Where Were The BAME Authors?
The bigotry of 20th century writing was amiably thoughtless, sometimes vicious.
The Enid Blyton cover above was toned down to make it less threatening, but shows how far removed sensibilities once were. When I started ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ I didn’t stop to consider ethnicity or gender, and concentrated on finding interesting writing. I selected once-popular novels by the quality and scarcity of the book. Certain patterns quickly started to appear among the authors. Many of the men had fought in a war, a surprising number had been pilots (writing and the air seem to fit naturally together) and many of the women had become disillusioned by the way they were treated by publishers and critics. A surprising number wrote simply to put bread on the table.
By mostly choosing authors who are now no longer with us, a time-frame emerged with a heavy concentration in the post-war 20th century, because this took in the reading of parents and relatives. Noticeable by their absence were writers of any non-white ethnicity. Had I overlooked them? I trawled through my files, then compared British publishing to its American equivalent. Stateside you’re immediately led to Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and a lone female, Gwendoline Brooks.
In the UK, virtually no-one.
Of course there were always gay writers because they didn’t look any different and were required to pass for straight, but the only black or Asian writers from that period that I came across on my family’s bookshelves were VS Naipaul and the Trinidadian Samuel Selvon, who wrote the terrific ‘The Lonely Londoners’, a kind of reverse Eldorado story in which a young West Indian gives up paradise to come to a dank, prejudiced London in the 1950s. This novel perfectly catches the feeling of what it’s like to find yourself alone in a big city. However, Selvon penned his tale in a richly evocative, hilarious patois that, although easily absorbed and understood, limited his readership at the time. Selvon had tried writing it in standard English but the words sounded wrong in the mouth of a youngster arriving into an alien culture.
The most prominent black British writers were university educated and did not become populist paperback authors. The very few who reached us did so after higher education. Everything becomes clear when you look at the pitiful statistics for ethnic admittance to Oxbridge. Writing about black experience in say, 1930s London would have reached a miniscule readership.
The problem was made worse by the bigotry and nationalism that riddled much 20th century British writing, often amiably thoughtless but sometimes vicious. Even considering the social attitudes of the times, many writers are now unpublishable. I’m not simply referring to the coded digs Agatha Christie’s characters regularly came out with about ‘swarthy’ foreigners, but jaw-dropping statements casually tossed in as if they were facts rather than sweeping assumptions. The English were keen to categorise everyone, especially themselves.
When London’s Regent Street was rebuilt in 1911, writer Shirley Brooks wondered how the removal of the grand colonnade would affect the foreigners who went there, and goes on to give outlines of national characteristics, pointing out that ‘The Jews like to show themselves (as they always do) where the smart and rich people congregate’. She wrote the chapter in a jocular manner that somehow suggested amused affinity, not dislike, and this was the norm for popular writers of the time. As the years passed, many white authors became so embarrassed by the way their books dated that they subsequently withdrew them. The modern complainants about ‘woke’ culture need to remember that we have always re-examined the past in this way – it’s not a new thing but a way of adjusting to the future.