‘Only certain people are permitted to write books’

Nathan Connolly (ed.), Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class By the Working Class

Dead Ink, 180pp, £15.99, ISBN 978-1911585367

reviewed by Thom Cuell

Conceived in response to media analysis of the EU Referendum, in which the working class was presented by the media as primarily scared, backward-looking, insular and monocultural, Know Your Place gives a platform to working class writers to discuss the impact of class on their own life and work. By doing this, it stands alongside fellow crowdfunded anthologies The Good Immigrant (Unbound) and Nasty Women (404 Ink) in providing a snapshot of the socio-political situation of contemporary Britain through a literary lens.

The writer’s position within the class system is poorly defined. On a purely economic level, judging by recent reports into average earnings, most writers might expect to earn a significantly below-average salary, on a par with unskilled or junior clerical work, whilst a smaller number are comfortably bourgeois. If you want to look at Max Weber’s three-class system, you could say that writers enjoy a high-status role, possessing a talent decreed to be beyond the means of most, which would separate them from the working classes. A Marxist interpretation, however, suggests that writers, like other members of the proletariat, are alienated from the product of their labour, as Lee Rourke explains in his essay, ‘Hop-Picking: Forging a Path in the Edgelands of Fiction’:

'I work tirelessly, repetitively, mind-numbingly, painstakingly towards creating something, which, if I'm lucky, will be taken away from me, made into something else by others, for others to supposedly enjoy, despite there not being much in return for me.'

Much of publishing, by contrast, is dominated by the middle and upper classes. As Sarah Perry explained in a recent Twitter thread, being working class in the publishing world is an isolating experience:

‘If you’re from a small town and went to a v.v. modest uni (or none at all) the chances of pitching up to a media/publishing event and meeting someone you know from uni is almost ZERO and it DOES have an effect . . . the only sense of isolation and exclusion I’ve ever felt in publishing was when I realised that I would never look up and see a familiar face.'

In her essay, ‘An Open Invitation’, Kit de Waal expands on this, citing research which found that 43% of people working in publishing come from privileged backgrounds, compared to 14% of population as a whole. This creates a problem for working class writers looking to get their work accepted: ‘You have to hope ‘that whoever reads your book doesn't equate working class with white trash sink estates populated by single mothers in tower blocks, that they don't reach for the lazy label, “gritty”, “dark” and “northern”.’

The ultimate effect of this imbalance, argues de Waal, is an erasure of the working class voice: 'The definitions of 'literature' and what constitutes “good taste” are tightly bound up with class. What the working class or underclass produce is rarely included in the canon; street literature, songs, hymns, spoken word, dialect and oral storytelling is nowhere to be found.’ Tracing the historic root of this class imbalance, Lee Rourke reaches back to Marx’s analysis of the novel as a product of bourgeois tastes, an art form which developed coincidentally with the rise of the bourgeois in society at the end of the 19th century, to reflect the tastes of bourgeois readers – a trend which is still reflected in the contents of the average Booker Prize shortlist.

Working class writers have the option of conforming to these tastes, or else to 'write the gritty, clichéd accounts of working class, inner-city misery they are expected to write' for the amusement of the middle class. The third, and most difficult, option, for Rourke is to produce 'bad' literature, which rejects conventional styles and aims to ‘destroy, take apart and disrupt the bourgeois notion of what a novel should be.’

If this sounds academic or theoretical, Kath McKay’s essay ‘Reclaiming the Vulgar’ reinforces the extent to which bourgeois literary tastes have come to represent literature as a whole. To get a Brownies badge, McKay had to write a story, and found herself drawn towards an ‘appropriate’ subject for literature – a horse – despite the fact that 'the only experience of horses I had was watching The Grand National on TV.’ Her teacher signed the form, 'but I sensed his disappointment. Yet how could I write about my parents' arguments, or drying knickers in the oven before school, or the escaping steam from a tin of Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney Pie? I was silenced.’ The knock-on effect of the domination of literature by bourgeois tastes is that people feel that only certain subjects are permissible for fiction, and, in Len Deighton’s words, ‘only certain people are permitted to write books.’

McKay and fellow contributor Rym Kechaca both mention a further barrier for working class would-be writers – the existence of ‘higher register’ Norman-derived vocabulary, which is used to signify status. As Kechacha explains, ‘when we want to be more formal or sound intelligent, whether we intend to or not, we switch our vocabulary to favour Latinate words brought here by the Normans’ – a register with which the middle and upper classes are more comfortable, and which tends to exclude the working class. Accent is also a strong social signifier. Kate Fox, in her essay ‘The Wrong Frequency’, recalls that, before taking a college course in Radio Journalism, 'I hadn't noticed there had never been a national news reader with a northern accent' – a subtle reinforcement of middle-class norms. Her own accent became a barrier to employment: ‘I didn’t sound like a newsreader.’

On top of these long-standing issues, Austerity has bought about a crisis in working-class access to culture. Cuts have limited access to essential resources such as libraries, whilst the knock-on effects of reduced Health and Welfare spending have disproportionately affected the working class. Sam Mills, in ‘The Benefit Cuts’, and Rebecca Winson in ‘Disguised Malicious Murder’, both discuss the impact of austerity on working-class households, in reducing horizons and an increased need to care for relatives who can no longer rely on state aid, as well as an accompanying media narrative which seeks to divide the working class into ‘skivers’ and ‘the deserving poor’. Schemes such as the New Deal, which gave working class graduates time to write without the pressure to find work, have disappeared.

All of this has made the writer’s dream of financial independence and a room of one’s own even less attainable for working class people – as Durre Shahwar Mughal observes in her essay Navigating Space, 'both were luxuries that only upper middle class women from wealthy families with no burden of domestic labour were able to afford . . . I have become accustomed to working within small rooms and small spaces. I sometimes wonder if this transfers to small expectations and ideas in my writing.’

In the digital world, there are more opportunities for working class writers to find their voices, and make themselves heard, through blogs, online journals and social media, and there is a small but vibrant collection of publishers who are agile enough to identify and promote their work. That there is a desire for such voices to be heard is evident through the crowdfunding successes of anthologies such as Know Your Place. Mainstream publishing is also responding, to some extent: Kit De Waal founded a scholarship for working class writers, which has been supported by agents and publishers, and some of the larger houses have begun talent outreach programs into less-privileged areas. But there is more to be done.