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Report Class prejudice holds back working-class talent

Radical changes are required in the publishing industry for working-class writers to overcome the multiple challenges they face in a sector from which they are largely excluded, posits GAVIN O’TOOLE

NOVELIST Kit de Waal told an audience in Listowel, Ireland, last Thursday that an important shift in attitudes and practices is needed in order to break the class ceiling in literature.

“Change needs to come not just by supporting working-class people to write but from the industry itself — who it employs, so that when people are reading stories from working-class writers they are understanding them — but secondly the publishing industry has to value the stories that working-class people want to write about,” she said.

De Waal was speaking during the panel A Working Class Writer is Something to Be at Listowel Writers’ Week in Kerry, Ireland’s oldest literary and arts festival, first held in 1971.

“The publishing industry runs on money, it runs on profit for shareholders, and what they really want are readers, people who go out and buy a book,” de Waal said.

“If the publishers see that there is an audience for working-class stories and they are buying books, and if they believe there is a market out there that is untapped, they will pander to that market every time.

“So it is for all of us who care about supporting working-class writers to buy their books, if we are a working-class writer to write a book, to talk about working-class writers whenever we can on blogs, to champion the cause of what we are and what we stand for.”

De Waal, author of the novels My Name is Leon — shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award — was joined by novelist Paul McVeigh, whose debut novel The Good Son won the Polari First Novel Prize.

Both writers have been at the heart of efforts in Britain and Ireland to expand opportunities for working-class writers.

McVeigh spoke about his own efforts to write while working and negotiate a publishing world in which he felt like an outsider.

“How many writers are lifted out of their class by a book deal or even two?” he asked.

“Often you are paid nothing in advance. We need to understand if you are a working-class writer the things that put you off trying to do this seriously because you can’t afford to be a writer.

“It’s very hard to be confident in a world that’s alien to you.”  

The limited opportunities open to working-class writers and those from marginalised communities has risen up the agenda of the publishing industry, which in Britain is dominated by a metropolitan middle-class elite.

British literary agents in particular have come under fire as the main gatekeepers to the publishing world for their failure to engage with writers from backgrounds outside their experience and comfort zone.

Novelist Donal Ryan chaired the panel and asked whether a “guaranteed basic income for artists” that has been discussed in some countries might be one way forward.

Ryan’s bestselling novels The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December were together rejected 47 times before they were accepted for publication.

In 2020 a report drawing on evidence from 17 working-class writers interviewed by Katy Shaw, professor of contemporary writing at Northumbria University, advanced a damning critique of pervasive barriers to their development and success.

Common People: Breaking the Glass Ceiling in UK Publishing was based on research into the Common People project — a collaboration between regional writing development agencies launched by New Writing North and Writing West Midlands — that published an anthology edited by de Waal and launched a professional development programme.

The initiative inspired publication of The 32, a similar anthology edited by McVeigh that brought together Irish working-class voices.

The Common People report argued that significant barriers to publication included a lack of support networks, lack of contacts in an industry monopolised by metropolitan elites, but also psychological hurdles such as a lack of self-confidence derived from generations of exclusion.

The report recommended, among other things, new investment in launching more publishing ventures and writing development agencies, establishing more literary agents outside London, and greater awareness of the barriers facing working-class writers.

The lack of working-class access is an enduring problem that goes beyond a statistical calculus to help explain their disproportionately reduced presence in the celebrated canon and teaching of English-language literature.

In 2017, Arts Council England’s Literature in the 21st Century report concluded that British literary fiction is dominated by “insider networks,” so established that breaking into these areas still proves impossible for many writers.

Jes Brisley conducted research on records from 1890 to 1940 in the archives of Chatto & Windus and uncovered that the publishers were looking for tales to sell to a metropolitan middle-class audience and deemed manuscripts that dealt with working-class topics largely worthless.

Nor is the imited access of working-class voices to a non-meritocratic, often nepotistic publishing sector a trivial grievance confined to literary circles — it has consequences for Britain’s vibrant creative industries and overall economy.

The creative industries contributed £115.9bn in 2019, accounting for 5.9 per cent to the economy (gross value added) — an increased by 5.6 per cent between 2018 and 2019 — of which £6bn came from the publishing industry (writing for theatre, television, film and video games).

Book publishing itself is big business: while the UK is home to less than 1 per cent of the global population, it is the largest exporter of books in the world, generating a huge ripple effect across adjacent sectors such as retail, printing and marketing.

And attitudes might be shifting. There has been praise for Penguin’s WriteNow scheme, for example, which aims to find, nurture and publish new writers from communities under-represented on British bookshelves.

Other initiatives have been launched by writers themselves, such as the Working Class Writers Collective that brings together people with similar backgrounds in south-east England.

Collections of writing such as Know Your Place, published by Liverpool-based Dead Ink press in 2017 via the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform, have featured “essays on the working class, by the working class.”

De Waal concluded on a positive note: “Certainly at the moment there is definite, if slow, change in the industry in the UK about recognising working-class writers … but it will only work by addressing capitalism, which is what the industry runs on.”

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