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.

It’s not my gender that’s the problem

It’s not like I never get involved in women-only publications or events. I reviewed female-author books for women-only SF purveyors Luna Station Quarterly for a while, and I’m taking part in the York International Women’s Festival in March. However, I do that in the spirit that I would enter a competition open only to residents of the UK, or a scheme for Bradford council-tax-payers: I fit the criteria, criteria are sometimes arbitrary. I don’t do it because I think women are somehow special or a homogenous mass. ‘Women’ is too big a group for lumping together: the larger the group the greater the diversity within it, and the less use it is for any practical purpose.


Class (social background, social capital, and contacts) and/or wealth are much more important as enablers or hindrances to getting on than gender is, particularly in writing. Let’s talk about competition entries first.

While it’s true that there are many free to enter writing competitions out there, pretty much all of the big prestigious ones (and many of the smaller ones too) cost money. Before I continue, I should point out that I expect first-readers, judges, administrators and all the rest to be paid properly for their time, and I understand that there are overheads to be covered, as well as the prize money. It doesn’t change the fact that it costs, for example, between £8 (flash fiction) and £10 (short story) to enter the Bridport Prize, £8 for the Bristol Short Story Prize, £10-£12 to enter the various Cinnamon Press competitions, £17.50 for the most recent Manchester Fiction Prize, or £25 for the Bath Novel Award.

In terms of special concessions to female authors, confidence is often cited. Women are not as likely to submit manuscripts to agents or publishers as men. Women are not as convinced of their greatness as men. I’ve met some pretty arrogant and overbearing women for whom this will not be a problem, and I also know plenty of shy, self-deprecating men. Social background comes into the confidence issue in a big way: if you’ve ever felt the slightest hint of ‘not for the likes of us’ you will feel it in the face of publishers and agents. Think your vocabulary might not be as vast as it ‘should’ be? Have an idea that everyone in publishing is a posh woman called Pippa who’s never caught a bus in her life? Now bear that in mind as you prepare to fork out most of this month’s disposable income in writing competition fees…

I was shocked recently to read a £3 reading fee described as less than the price of a coffee or sandwich. Now £3 is not a vast amount to me for a fee like this, though even the small amounts add up – it was the comparison I didn’t like, as though it was perfectly trivial for everyone. I would not pay £3 for a sandwich or a cup of coffee (I have paid £3 for a really fancy hot chocolate, and felt guilty about it later). When OneMonkey and I go out for a meal it costs us £20-£25 in total, probably because we don’t buy alcohol or a starter and are both vegetarian, but still that’s the sort of thing you’re up against. Do we pay for a treat we can both enjoy, or the entry fee to a writing competition I have little chance of winning? You’d have to be massively confident (or single-minded) to enter the writing competition if you didn’t have much spare cash.

Then there are writing retreats, editorial and critiquing services, workshops and conferences, writing groups. Not all of these will charge a fee (and some have low income concessionary rates) but even travel costs to events can be prohibitive. I saw a 3-day conference advertised recently, the price seemed high but considering you were getting 3 days probably not too bad, it was just over an hour away by public transport (we don’t have a car) but adding in the 3 days of travel costs nearly doubled the total price of attendance so I decided against it. Again, if you’re lacking confidence, and perhaps don’t know anyone else who writes or thinks writing is a worthwhile thing to do, you’ll think twice about spending the money.

Books cost money (though the Guardian still thinks describing books around the £10 mark as stocking fillers is reasonable), libraries are closing down and don’t always have the books that you need. Research resources that are a matter of paying to use the online database from the comfort of your own study for the better off, might be a stumbling block for others. Even carving out writing time is harder if you can’t afford a babysitter or an after school club, or haven’t got a spare room to shut yourself in with a notepad and pen.

I once went to a writing workshop where the tutor began by saying writing was (financially) accessible to everyone because all you needed was paper and a pen. Rubbish, I thought. As a hobby, maybe, but not if you want to be a writer. If you want to be a writer, you need to type up your work on a computer and in some cases still print it out and post it off as a hard copy. Unless you’re exceptionally talented you need guidance and tuition (in person or via books) and preferably someone to read through your final drafts to give you an opinion, which might have to be an editorial service if you don’t hang around with other writers much. You need the money to enter competitions or pay the increasingly common ‘reading fees’ for magazines (or buy a book from the indie publisher before you can submit your own manuscript – I get why they want to do that, but I’m not buying a book I’ve already read from the library just so I can send them my work and then probably not even be one of the ten people they publish next year). You need the confidence that you’re not just throwing all this money away. This is not a women-only problem.


Dangerous Northern Women

I’ve been writing a bit of non-fiction lately (I mean apart from this blog, and the usual book reviews). Some of it is now up at the Dangerous Women Project in the form of a piece about the Bradford Female Educational Institute and its worrying policy of actually trying to teach working class women stuff, back in the 1850s when that really wasn’t cool (I know – Bradford, education, working class history and northern women all at once!). You can read it here:

I was planning to tell you all about the project in advance, but I didn’t want to seem like I was crawling while my piece was under consideration and I didn’t realise it would be up so soon after acceptance, so I never did. Suffice to say I recommend having a good look round the site, there’s a lot of different topics which all have something to do with the idea of being a dangerous woman, pushing boundaries in some way.

If the image had been freely available, I would have liked the drawing from this 1856 magazine page to illustrate it, but sadly it wasn’t to be.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

Not so long ago my dad expressed amazement that I hadn’t read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a staple of working-class literature. Being, if not quite a dutiful daughter, at least frequently guided by his reading recommendations, I downloaded the ebook from ManyBooks.

This 1910 novel follows for a year or so a group of painters and decorators in the South of England, from the teenage apprentice to the old men with failing eyesight, as they work for or are sacked in turn by Rushton’s. Every profiteering trick is exposed, from Rushton charging the house-holder for more coats of paint than have been used, to hiring general labourers (cheap rates) for a skilled job or sacking skilled workers then, knowing they’re desperate for work, re-hiring them at reduced rates. The philanthropy referred to is the selfless drive to increase Rushton’s profits, shown by almost all of the workers we meet in the book.

A distressing picture of working-class life at the time is portrayed, similar to that seen in Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York from a few years earlier, so it was presumably widespread. Families facing destitution no matter how hard they work, trapped by colluding employers and greedy landlords. Illness and malnourishment as a way of life, and the upper and middle classes so out of touch, with their let them eat cake attitudes. To say I enjoyed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists would seem wrong – it made me angry, frustrated, and gave me a frightening glimpse into the lives of my Edwardian ancestors – but I’m glad I read it.

Tressell was a socialist and the way he portrays the bosses and the conniving town councillors (mainly, of course, the same group of people) might be straying into caricature. However, through the character of Owen being persuaded to deliver lectures on socialism to his workmates on rainy lunchtimes (we could do with a laugh – tell us again why money’s the cause of poverty, ha ha) he argues persuasively for an alternative system and I defy anyone to read it and say his ideas aren’t logical (you are, naturally, free to disagree with it on principle). The sad thing is we achieved so much of it (the NHS, the welfare state, nationalised railways) and now it’s being dismantled again, so that some of the book has modern echoes. Some cynics would say there’s been a deliberate policy to return us to the days of Tressell and his mates, but I’m not sure if it isn’t one of those ‘don’t attribute to malice what incompetence can explain’ situations. That and let them eat cake.

The other thing he has a go at in the novel is (as Ruskin often does) the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed Christians, congratulating themselves for attending church or chapel every Sunday yet with a ready excuse for any suggestion of Christ’s that doesn’t suit them. Things like giving charity, loving neighbours, not being a selfish and exploitative money-grabbing hardcase.

Although it’s making a strong political point, this is an engaging novel with quite a sprinkling of humour and biting satire, and I found myself wanting to know what happened to the characters. It is a bit old-fashioned in its delivery and its use of pointed names (Sir Graball D’Encloseland, Mr Sweater, Mr Grinder, Crass the foreman), but if you’re generally happy reading Victorian or Edwardian novels that shouldn’t bother you. Even if (especially if?) you’re not a lefty of historical bent, I would urge you to give this book a go.

Reading habits and class

A survey by Booktrust this week appears to reveal a class divide in reading habits. No real surprise there, education generally exhibits some form of class divide and there’s no obvious reason this would be different. I haven’t seen the survey itself, only articles on the BBC and Guardian websites (and public comments thereon), but it does seem quite a small sample, it’s not clear whether they include e-books in their definition of books (doesn’t sound like it, oddly) and I would argue about cause and effect. As well as the class definitions they use. However, it does lead me to a few observations.

One is that this kind of survey (particularly the bit about the numbers of books owned by different types of household) should tell the powers that be all they need to know about why closing down public libraries is a Bad Thing. I suspect they know this already, sadly.

Another is that class or income don’t go hand in hand with reading habits, it’s attitude that matters. All three of my grandparents that I knew were avid readers, library users, and encouraged my reading as a child. Though not all of them would have admitted it by the time I was on the scene, they were all working class and had different levels of formal education, gained by different routes. Presumably the common thread was that they saw, or came from families who saw, education as a good thing and reading as a perfectly reasonable pastime. It’s not likely that anyone will choose to read for enjoyment, however well-off or middle-class they are, if they know they’ll be looked on as odd by the people around them.

Thirdly, and this is where the now-obligatory mention of Richard Hoggart appears (see my post about The Uses of Literacy here), who says reading a book is the be-all and end-all? The articles about the survey mention (the horror!) that The Youth prefer social media and the internet to a book. Now unless I’ve missed the popularisation of truly sci-fi technology whereby images are beamed direct from the internet to a teenager’s brain via subcutaneous wi-fi nodes, surely they will be reading during (some of) this web-surfing. Does reading the latest unauthorised biography of a teen pop sensation in hardback require more thought and effort than reading daily update articles on the same topic? Don’t they read blogs (obviously not this one as it’s not cool enough… Having said that, I’m sure I have some followers who at least claim to be under 21), gig reviews, wikipedia?

Fourthly, has anyone looked at the benefits of reading per se? I’m in the middle of a MOOC on The Challenges of Global Poverty from the economics department at MIT and I’m rather keen on the idea of randomized control trials at the moment, but has anyone systematically looked at how all this book stuff helps? Does reading absolutely anything (fiction, magazines, recipes, blogs) exercise the mind in some fundamental way, or is there something specific to reading longer texts (a novel, a biography), and does listening to the audiobook have the same effect? Or is it all just correlation – households with lots of books tend to be populated with people who will (when they’re not reading) have a serious conversation with each other, provoking thought even in the member of the household who would honestly rather be playing World of Warcraft?

There was a fifthly, but I got distracted by OneMonkey and the prospect of a cup of tea so (as you all sigh with relief) I’ll raise that cup of tea to the memory of Tony Benn, and shut up.

The North, the working class novel, the iplayer

For those of you with a passing interest in Northern working class culture and writings thereon (and let’s face it, on this blog it’s a definite benefit) there are a couple of rather interesting radio programmes on the BBC iplayer and they look like they’re available for quite some time yet.

The first is Beyond the Kitchen Sink, which I must have missed last year when it was on as part of the British New Wave season. It does make the occasional reference to other programmes from the season, which I don’t think are still available, but it’s an enjoyable documentary in its own right. For just short of an hour, Paul Allen talks about the plays and novels of the mid-fifties to sixties which brought working class voices to the fore. There are archive contributions from the likes of John Osborne, David Storey, Stan Barstow, and clips from the film and radio adaptations of their work. A much more intelligent treatment than the BBC TV documentary from September 2010 with an overlapping focus (which I reviewed here) it asks questions like why were the writers mainly northern, mainly men, and why did it appear to be a brief trend. A suggestion for part of the answer to the last question is that writers following in their footsteps went into TV rather than writing plays or novels, which brings me neatly to the next programme.

Bingo, Barbie and Barthes: 50 Years of Cultural Studies is a dreadful title for a thought-provoking two-part documentary on the origins and legacy of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies which Richard Hoggart founded in 1964 after he’d written The Uses of Literacy (which I’ve written about before). It features interviews with co-founder Stuart Hall who died recently, as well as other cultural studies academics past and present. It’s interesting to note how far removed cultural studies now seems to be (particularly in the popular imagination) from Hoggart’s intention but I do think that at its most incisive it can tell us a lot about the state of our society, for instance by examining the prevalence and format of TV talent shows or Downton Abbey or celebrity gossip magazines.

If any of that’s put you in the mood for some Northern writing and you haven’t sampled it already, you could try my short story collection The Little Book of Northern Women. Some of it even has a working class setting…

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

In the early 1950s, 30-year-old university lecturer Richard Hoggart (father of Simon, brilliant political sketch-writer from The Guardian) started writing a book rooted in his ‘northern urban working-class’ childhood (in Leeds), that he thought about calling The Abuses of Literacy. He changed it to The Uses of Literacy so as to sound less confrontational, and had to change parts of the contents so as to avoid possible libel charges. However, the result was published in 1957 and 54 years later I read it, appreciated it, and marvelled at how much is still relevant.

I was wary of mentioning it on my blog because part of me doesn’t want anyone to read it – then I figured I don’t have much influence and few people would find it an interesting topic for their leisure hours so I needn’t worry about a stampede. The reason for my mixed feelings is that in the wrong hands (i.e. those of anyone not born into northern working-class families) it could become a kind of anthropological study of peculiar speech, attitudes and customs, a kind of sneering affirmation of superiority on the part of the reader. When I read it, I found myself thinking ‘that’s a bit harsh’ occasionally, then realising I’d said almost the same thing plenty of times myself, usually for OneMonkey to reply ‘that’s a bit harsh’ – but for me, as for Richard Hoggart, there’s a mixture of exasperation that comes from looking closely from the outside, and affection for and/or understanding of the relatives and family friends looking back.

Hoggart set out to write a textbook about mass culture, by which he seemed to mean newspapers (newly-sensationalised), magazines (with pin-ups and short attention-span), cheap paperbacks (badly-written and full of sex and violence) etc and the habit of reading among a class of people who had more education as a basic background than their predecessors, but didn’t appear to be much better off for it. He then wrote the first half of the book (a summing up of recent or current attitudes in the northern urban working classes) to set his ideas in context. He seems to wander off-topic a fair bit and I must admit I didn’t follow all of his arguments, which is due in part to some of the contemporary references. I can say now a Sun-reader, a Guardian-reader, and conjure up in my own and other (British) people’s minds an idea of the sort of background or attitude I mean by that (it will be stereotypical, and in many instances unfair, but it’s a handy shorthand and a useful generalisation in some contexts, including as advertising targets, which Hoggart also covers) – but I have no idea what The Listener was like or who it was aimed at, I know nothing about any of the radio programmes he mentions (TV hadn’t really taken off at the time) and even the distinction between types of paper-shop is lost on me. However, there is enough of endurance there that I get the general gist.

OneMonkey has noted how many conversations in the last couple of weeks I’ve chipped in with ‘it’s funny you should say that because in this Hoggart book…’ and I do find it fascinating (and also quite depressing) that so little has changed in some areas; in the introduction to the 2009 edition Lynsey Hanley (a politically informed writer a couple of years older than me) says ‘no reader two generations younger than Hoggart should gasp in recognition at his descriptions of growing up…Yet, despite the social and economic transformations that have taken place since its publication in 1957, there are thousands who do.’

Talking to OneMonkey about this book reminds me how different our views are on this kind of thing. OneMonkey sees the worth or value of culture as largely subjective (I’m not sure I agree, but I’d be hard pushed to say where worth lies – see my occasional disparaging comments on Dickens and Shakespeare), and if hard-working people with jobs that give them little satisfaction want to come home and read easy to digest escapism about sex and adventure, who am I to say that’s trash? Not everyone wants to read history textbooks for fun, or even multi-layered novels with complex characters. And anyway, some of the sci-fi and fantasy I read would be seen as trash by those with even greater intellectual snobbery than me. OneMonkey also argues, and here I do agree with him, that it’s not a class divide any more (if it ever was) – the middle classes watch X-Factor just as much as anyone else does, it’s just that they’re more likely to have some kind of hypocritical guilt going on. In the same way, they’re more likely to use the argument ‘at least I read’. Why is it intrinsically more worthy to read a cheap paperback romance than to watch with keen interest a BBC4 programme on human rights, for instance? They read, therefore they don’t have to examine their reading-material or opinions because they’re automatically better than you. Dangerous thinking.

Maybe what it comes down to is a misplaced emphasis, or one that’s no longer relevant. It’s thinking that matters (if, like Richard Hoggart and I, you think any of this matters), not reading, surely. If you never read a book or magazine from one year to the next, but listen to the radio, watch TV or discuss things with friends and colleagues and think matters through for yourself (even if you argue yourself round in the end to the position that everyone else you know holds) isn’t that better (by which I mean more indicative of some hope for humanity) than reading the papers every day, accepting what they say, and parrotting back their opinions when asked for your own (and I’m as guilty on occasion of quoting Private Eye or The Guardian as other people are of quoting papers I’m sniffy about)? Of course you may think that it doesn’t much matter either way, most people have no real say in major aspects of their lives, and deep thought and political awareness just lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness. But if you’ve reached that position by weighing it all up for yourself, then we’re both happy. In a manner of speaking.