Where are all the working class writers?
That’s the question Kit de Waal asked. She published her first novel, My Name is Leon, at the age of 55. I’ve placed an order to read this book. Well, you know what happened next. International acclaim and all the happy-ending stuff. If you read very carefully between the lines you’ll see the lie that works so well in politics and book publishing and in real life. The exception to the rule, in statistics they are called the outliers, are used to justify a particular ideology and support the status-quo. Thirty thousand shipyard workers become unemployed but one of them gets a job shelf-stacking in ASDA, 29 999 immediately become lazy bastards that don’t want to work. We don’t think, we feel the answer. You might think that story an exaggeration. One of the stories that stuck with me was all those matchers from Jarrow trekking to London in the 1930s and they stop off and get a sandwich. It’s ham. One of the workers takes the ham from his sandwich and posts it home to his wife. His children haven’t seen meat for over a week. Ah, you might say, but that’s the 1930s. But the Grenfell fire did not take place in the 1930s. Listen to what Emma Dent Coad the Labour MP for Kensington tells us about a cost-cutting ideology marked only by those with money and powers contempt for the working class that, ironically, Lord it above them. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/19/emma-dent-coad-grenfell-interview-shaun-bailey
The same pre-war contempt of the poor and working class exists today. We lost by a very big margin the propaganda war. The moron’s moron in the Whitehouse is evidence if you are looking for it of a new world order. Well, not actually new. Read your Great Gatsby. Read your Grapes of Wrath. Your Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur Scargil. Well, Mark Twain did coin the term ‘a gilded age’, but his timing was all wrong.
Kit de Wall proved that to be black, to be an older woman and above all to be working class was no barrier to becoming a writer. Good on her I say. But she asked a very salient question. Where are all the other working class writers?
She has a quick dekko in Waterstones. Nothing but middle-class crap. Well, not crap, somebody buys it. Sixty percent of university graduates are readers, some talking head tells us (middle-class talking-head presumably). But, hey, fifty percent of the working class are readers. That’s me. My hand waves in the air, I’m a reader. But fifty percent of the working class spend the same proportion of their money on restaurants and food. That’s not me, unless by restaurants you mean pubs that sell cheese-and-onion crisps.
It depends what you mean by working class. Here’s where there’s wriggle room for those defending the indefensible. My mum was working class so I’m working class. Donald Trump, the moron’s moron is by that definition working class and Brigadoon is in Scotland. If you start the day in debt and end your day in more debt then there’s a very good chance your working class. If you use the bus or public transport (outside London) there’s a very good chance your working class. If you live in a high rise that burns down then there’s a very good chance your working class. Rich people don’t burn. They just start the fires that incinerate common humanity.
Part two of wriggle room is by definition a writer is no longer working class because he or she has worked his way up to middle-class sanctuary. Here we go again. The old embourgeoisement thesis that the Luton car workers on the assembly line were no working class because they were coining it in. An old idea given a new jacket and fitted onto writers. One of Alan Bisset’s characters in Pack Man, a would-be writer, jokes that he work in Potterstones, because all they sell is Harry Potter books. She’s no longer working class is she? She no longer needs to sit scrawling in some dismal café, does she? Remember the story of the outliers that applies here. The perception writers make a fortune is laughable, but I’m not laughing. Some talking head (middle-class) tells us the average writer makes on average eleven-thousand pound a year in 2015. I wish I could make ten-bob a year writing. But I don’t. Therefore I’m not middle-class and I’m not average. Thank god for that. I was worried there.
We all like a tear-jerker. They bring in the guy from Penguin, who’s not a penguin but is upper class, because the upper classes are far more representative –sixty percent or more – of being the right kind of bloke to give us working class advice. Think Winston Churchill turning up in Dundee canvassing and telling its mill workers to keep smiling and work harder and they’ll all become Vera Lynn.
So what do working class writers lack apart from life chances, education, any chance of a career path in writing and role models you may ask? Well, money would be a good start. It would be good if working class people, and not just writers and artists, get paid for their work. Weren’t stigmatized, treated as scum and talked down to. Weren’t treated as something other and a threat that needs to be dealt with.
Hi, I admit it. I want to be a writer when I grow up. Like Kit de Wall I’m 55 and past it. But, hey, I believe wholeheartedly in the exception to every rule model. I’ve taken time off from writing that big glorious novel to write this for nowt. Maybe it’ll pay off in the future. Doubt it very much somehow. I write realist novels. Get real.