Friday, 31 May 2019

A guide to diversity/inclusion for writers and editors

As if writing (or editing a literary journal) weren't hard enough already, diversity studies and political correctness have revealed other responsibilities. This document attempts to get editors and writers up to speed on some of the basic issues, starting with gender and race.


Even in situations where objective comparisons can be made, bias can easily creep in, so it's no surprise that in literature, where judgement's subjective and justifications needn't be expressed, that some disappointing statistics emerge. VIDA produce a breakdown of M/F ratios (Editors, Reviewers, Writers) in some major literary publications. In their summary for 2017 they point out that "The New York Review of Books had the most pronounced gender disparity of 2017’s VIDA Count, with only 23.3% of published writers who are women. Previously, the London Review of Books had exhibited the worst gender disparity, at 21.9% in 2016, with comparable numbers in prior years (23% in 2015, 22% in 2014, 21% in 2013)."

The statistics for reviewers are striking too. In Dave Coates' report he writes "Though female/NB critics review more or less evenly across genders, male critics are twice as likely to review other men (30.7% of all reviews) than women (16.5%). This disparity rises to three times as likely at The Guardian (37.8% to 10.4%), four times at PN Review (47.8% to 11.4%) and five times at Modern Poetry in Translation (30.1% to 5.5%)".

For centuries females have used male (or gender-neutral) names to bypass bias, though even having entries anonymised didn't always help - the subject matter gives the game away. If women tend to write about domestic/women's issues rather than Big Issues (as defined by WASPs), the male editors might still prefer the entries written by males.

To some extent, it works both ways - I know a male writer of romantic fiction who uses a gender-neutral name.


The 2011 UK Census reported that in England and Wales, 80% of the population were white British. Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, other) 'groups' made up 6.8% of the population; black groups 3.4%; Chinese groups 0.7%, Arab groups 0.4% and other groups 0.6%. People identifying as BAME comprised 12.9% of the total UK population (4.9% in Ireland!)

Literary representation falls way behind these statistics. Dave Coates reports that "Only 9.1% of all poems published in the data set were written by poets of colour, 1,819 of the total 19,993. Of these, 502 were published in a single magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation; without MPT, the total drops to 7.01%.

There are recent signs of catching up. A Trinidad writer won 2018 BBC short story award. The 2018 BBC Young Writers' Award was for a story about a young African poacher which was inspired by the author's early life living in Africa. The Winner of the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize was Raymond Antrobus (deaf, had an alcoholic Jamaican father). The 2019 PBS Autumn Recommendations were Anthony Anaxagorou, Mary Jean Chan, Seni Seneviratne, Peter Sirr, Carmen Bugan, Dunya Mikhail and Manuel Forcano.

As with gender, the race statistics for reviewing are salutary. Dave Coates concludes that "i) poets of colour do not have access to a wide range of platforms for publication; ii) this exclusion is almost doubly true for critics of colour; iii) white male critics are the default at many publications, particularly those with male editors; iv) female/NB critics are asked to critique work by poets from a range of backgrounds in a way that men overwhelmingly are not."

Wendy Pratt, looking at the small press pamphlet publishing poetry world detected a "startling lack of diversity in the small press pamphlet publishing poetry world" suggesting that "it is in part because, as I’ve said, the arts are squeezed virtually to death and poetry is a niche market at the best of times. This means that less and less people are going into pamphlet publishing, which probably means that the same people have been running the same presses for a number of years, with no change to the dynamics."

The race ratios are very different in London (45% were White British) and amongst younger generations. If you live in London, you might expect much greater than 3% of poets to belong to black groups, but for the country as a whole, that ratio's about right.


Of late, the binary Male/Female and White/Black concepts have come to seem rather simplistic. Terminology has emerged - lots of it. Here's a selection.

  • BAME - Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic
  • LGBTQIA - Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex and asexual populations and allies/alliances/associations.
  • cisgender (or cis) - describes individuals whose gender identity and expression line up with their birth-assigned sex.
  • POC - An acronym standing for “person of color.”
  • D/deaf - Deaf is deaf from birth; deaf refers to those who become deaf
  • Tokenism - the practice of recruiting a small number of people from under-represented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual, disabililty, or racial equality.

People "identify as" belonging to a classification. Famously, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, identified as black. In their signatures, people may wish to point out how they'd like to be addressed - e.g. "Tim Love (he/him)".

Writing and identity politics

Perhaps as a reaction to Language poetry and theory (but most likely because of campaigns to get more people to write) identity poetry's on the rise. Rather than being a hidden presence in a poem, the poet can be the subject of the piece, involving self-expression, politics, and social analysis.

Such poetry isn't always popular. As Will Harris wrote on his blog, "Some people believe that the best writing ... should assume a “view from nowhere,” free of the constraints of identity, of background. The rise of identity politics is seen as having compromised the purer aesthetic criteria by which we once judged art, muddying the waters with moral and political concerns". The press pounces on special cases -

  • When Kei Miller won the Forward Prize for Poetry in 2014, every newspaper report foregrounded his identity. Either he was a “Jamaican poet” or just a “Jamaican”. The assumption in such reports was that Miller had won for extra-literary reasons, because of his race. Riley makes the same insinuations more explicitly when he says that recent “big prize-winning results” have ignored “aesthetic criteria” (quoted from Harris's blog)
  • After submitting his poem “The Bees, The Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” forty times and each time receiving rejection, Michael Derrick Hudson, a 51 year old white poet, submitted his work under a new name: Yi-Fen Chou. Under Hudson’s new pen name, the poem was published by The Prairie Schooner and then later selected by the esteemed Native American writer Sherman Alexie for inclusion in the 2015 edition of the anthology Best of American Poetry.
  • The Nation magazine issued an apology for a poem it published by the poet Anders Carlson-Wee. Carlson-Wee is a white man who wrote the poem in so-called black vernacular. It is meant to be from the perspective of a homeless person begging for money. The poem caused a storm on social media, where it was labelled ‘ableist’ (he used the word ‘crippled’) and the poet was accused of donning ‘blackface’. The two poetry editors at the Nation who first accepted the poem for publication, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, completely backed away from the work and published an apology, which they posted above Carlson-Wee’s poem. They said they had made ‘a serious mistake’, were sorry ‘for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem’, and planned to ‘earn the trust back’ of their readers (from Candice Holdsworth's article)

It's become all too easy to offend. As I quote in my offensive poetry article, a comedian said that "Today we’re all one clumsy joke away from public ruin."

What literature can do to help

Create specialist sites, competitions and publications - MsLexia is for women writers. Wasafiri aimed to "provide much needed literary and critical coverage of writers from African, Caribbean, Asian and Black British backgrounds", though they welcome "contributions from poets, fiction writers, academics and critics from all cultural backgrounds". Peepal Tree Press publishes work by Caribbean and Black British writers.

Raise awareness by promulgating best practise, collecting and disseminating statistics - how many main characters in short-listed works use a wheelchair? How many poetry editors of the major presses are WASP oxbridgers?

Create targeted schemes - In her article about the Ledbury emerging poetry critics programme, Sarah Howe writes about a project aiming to influence reviewing culture.

Encourage outreach - Poetry Week can be used to get into new places - NHS, etc. A poetry element can be piggy-backed onto events - Sports week, ME week, etc.

Encourage more balanced judging panels - ensuring fair representation is notoriously difficult - there are so many minorities to consider. Jackie Kay, a black lesbian mother who was adopted, ticked several boxes, making some people suggest tokenism when she was in panels. She's a professor now.

Attach Conditions to grants - Journals might claim that they can only publish what they get, but how hard are they trying to reach out to other communities?

  • Under the Radar's submission page says "We actively encourage and welcome diverse submissions, and would love to see more poetry submitted to Nine Arches Press from women, BAME, disabled and LGBTQ poets and those traditionally under-represented in poetry publishing."
    I don't think this statement need discourage anyone from submitting.
  • The Selkie's submission page says it's "committed to working with marginalised and/or underrepresented voices and will only accept work by/concerned with: individuals identifying as women; people of colour; minorities in predominantly white nations; refugees and first-generation immigrants; LGBTQIA+; those living with mental illness, or physical or other disabilities; those persecuted for their political or religious beliefs; victims of violence, or domestic or sexual abuse; and those without access to higher education degrees, living below the poverty line, or who are/have been homeless or incarcerated."
    This statement sounds more restrictive, though the acceptance of "work by/concerned with ... individuals identifying as women" lets many people in.

Magazines haven't all decided to adapt in the way that the above ones have. In a 2019 Acumen editorial it said "I feel that [the Arts Council] are diverging from the path which Acumen wishes to follow. This is to accept all poems on merit and not be influenced by gender, ethnicity, religion, fame or anything other than the value of the poem".


Issues such as "the long poem" and rhyming poetry seem unfashionable nowadays, overtaken by more pressing, life-affirming issues. Some positive discrimination helps redress the balance, and literature's subjective judgements can be used in underrepresented voices' favour. Outreach may initially encourage people to write who've barely written before, and whose work may lack the traditional signs of poetry. As part of this naivety they may also expect immediate publication and have trouble accepting or understanding traditional criticism, especially if the content means a lot to them. It's this stage which might cause editors and tutors most stress, After a while these newer writers may adapt.

Meanwhile, the poetry world's changing, become more accommodating. Reliable statistics aren't easily obtained - growth sectors like Performance poetry or YouTube poetry can too easily be neglected. Even in more traditional sectors though there are some signs of progress -

  • David Coates notes that "Poetry by women and NB folk has also improved substantially since the start of the data set. In 2012 the figure was at 41.3%, rising steadily to 48.6% in 2017."
  • Sarah Howe notes that "In the past decade, publishing and mentorship schemes targeting BAME poets and writers, new profile-raising festivals and readings, national prize winners and judging panels, as well as crucial cultural debates around race, gender and ethnicity, have dramatically improved the diversity of British poetry."

See Also

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