiction? Even if you video your whole life, what would you be evidencing in the editing: psychological structure, political reality, one story among others? It’s a naïve understanding of truth that easily marks fiction from documentary. As in the contemporary shift from nostalgically reflective, purple prosaic memoir to the stripped back, New Journalist, first person prose of life-writing, it is the form that distinguishes genres rather than the events these forms are built around.
It is the tenor, the intimacy, the pose, the hands-up, the hidden-ness, the sentences, the perspective that distinguishes fiction from life-writing and memoir. These are genre markers. Fiction has a fiction form, irrespective of its factuality. Self assertion, ownership and marketing is part of the form of contemporary autobiografiction. And what you remember, told as fiction, is not memoir. Except perhaps for Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time And The River and, ahem, my submission to the life-writing prize. Is there more wine?
Russell Christie is a novelist and procrastinator who’s lived in several countries, often undercover and in various states of legitimacy. He enjoys throwing in curve balls from left field, especially dialectical materialism (still!) and Buddhist ontology. He came to Brunel (like everywhere) to escape the forces of the state but ended up quite liking it (like everywhere). His first novel, The Queer Diary of Mordred Vienna was published in 2015.