Diversity in Publishing

My MBA thesis, finished in 2019, was inspired by a dispute between author Lionel Shriver and Penguin Random House UK about diversity. I submitted it almost two years ago, so my views have evolved, but this is the first time I have shared it online.


It begins:

Mass media, including publishing, now rival the state and religion in their ability to introduce new ideas and shape public opinion. This power can be used for good or ill.

Publishing is the business of telling stories. In his seminal essay, “Story”, screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee cited story as the world’s most trusted medium, writing:

“Traditionally humankind has sought the answer to Aristotle’s question (how should a human being lead their life) from the four wisdoms – philosophy, science, religion, art – taking insight from each to bolt together a liveable meaning. But today who reads Hegel or Kant without an exam to pass? Science, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and perplexity. Who can listen without cynicism to economists, sociologists, politicians? Religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes, we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of story.

The world now consumes films, novels, theatre and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life.”

McKee’s assertion is backed up by the history of the past century.

In 1915 “The Birth of a Nation”, one of the most influential films ever made, stigmatised interracial mating and glorified the Ku Klux Klan. This preceded the most successful period in the organization’s history. The director’s follow-up, “Intolerance”, tried to address some of the criticisms, but by then, the damage had already been done.

Among media, publishing can have a particularly strong impact on the way people think. Studies have shown that daily news is relatively ineffective in changing people’s views or guiding decisions. By contrast, published books have been known to inspire major social changes. The World Economic Forum has cited Robert Tressell’s “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” as an ‘integral part of the drive for social reform at the start of the last century’.

Beyond the Wings: February 2019

This is the first edition of my personal email newsletter, which will be something like the individual equivalent of a corporate newsletter.

The title comes from a stanza in “The Insomniacs” by Adrienne Rich.

My voice commands the formal stage;

A jungle thrives beyond the wings—

All formless and benighted things

That rhetoric cannot assuage.

I find that most of my work, including essays, fiction and music, focuses on outsiders, weirdos, and goofballs. That is, people and things that exist ‘beyond the wings’ as opposed to centre-stage.


This month I have mostly kept busy with the final semester of my MBA, plus exercise and Spanish classes, but I made a new music video. It is a love song and basically an attempt at transcribing “Song for Tom” by Fascinating Aïda into Chinese.

Fascinating Aïda are one of the best musical comedy troupes around, and they also have a lot of good serious songs, including “Old Home” and “Little Shadows”.


This month I attended three excellent activities involving Chinese writing. The first was a talk on women in Chinese literature by Zhang Lijia, author of the excellent “Lotus”, which is set at the turn of the millennium and about a Chinese prostitute who uses her earnings to support her brother’s education while trying not to get caught.

The second was a Surrealism in Fiction workshop by award-winning millennial writer Yan Ge, author of the novella “White Horse” and the novel “The Chilli Bean Paste Clan”. The third was a literary translation workshop with Helen Wang. In the middle of all this, I was accepted onto The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing and am already working on my first book review for them.

The Wider World

The word racist has been used a lot this month. Michael Cohen accused Donald Trump of being a racist, but his testimony is unlikely to damage the president’s chances of being re-elected, at least not in-and-of itself.

Jussie Smollett is alleged to have paid two people to stage a racist attack on him. This seems silly because Liam Neeson may have done it for free. As Bill Burr pointed out, it’s a bit like those times when you lied to parents or teachers as a kid and the whole thing got wildly out of hand.

Speaking of race and speaking of showbiz, the Oscars were held in February. The list of winners appears to have partly redressed the lack of diversity and representation of the “Oscars-so-white” controversy of recent years.

I saw most of the contenders. “Green Book” was well-acted and watchable but undeserving. However, as Bill Maher correctly observed, director Peter Farrelly, whose credits include “There’s Something about Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber”, should have got a special Oscar just for growing up.

My MBA thesis will talk about the issue of diversity in the publishing industry. I closely followed the dispute on this subject between Lionel Shriver and Penguin Publishing last year. I am way too much of an on-the-fence wimp to publicly weigh in on the debate, but hopefully the thesis will add something of value to the conversation.