Vanessa Thorpe, Observer (London), May 22
Penguin was the publisher that defended DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover against censorship. It proudly protected its author Salman Rushdie when he was the subject of a fatwah. Yet on the eve of its 70th anniversary the illustrious firm is now in danger of condemnation itself.
To celebrate the birthday, Penguin is issuing 70 new short titles, or Pocket Penguins, drawn from its back catalogue or new work. Now, unexpectedly, the titles have provoked outrage and surprise because they include work by only two authors who are not white.
‘It is monumental ignorance,’ said the writer and critic Bonnie Greer this weekend. ‘And it just won’t do.’
Although Penguin has published two of the most important figures in modern black literature, James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe, neither is included on a list that finds room for popular modern names such as Jamie Oliver, Marian Keyes, Gervase Phinn and India Knight, as well as paying tribute to significant white landmarks of world literature such as Gustave Flaubert, Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Theroux, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov, Sigmund Freud and even Homer, a segment of whose Odyssey gets a look in.
The only two black authors included are Zadie Smith, the young Briton who made her name with the award-winning novel White Teeth, and Hari Kunzru, who is best known for The Impressionist and Transmission, and has a worldwide following.
‘It is a glaring omission that they have left out someone like Baldwin,’ said the poet Lemn Sissay. ‘He is a black writer of incredible importance internationally and particularly in the United States. Maybe Penguin felt that he did not mean enough to British readers.
‘And, aside from Zadie Smith, there are many great writers coming up at Hamish Hamilton, which is a Penguin imprint and where Ekow Eshun’s new book, Black Gold of the Sun is coming out. Some of this should have been reflected in the birthday list.’
Greer feels the inclusion of Smith and Kunzru instead of, rather than in addition to, such revered names as Baldwin’s or Achebe’s was more than strange. ‘It really is monumental ignorance, almost nauseating ignorance,’ she said. ‘I mean no Chinua Achebe, no Baldwin. It is incredible.’
Baldwin, who died in 1987, is perhaps known best for his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain and the essay collections The Fire Next Time and Nobody Knows My Name. He is regarded as crucial to the emergent black consciousness in American literature.
Achebe, 73, a Nigerian, is one of Africa’s most admired writers. He rejected a national honour from his government last year in protest at the state of the country, which he said was ‘too dangerous for silence’. His key work is his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart.
Tony Lacey, one of two Penguin bosses responsible for drawing up the initial list, said he did not remember the issue coming up: ‘We didn’t want to make it entirely about the classics and we did want to make sure we had at least two poetry titles.
‘The fact that race did not come up is either a good sign or a sign of our blindness, I suppose,’ Lacey added. Penguin’s list, historically, was not strongly representative of black writing.
‘A small group of us chose the authors after consulting with others and then we went to the commissioning editors who decided the content.’
Styled in the publishing house’s publicity as a ‘gateway to the wealth of the Penguin list’ the Pocket Penguin series was apparently designed as a testament to ‘the breadth, diversity and quality’ of work published since 1935.
Marketing director Joanna Prior said Penguin had ‘not wanted to look at quotas’ when drawing up the list.
‘Both Baldwin and Achebe, who I concede some people might feel were left out, in fact sell very little in this country. We were looking at our foremost writers and with 5,000 authors in print it was always going to be difficult,’ she said.
‘We are not making any large claims for this list. We just wanted to celebrate and to show something of our range. We also wanted work that would suit a shorter format.
‘We had to make some hard decisions, but I have to say Baldwin and Achebe were not hard decisions because they were not anywhere near our top 1,000 sellers.’
Penguin was founded in 1935 by Allen Lane, then a publishing director at The Bodley Head. After visiting the author Agatha Christie in Devon, he reputedly found himself with time to kill at Exeter railway station, where he could find only popular magazines or Victorian novels to read on his journey back to London.
Lane realised there was a gap in the market for paperbacks with high quality titles so that cheap, good books could be found at stations and tobacconists, not just in conventional bookshops.
To find the right emblem for his new enterprise Lane wanted something simple. When a secretary suggested a penguin as both ‘dignified and flippant’, he sent another employee to sketch a suitable bird at London Zoo. This resulted in one of the world’s most recognised symbols.
The covers — which became design classics, reproduced on T-shirts, tea towels and mugs — were colour coded: orange for fiction, blue for biography and green for crime. The paperbacks first appeared in the summer of 1935 and included titles by Christie and Ernest Hemingway, priced at 6d (2.5p).