Seriously, Who Ever Even Looks?

Catherine Johnson writes stories for screen and books for children. And she’s complaining about something.

What, you ask? Well, I’d better let her tell you that…

It seems like a boom time for black literature and drama. Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, which focuses on the life of a young girl in Nigeria, is shortlisted for the Costa first novel award next month. Pigeon English, the story of a Ghanaian boy living in Peckham, made the Booker shortlist. And Channel 4’s Top Boy, depicting black gangster life in Hackney, east London, has just been commissioned for a second series. A reason to be cheerful in shiny, diverse, Britain surely?

Well, love, since this is the ‘Guardian’, I’m guessing not…

Well, maybe not.

Wow! I’m psychic…

These three works are all the creations of white authors.


*checks CiF byline image*

Ah. I see where we’re going now…

There is clearly no shortage of talented black writers – Courttia Newland, Malorie Blackman and Andrea Levy, to name a few – so why is it that, right now, the stories that receive the most mainstream recognition all seem to be the ones written by white people?

Well, clearly, it’s gotta be prejudice, right?

Many film and television commissioners still believe it’s a risk too far to commission a show that is both about non-white people and produced by non-white people. Or maybe the problem lies with an audience that is more willing to read or view stories of other races and cultures when they are filtered through white authors.

You know what, Catherine? The very last thing I consider when reading a book is the colour of the author.

Seriously, I don’t know if any of the books on my shelves, or sitting in my iPad’s memory, are written by black/white/coffee-coloured authors. Because I just don’t care enough to look

The words of a white author are a comfortable buffer, a reassurance that nothing in the story will be too shocking, too hard to understand; the author is like you, and you can trust him or her to tell you this story in familiar terms.

Rubbish! I’m willing to bet most people who read do so for the same reason I do; they like the story, not the racial history of the author.

This is not just sour grapes.

Pshaw! Perish the thought…

But that’s no reason why editors and commissioners shouldn’t make the effort to bring about change. It’s wonderful that these white authors are willing to step out of their comfort zones to tell these stories, but wouldn’t it be even better if people didn’t wait for a white person to say what other people have been saying for ages before they take any notice?

Wouldn’t it be even better if some people could stop worrying about what race/class/gender/sexual orientation someone was before they decided whether they were ‘qualified’ to write a good book?

Maybe then we’ll have achieved real progress. So why not be like the rest of us, Catherine? Read a book because you want to read a book, not because you want to flaunt your status as a ‘person of colour’…

12 comments for “Seriously, Who Ever Even Looks?

  1. Maverick
    December 14, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Correct .. I pick up a book and I know by the end of the first few pages whether I am going to bother finishing it or not …. It if it does not grab my attention with it’s literary style then it’s doomed never to be read … can’t work out why I would watch a shit movie all the way through though ???

  2. December 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Yet more whining from the racist race hate brigade. Is she saying a white writer cannot write as well as a black one? That would be raaaaacist, now, wouldn’t it?

  3. December 14, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    I do find it annoying though when white writers write about other colours/cultures because they want to be all PC.

    • December 14, 2011 at 4:45 pm

      Yeah, that too. It comes across as either patronising or brown nosing.

  4. December 14, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Dunno what she’s whinging about, the ink’s black and there’s no book without it.

  5. Lord T
    December 14, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    I thin we can sum this up easily.

    She is a leftie.
    She writes crap.
    Nobody buys her crap.
    She can’t accept it is her fault so it must be racism.
    She gets her name in the papers, a publicity boost and a bit of sympathy. (Although not from us obviously)

    At the end of the day she still writes crap.

  6. December 14, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Julia and Longrider, we now have to be absolutely certain that for every white writer at OoL, we’ll have to find a disabled black gay to balance it out. Quotas – that’s what we need!

    • December 15, 2011 at 3:20 am

      Come the zombie apocalypse they’ll also be demanding that for every living white writer there’s one who’s gone blue, one who’s gone grey and one who’s turned green, and possibly insisting that they be referred to Pratchett style (vitally challenged, differently alive, etc). CiF will be the only ones even able to make these demands because zombies won’t worry them in the slightest…

      “BRAAII… oh, we’ll try somewhere else.” :mrgreen:

      • December 15, 2011 at 5:39 am


  7. December 14, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    I’m quite happy for Guardian readers to worry themselves sick about this sort of nonsense, no doubt Waterstones will have a prominent “Black Writers” stand for them to spend their consciences.

  8. Tarka the Rotter
    December 14, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    Oh for God’s sake, Tolkien wrote a book about Hobbits and Elves – I don’t think he was either…

  9. Sam bok
    December 15, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    “…the story of a Ghanaian boy living in Peckham…”

    Eh? I thought the Guardian view that as soon as shoe sole touched blighty they were British ?

    Should Ms Johnson be prosecuted for waycism ?

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