Creative Diversity: The APWG Summer Reception

We report on the recent All Party Writers Group (APWG) Summer Reception at the House of Lords which saw some inspiring speeches on the subject of diversity.

On the 24th May, Lord Clement-Jones hosted a packed event attended by writers, Lords and MPs at the House of Lords.

Diversity was the focus of the event: specifically the hotly debated matter of how to increase the representation of those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in the creative industries. The APWG Reception was preceded by a round table discussion on that very issue, hosted by Ed Vaizey MP, Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy, along with Barbara Hayes, Deputy Chief Executive of ALCS, Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE, Gail Rebuck, Chair of Penguin Random House UK; and Charlie Redmayne, CEO of HarperCollins UK.

Pete Wishart MP, Chair of the APWG opened the speeches by welcoming the guests, followed by Ed Vaizey, who began by praising the huge success that is the UK publishing industry, crediting the UK with being only one of three nations in the world to publish more than 100,000 titles every year. However, he emphasised that there is room for improvement, both in the diversity of the work-force and in the body of published works: “I know people are very frustrated by the fact that we still talk about it but actually in publishing I don’t think we talk about it nearly enough. We need to raise the profile of this issue”.

“It’s not a ‘black book’, it just happens to be a book about a character who is black.”

Baroness Floella Benjamin then gave a passionate and rip-roaring speech about ensuring that the whole of society is properly represented in TV and literature. Benjamin explained that she had turned down an invitation from the Queen because she felt it was so vital that she should come and speak to the Reception on the issues sorrounding diversity. The former Play School presenter, who is also the author of over 30 books, described her experiences fighting for better representation of minorities in television in the 1970s and in being published.

The Baroness said: “I know a lot of publishers want to have books – and they have some books – from incredible authors from diverse backgrounds, but where do the booksellers put them? On a shelf in the back somewhere, under the label ‘black’ or ‘Asian’. That has to change. They are books for all people …”

“People say that diverse writers aren’t commissioned because they just aren’t good enough. But if you aren’t commissioned, how are you ever going to be good enough?”

She added: “I know where my books will end up when they go into a shop  – that has to change. It’s not a ‘black book’, it just happens to be a book about a character who is black.”

The Baroness expressed her delight at being involved in the round table discussion on the issue with Ed Vaizey and said she very much looked forward to working with the Minister in the future.

Shai Hussain, author of web series Three Shades of Brown, followed the speeches with an insightful and humorous address encouraging commissioning gatekeepers to move away from stereotypes and, instead, normalise representations of characters from BAME backgrounds.

He countered the argument that stories about minorities are not ‘commercially viable’, going on to list some of “the best diverse British gems to come out in the last few years: Luther, The ‘A’ Word, Four Lions, Undercover, Indian Summers, Slumdog Millionaire. All amazing, all diverse under-represented worlds, all written by white men with a proven track record.”

“The question is: should white men be exempt from writing diverse works? Obviously not. But are diverse writers getting an opportunity to prove their own track record?”

He added: “A named writer will give a project more credibility. An experienced writer will gain the project more quality. But the diverse voice that has lived to tell the tale will give the stories a strength that is just as important – authenticity. People say that diverse writers aren’t commissioned because they just aren’t good enough. But if you aren’t commissioned, how are you ever going to be good enough?”

Read Shai Hussain’s speech in full here.

See photos of the event below.

Why diversity? Research into BAME writers and the creative industries

Last year ALCS sponsored a report by Spread The Word entitled Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers in the Publishing and Marketing Workplace.

The report showed that many UK Black and Asian authors who struggle for representation and publication in the UK have turned to India or the US to get book deals. The lack of representation of a diverse British society has made our creative industries seem embarrassingly out of touch, particularly in London where 40% of residents are from a BAME background.

The industry is currently failing to represent the UK’s diverse populace, and Spread the Word, ALCS and our friends and colleagues are working towards using the recommendations from the report to create lasting initiatives that result in BAME fiction writers gaining a higher profile and creating a more diverse workforce within UK publishing.