Lionel Shriver sees fallout from her dismissive comments about diversity in publishing

Writer Lionel Shriver has criticized a publisher's diversity drive in the U.K.
(JOEL SAGET / AFP/Getty Images)

Writer Lionel Shriver, best known for her novel “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” has lost her spot as a judge for a writing contest after she published a column in the Spectator mocking a diversity drive in Britain’s division of Penguin Random House.

Shriver was responding to an email she’d seen, sent to at least one agent, saying that the company’s goal was to have its authors and employees “reflect the U.K. population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.”

In a column published in the Spectator, Shriver sharply criticized Penguin Random House. “Drunk on virtue, Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books,” Shriver wrote. “Thus from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes.”


Shriver added, “We can safely infer ... that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter,” she continued, “it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.”

British literary magazine Mslexia responded to Shriver’s comments by removing her from a panel tasked with judging a writing contest.

When the Guardian asked her about it, Shriver, an American expatriate, defended her column and denied that she was opposed to diversity. “The U.S. has had much more experience with affirmative action (positive discrimination) than the U.K., and the policy has had unfortunate consequences,” she said. “Even the U.S. has moved consistently away from numerical diversity targets.”

Tom Weldon, the CEO of Penguin Random House U.K., defended the publisher’s diversity drive, writing, “We ... firmly believe that giving a platform to more diverse voices will lead to a greater richness of creativity and writing rather than stifling them.”

“Talent and diversity are not mutually exclusive,” he continued. “Our goal for our new employees and authors to reflect U.K. society by 2025 is an ambition, not a quota. This is not about publishing writers purely because of who they are or where they come from. We publish —and will continue to — on talent first and foremost.”

This isn’t the first time Shriver has courted controversy with comments about hot-button cultural issues.


In 2016, speaking at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia, Shriver criticized the concept of cultural appropriation, saying she hoped it was a “passing fad.” Shriver, who is white, delivered parts of the speech while wearing a sombrero.

“What stories are ‘implicitly ours to tell,’ and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within?” she said. “I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.”