Publishing isn't afraid of books like Lolita, it's just looking for diverse imaginations

There are plenty of titles published today that are as controversial as Nabokov's novel.

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This week, the London Book Fair brings thousands of publishers, agents, writers and bookfolk from all over the world to a massive airless hangar in West London, where they will all try to convince each other that their dog-eared manuscript or watermarked PDF will be next year’s multi-million copy global bestseller. And yet, is all well in the world of publishing? According to Rachel Johnson in the Spectator, no. “Writers are censoring themselves”, apparently, fearful of being accused of appropriation for writing from perspectives that are not their own.

“Identity politics is leading to the scapegoating of authors”, Johnson tells us. "A million-plus-selling literary novelist of my acquaintance — fêted for penetrating the labile recesses of the female heart — was warned that he should not attempt to write his next novel, set in the first half of the last century, in the voice of a woman.” She also points to the decision by Virago (who, to be fair, are very upfront about only publishing books by women) to pulp  a book after its author turned out not to be an Asian woman but rather a white man.

Would anyone now, Johnson ends up asking, have the courage to publish “the novel of the 20th century that stood the test of time”, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Apparently not: according to Dan Franklin, editor at Jonathan Cape of authors including Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, “I’d never be able to get it past the acquisition team — a committee of 30-year-olds, who’d say, 'If you publish this book we will all resign.'" But is any of this true? Are woke 30-wear-olds coming for your bookcases? Speaking as a theoretically woke 30-year-old who works for a major London publishing company, I can confidently say…no.

For starters, as many, many people  have pointed out by now, Lolita itself was submitted pseudonymously by Nabokov – at the time already an immensely prestigious literary novelist who was worried about how the book might intersect with his reputation – and was eventually published only by a French pornographic press after it had been turned down by the major literary publishers of New York (who promptly scrambled for it again once it began to take off). The novel that Franklin and Johnson discuss as a counterpoint, last year’s Putney (Sofka Zinovieff) was apparently turned down by Franklin because he was “uncomfortable” with its depiction of “a 12-year-old girl groomed for sex by a 40-year-old man” – but it was published instead by the entirely mainstream and prestigious Bloomsbury (who also found time last year to publish Germaine Greer’s On Rape, for instance). So perhaps Nabokov would in fact have had it easier if he was writing now. Certainly recent bestsellers like Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair have featured Lolita-esque relationships with no apparent adverse effect on their sales (the opposite, in fact).

It is true, though, that publishing - like most creative industries at the moment - is going through a period of self-examination, and occasionally even mild self-criticism, about whether it is as diverse as it ought to be - both in terms of who it employs, and in terms of who it publishes.

While we’re on the subject of who exactly gets employed and published, Dan Mallory gets namechecked by Johnson for “telling porkies” about his runaway bestselling thriller The Woman in the Window, as revealed in a recent New Yorker piece (the relevance of which to Johnson’s argument isn’t at all obvious, but it is an amazing piece that you should go and read at once). Mallory worked as a high-flying (young, white, male) editor in both the UK and the US before the book came out: according to the piece, his “porkies” included a sustained campaign of anonymous email harassment against colleagues, an elaborate deception designed to convince his employers that he had life-threatening cancer, and leaving cups of his urine around his bosses’ desks.

As the Mallory case shows, who works for publishers and who gets published by them are a pair of entangled and related questions, which together lead to others: whose voices are being amplified by the publishing industry, and whose are being silenced? Publishers are starting, tentatively, to debate these questions - though anyone in the industry who has had to sit through meetings where editors discuss trans authors’ work in glowing terms while repeatedly fumbling their pronouns, or where publishers hymn diverse voices while comfortably agreeing that this diverse voice isn’t quite right for this publisher at this time, will know that this is very much a work in progress.

It is true too that there are authors who have reacted to this conversation with dismay - most ostentatiously (as Johnson notes) Lionel Shriver, who has undergone a transformation in the last couple of years into a crusader against the very concept of “cultural appropriation”, largely after people pointed out that the depictions of black and Latinx characters in her novel The Mandibles were horrendously clumsy (as, indeed, was every aspect of the novel) and consequently deeply discomforting (where the chapter-long soliloquies about cryptocurrency were merely deeply boring).

Perhaps you don’t have to be as fired-up as Shriver to worry that fiction is being woked to death. After all, if fiction is by definition imaginative, and if you begin to insist that people can only imagine things from their own perspectives, fiction suffers and, eventually, everything becomes memoir. That, at least, is the grim picture being painted, more or less implicitly, by Johnson, Franklin, Shriver et al.  But setting aside all the above about how dubious a portrait of publishing’s past and present this is, is it a future to be feared? 

The question publishing is slowly beginning to ask itself - and that we should all be asking ourselves - is not “whose perspectives do we want?”, it is “whose imaginations do we want?”. Fiction will always be inescapably imaginative - but if the imaginations being brought to bear on it all belong to the same narrow class of writer, then no matter what perspectives they inhabit, they will never give readers the infinite range of possibility that fiction can promise. That needs new voices and new imaginations - not false debates held in the name of books half a century old.

And if you’re curious, the best-selling hardback fiction book last week was Jamaican novelist Marlon James’ new fantasy novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf (fantasy itself being a genre with a long, ugly history of racial dubiousness). Marlon James is a contemporary novelist and not, as far as we know, a shape-shifting leopard-man who hunts children across fantastical continents. James also won the Booker Prize four years ago with A Brief History of Seven Killings, a novel about trying to murder Bob Marley, something else he has not done in real life. If you had told someone even 10 years ago that a black Jamaican author would win the Booker with a piece of literary fiction and then top the charts a few years later with a fantasy novel you too would have been accused of fantasising, but here we are.

The author is an editor at a major London publisher.

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