Joe Marriott on the magic of inclusive publishing
This article originally appeared on The Bookseller
Working with books, we are all familiar with the magic that happens when a story transports us into the mind of a fictional character. But this familiarity can mean we forget the work a reader has to do to make that magic happen.
As a bit of a closet romantic, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life reading, listening to and watching Jane Austen’s stories, empathising merrily with her heroines. But I wasn’t born identifying with characters that were completely different from me in gender, sexuality, race and historic positioning. It’s a stretch.
Being able to do this came with time: I started my reading life with books I could relate to as a child, gradually broadening my range and building an ability to understand and empathise with unfamiliar people and experiences (helped, of course, by some great writing and the encouragement of a bookish family).
Now I take pleasure in seeing aspects of myself in someone very different from me – but this can still feel like hard work. Sometimes I crave characters more like me and experiences I don’t have to reach to ‘get’.
Another kind of magic happens when we recognise ourselves in someone else. Whether it’s someone we admire, a public figure whose achievements we aspire to, or a fictional character we wish we could – in some small, obscure way – be more like. Relatable role models are important for our development at all stages of life and, consciously or unconsciously, we look for these role models all around us.
But finding these role models in life and in fiction can be complex if you’re always reaching beyond your own experience. I may enjoy a bit of vicarious romance through reading about Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy – but for me there’s something even more immediate and powerful in watching the romances of, say, the male gay characters in HBO’s "Looking", a series which imagines characters whose relationships and desires feel much closer to my own.
In the real world I feel admiration and inspiration when I see someone very different from me being impressive. But there’s something more exciting and inspiring in seeing, for example, Barack Obama in the White House, because he shares my skin colour.
It has an undeniable magic. I want more of that magic – and I believe everyone should have easy access to it through books and stories.
If I’m honest with myself, I recognise I have some bad habits when it comes to my part in making publishing more inclusive. I find it all too easy to forget to ask myself or my authors and illustrators questions like: Might the family in this picture book be black? Or: Might ‘mum and dad’ be ‘dad and dad’ in this story? I could make more effort to seek authors, or work with agents to seek authors, whose experiences are outside of a “traditional” picture book mould.
Hearing that some foreign publishers reject books with black characters because their countries don’t have many black people is infuriating, but do I spend enough time thinking about how I could challenge that or creatively work around it? Have I let it discourage me from challenging my authors and illustrators to think outside the box?
Of course not every book needs to have a black main character or a gay relationship or a strong female role model. But if we want to stay relevant as an industry, more books should reflect and celebrate the increasingly diverse world we live in. As publishers we can ensure that some of the very best books do, so that we have more bestsellers that represent communities right across the country.
That’s where WriteNow comes in.
Through WriteNow we’re aiming to find, mentor and publish writers from communities that are currently under-represented on bookshelves. I, together with several colleagues, will be hosting three events in London, Birmingham and Manchester where we’ll give unpublished writers one-to-one critical feedback on their manuscripts, an insight into the publishing process, and the opportunity for long-term mentoring with a Penguin Random House editor. Ultimately, we hope to publish some brilliant new writers.
I’m really excited at the thought of the magic we can unlock by helping to ensure everyone has access to stories that speak directly to them in some way, that make them feel empowered rather than side-lined, and which beguile us all into thinking more broadly.
If we do this well, we can capture the imaginations of new readers, inspire new writers, and open up big new markets. It’s an exciting challenge and one that could really pay, in all senses.
Joe Marriott is commissioning editor for picture books at Penguin Random House Children's. For more on WriteNow visit the WriteNow website, see @PenguinRHUKNews on Twitter or search #WriteNowLive on social media.