If you scroll down the list of Prime Writers you’ll be struck by the gender bias. But for once in the book world, it’s a bias in the right direction for those of us of a Shamsien bent. For women outnumber men by more than five to one.
Of course it’s unlikely this imbalance reflects the reality of the publishing world. Just as with younger writers, it’s probable that more men over 40 succeed in getting debut fiction published than women. So the likely explanation for our positive gender bias is that the instigators of the Prime Writers group were women, who recruited its founding membership through their own informal contacts and via their social media networks. In other words, the group came together through the technique known in social science research as ‘snowballing’.
The word turns out to be exquisitely apt – and it highlights an issue for the Prime Writers group. For putting gender to one side, we are a strikingly homogenous group – predominantly middle class and, more to the snowball point, overwhelmingly white. It is something we are acutely conscious of and keen to address, for when it comes to diversity we’re are not striding ahead, but lagging behind, the publishing industry. It was noticeable for example how diverse the list of Granta Young Novelists of 2013 was, and publishers are increasingly conscious that much of the best writing in Britain and beyond these days is by BME writers. So, while the primary aim of the Prime Writers group is to remind people that writing talent can emerge later in life (I was coming up to 51 when my debut novel The House of Journalists was published in 2013), another of our aims, as we develop, is to highlight the fact that we late bloomers can come from any background.
I’m particularly interested in refugee writers. I worked for a number of years as the director of communications at the Refugee Council and more recently have been the chair of a new organisation, Counterpoints Arts, which promotes greater understanding of migrants and refugees through the arts. In both roles I’ve met many artists, including writers, who are trying to establish careers in the UK. That is difficult at any age when you are building a new life in a new country, but especially if you are somewhat older, perhaps with family responsibilities.
Of course, some tenacious and talented individuals do get published. But a particular issue for refugee writers is getting marooned in the ‘misery memoir’ market – by which I mean, they find that producers and publishers are only interested in writing by refugees that draws on their direct experience of fleeing conflict and persecution. That’s not to deny that it is rich seam for fiction (my own novel reflects that.) But therein lies a point. For if I, a white, middle aged, middle class man from Berkshire, who has led a safe and comfortable life, can write out of my imagination about refugee situations (I hope convincingly and compellingly) then why shouldn’t a Somali woman who has escaped from civil war in her country and is now living in Britain write just as compellingly about, say, Thomas Cromwell or a sadomasochistic sexual relationship between a billionaire businessman and a young woman?
Anyway, among the writers in their prime there are surely many from a greater diversity of backgrounds than is currently reflected in the membership of the Prime Writers group. And if that’s you, and you’re interested in being part of our network, and you meet the requirements of membership (your debut work needs to have been published commercially – or to be due out soon), we’re interested to hear from you.