The Man Booker prize-winning author Pat Barker says she “distrusts” London publishing’s recent burst in diversity initiatives, calling the rise in interest in regional and working-class voices a “fashionable” move motivated by fear after the Brexit referendum.
Speaking at the Hay festival on Sunday, the Durham author said she had observed an increased appetite for authors based outside London, or from working-class and minority ethnic backgrounds, over the last three years.
“After the Brexit referendum, there was much more interest in regional voices among London-based publishing houses than there had been before. There was this feeling, I think, that London seemed to have been governing a country, or countries, that it knew absolutely nothing about. Suddenly, there was this rather frightening sense of ‘what has been going on out there? Why did nobody tell us?’,” she said.
“And part of that has been a drive to get regional voices and encourage those. And of course, there is a drive to get ethnic minority voices and other disadvantaged communities in our society.”
Barker, whose publisher, Penguin, has run the WriteNow programme to find and publish regional voices since 2016, said: “I welcome it, but I also distrust it because I think it can be quite fashionable to do this. Working-class writers in the north in the late 1950s like Alan Sillitoe and John Braine became, briefly, very very fashionable. And then it suddenly became old hat and it was almost completely dropped. So one swallow doesn’t make a summer.”
Barker, who said she had voted to remain in the 2016 referendum, revealed she also had sympathy for leave voters in the aftermath of the vote, particularly in her home county of Durham, where 57.5% of voters supported leave.
“I suppose I would say I am a remainer, but I am not a remainer who believes leave voters are stupid, racist – I am sure some of them are, but I am equally sure you can find stupid remain voters,” she said.
“I think there were valid reasons for voting to leave – but I do think there was a groundswell of desire, after 10 years of austerity coming on top of the collapse of industry in the region, there was a desire to kick the London elites. Some people were not necessarily voting about Europe at all. They just seized the opportunity.”
Sharmaine Lovegrove, publisher at Dialogue Books and chair of Hachette’s diversity initiative, Changing the Story, said she did not “entirely disagree with Barker, but it is painful to think all the work and activism so many people are doing around diversity is seen as a trend”.
“It’s clear that people have made huge mistakes in the publishing industry. I am deeply aware of how exclusionary London is to people who want to stay outside of the capital, but that is very different from saying we ignore people from other parts of the country.
“What needs to change is that people should be able to live where they want to live and still work in the industry, even those who don’t want to or can’t afford to move to London. I understand the criticism but we need to see allyship to help change things.”