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Working Class Writer? Class, Education, Politics and the Arts

You can’t say the post title didn’t warn you what’s been on my mind lately. Some of it’s pre-election frustration and my disbelief at, among others, the bring back grammar schools brigade, because of course none of their children would ever be relegated to the non-selective school, in the same way presumably that their children will never need to use a library (or the NHS) so it’s ok to wreck them for everyone else. However, the topic of working class writers has been bubbling under again, partly via Dead Ink crowdfunding a book of essays on the working class called Know Your Place and some Twitter discussions that arose from that.

Name some working class writers, came the challenge. The names of various successful novelists were bandied about, but did they count? They were in varying degrees superficially middle class (wealthy, university educated). Did they think of themselves as working class any more? Would society let them get away with it if they did?

Non-British readers will no doubt be puzzled at this point but despite attempts to declare the UK a classless society (aka we’re all middle class now) class still matters here, it still has a major effect on your salary (even given similar levels of education), your educational opportunities in the first place, and even health prospects. So yes, it’s more complicated than it used to be (the BBC identified about seven social classes a couple of years ago) but it’s still there casting a shadow over most people’s lives.

Which brings us back to the working class writers thing. If someone grows up in a working class family, goes from their comprehensive school to university and graduates with a decent degree, does that automatically make them middle class? Well, Nathan Connolly who runs Dead Ink would argue no, as in this piece he wrote last week. That would be to deny the background and the upbringing that shaped them before they arrived at university. On the other hand it’s hard to argue with any conviction that you’re working class when on the face of it you’ve got a salaried graduate job and can afford an avocado whenever you fancy one, however much your attitudes, politics, outlook may align with siblings or cousins that didn’t head down the higher education path. There will undoubtedly be accusations of false claiming of credentials, like the outbreak of Mockney a few years ago. Kit de Waal, celebrated author and outspoken champion of working class writers suggests embracing the dual identity with no excuses and no shame, but you need to be pretty confident to do that (another trait that graduates from working class backgrounds are said to lack).

Where are all the working class writers then (as Kit de Waal asked last summer, in fact)? Are they looking at the quinoa in their cupboard and simply not feeling comfortable with calling themselves working class any more? Some will no doubt have intentionally left the working class behind via education, though the long tradition of self-education in the working class shows that the two don’t have to go together. Some may well be plugging away under the radar, not shouting about their class background and not writing anything that highlights it. The rest, however, are probably struggling to get a foot in the door because of lack of contacts, cultural capital, or money.

In Nathan Connolly’s piece from last week that I linked to earlier, he mentions setting up Dead Ink because he couldn’t afford the unpaid internships in London that were apparently essential. So many fields in the arts seem to rely on unpaid internships (and in London too) it’s no wonder the arts are dominated by people with money behind them (there’s an interesting paper called Are the creative industries meritocratic?, which you can access here). I was told in passing last week that I was at a serious disadvantage trying to get involved in the arts without a car – getting to performance venues (and home at the end of an evening, when any public transport is likely to have thinned out or stopped), school visits, distributing leaflets/brochures or attending meetings with publishers/agents/promoters. It may well be true, but that’s another obstacle if you don’t have money behind you. I know a couple of people who have a driving licence but no car, but without even trying I can think of 10 more in my immediate family/closest friends who’ve never learnt to drive in the first place (with maybe 8 or 9 who drive and have or share a car).

In conclusion then, working class writers might be out there but are probably struggling. When the only people who get a voice are the wealthy, we’re in a bad way so we need to fight for libraries, fight for a level playing field in education, and build a flourishing cultural hub outside of London (Northern Powerhouse, anyone?). By the way, the Labour manifesto mentions banning unpaid internships. I’ll just leave that thought with you.

Crumbs! I’m on the radio tomorrow

ColourfulNotebook

A notebook such as I might be reading from, but you won’t know because it’s radio

The Chapel FM Writing on Air Festival is well under way and it’s less than 24 hours till I’ll be in Studio 2 with Andrea Hardaker and Rosalind York from Ilkley Writers. Our programme, Down the Rabbit Hole, is about inspiration, northern writing, and why we write what we do. Between us there’s a good 25 minutes of poems and stories amongst the chat (and a sprinkling of musical confetti).

I’ve been going on about this radio lark, I know, but it’s exciting. I listen to an awful lot of radio and it’s the pinnacle of success for me (far more exciting than television), partly because it’s so mysterious. Through voices and sound effects whole worlds are created. Tomorrow as you listen to us speaking (I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’ll be tuning in) you will all have different images in your minds, even if you know what we all look like. The fact that my stories are printed out on the back of junk mail that’s been folded and put in my pocket a few times won’t come across on air – it will sound exactly the same as if I was reading from a gilt-edged book with a ribbon marking my place.

I’ve been dipping into the rest of the festival so far, quite a varied programme and you can listen to anything you’ve missed via the listen again page. Andrea and Rosalind are getting ready to take part in tonight’s Readathon, where an entire book is read out in a literary relay all through the night. I’ve opted for a good night’s sleep instead. Wish me luck…

Social media and the new availability

The recent kerfuffle over MPs supposedly being hounded online over the Syria vote had me weighing up the pros and cons of instant online availability. As far as politicians go, sending an email is much less of a big deal than writing a letter or calling in at a constituency office, so more people are likely to do it (me, for instance) and the MP or at least their staff might hear from a wider range of voters than they otherwise would. On the other hand Twitter might be a bit too immediate, a bit too tempting for the instant reaction outburst (from disgruntled voter or tired and emotional MP). If I tweeted half the stuff I shout at the radio during Any Questions I’d probably get myself into a lot of trouble.

Authors online, however, seems like a safer prospect. Back in the days when snail mail was all there was, even if I’d had the faintest idea how to get a letter to my favourite authors, I wouldn’t have done so (though I did once almost write a letter about Cerebus to Dave Sim). Aside from the perception that I was taking up a fair amount of both my time and theirs, the nagging feeling that the closest it would get to them would be the cursory glance it was given by their secretary/wife/obliging neighbour, put me off. Then came email – still not necessarily read personally by the big names, but less work on both parts and somehow less weighty.

Next came blogs by writers – like this one, but sometimes written by someone more than a dozen people have heard of. The crime writer Martin Edwards has been writing posts regularly for years, imparting fascinating insights into his own writing and publishing process, discussing Golden Age (and other) crime with readers and generally seeming like a nice chap. The connection formed by not only reading his own thoughts, but personal responses to comments on the blog, has made me more keen to read his books than I otherwise would have been.

Twitter has been a revelation (possibly similar is true of Facebook and the like, but not being massively social I don’t have much social media experience). As mentioned above it’s perfect for the impulse comment (like an impulse purchase but possibly with greater ramifications) and because the wordcount is so tiny you can’t be accused (even by yourself) of wasting an author’s time by attempting to communicate with them. Even some of the big names are known to handle their own Twitter accounts, like JK Rowling and Stephen King. Not to mention Stephen Fry. The chances of you standing out among the 17,000 other responses they got to that last tweet are slim, but there is the faint possibility of a brief dialogue, and certainly the feeling that they may personally have read your view on their latest work (or hairstyle, love affair, breakfast etc).

So, if the big guns are now a little less ‘other’, the less stratospheric writers like comedic genius (and engaging Twitterite) John Finnemore are positively reach-out-and-touchable. If you’ve read about (and commented on) the new work-in-progress you’ve already got a connection to it by the time it comes out. Which is where we reach the emerging writers. While Stephen King may or may not notice you as an individual say how much you loved his new novel, the midlist authors probably will and they may well take your comments on board. The emerging writers will not only notice but you may well have the power to steer their mood for the day. For some, your comment might be the only one they’ve received.

Next time you’re considering getting in touch with a stranger, pause. Is the person a politician you have an urge to remonstrate with? If so, remember Theresa May is listening, and they’re probably not worth it. However, if the person in question is a writer, artist, musician, poet (and what you have in mind isn’t abusive) go for it. You won’t bother the busy ones, and the rest will probably be glad of the connection.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg

Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg were paired up on Sunday afternoon at the Ilkley Literature Festival because as well as both being American, both women have recently written novels whose main characters were real people. The idea fascinated me as I wanted to know whether all that historical detail helps or hinders a writer of fiction, and how much you should worry about misrepresenting them.

Liza’s novel (her second) is Villa America (which I’m afraid I haven’t read), bringing Sara and Gerald Murphy to centre stage amid their friends Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso etc, in 1920s France. Because most of her central characters were well-known and well-documented, Liza commented that she felt quite constrained in what she could write, having to ensure that everyone was in certain locations doing certain things at certain times, because it’s known that this was the case (in fact she said she envied Jami’s freedom, more of which in a moment). To give her an outlet for fiction – as she said, she’s a ‘professional liar’ and it’s hard not to make things up! – she invented a character who then threads among the real figures helping to bring out their inner lives.

Jami’s fifth book is Saint Mazie, which I’ve already reviewed here. Set in New York predominantly during the first 3 decades of the 20th century, it introduces us to Mazie Gordon-Phillips the ‘Queen of the Bowery’ who ran a cinema by day and helped homeless men at night. By contrast to the Murphys, almost nothing is recorded about Mazie, in fact Jami mentioned she’d found only two articles (on Mazie’s retirement and memorial service) and an obituary. One of the articles mentions that Mazie was going to write her memoirs, but they never seem to have appeared, and from such a tantalising glimpse into this extraordinary woman’s life Jami set out to write the memoirs that she would have loved to read. She knew a few places that Mazie had lived, and from that (and some trips around the relevant neighbourhoods in New York) she crafted her novel.

During the question and answer session I asked Jami what had made her structure the novel in the way she had, with Mazie’s diary entries, a few excerpts from her memoirs, interviews with people who’d known her, all woven together. She explained that she’d started out writing a straightforward memoir, with Mazie looking back on her life and telling her story, but it hadn’t felt immediate enough and she switched to the diary which lands the reader right into the events as they’re happening, with the interviewees adding a different viewpoint or the benefit of hindsight.

Both authors talked about the importance of book clubs, with the members buying the novel then recommending it to friends and family (the importance of word of mouth promotion). However, they did also mention the daunting task of doing skype interviews with book clubs. Liza had found the book clubbers to be keen and well-read, comparing her work to things she hadn’t read herself, and asking tough questions.

One last thing I’ll mention here is book covers. They were asked how much input they have into the covers of their books, and it sounds like sometimes at least they do have a choice. However, Jami told us about one of her books (which must be The Melting Season) where the cover was a woman running through a field of wheat (sure to appeal to the middle-aged book-clubbing woman) despite the story being ‘scandalous’ (Jami’s word) and about a woman running off to Las Vegas. It did make me think of the whole book cover problem, which I’ve read about before (and which Joanne Harris has handily complained about this week in terms of children’s books) where publishers have a market in mind, and some kind of formula for covers to appeal to that market (how? why?) and they just go with it. It doesn’t seem to have done Jami Attenberg’s career too much harm, though.

Don’t give up the day job

Huffington Post ran an article on The Bizarre Day Jobs of 20 Famous Authors, so of course I sidled over to have a look, hoping that some over-hyped, pompous writer had once been in charge of artificially inseminating llamas or something. However, the reality was both more mundane and more peculiar. I will grant you that oyster piracy (Jack London) is a bizarre way of making a living, but engineer (Dostoyevsky), barrister (John Galsworthy), surgeon (Arthur Conan Doyle)? Some of them are pretty well-known facts, too. Disappointing. Maybe what we actually need is a list of jobs that seem peculiarly fitting for particular authors, though perhaps it would be as well to restrict it to the dead just to be on the safe side of libel…

The thing about day jobs, bizarre or otherwise, is that your average writer gets masses of inspiration from them. Office politics. Legal jargon. The way llamas stamp their feet when you get too close. Although it’s sometimes a pain trying to fit writing around work and everything else with a claim on your day (like reading Huffington Post articles or catching up with 3 days’ worth of Twitter-feed) I do think it keeps you more in contact with (at least a portion of) the outside world.

Speaking of which, that bookaday thing is still going, but it’s getting a bit specific now (I guess there’s only so many open questions about reading you can come up with). It’s now at We Love This Book and as usual I’ve come to it late. I’m not going to go through the lot, but I will make the following comments: Do people buy books for the cover (4th)? Surely every reader gets sparked off by a different book or type of book (21st). Lots of books make me question everything, that’s how I know they were good (29th). And if I had a cup of tea for every time I’ve been likened to Arthur Dent (14th)… I’d have several cups of tea.