LITERARY SOCIAL CLEANSING
Updated: May 2
The recent triumph of Milkman by Anna Burns in the Booker Prize has brought to the forefront the issue of working-class writers and their lack of representation. Although this isn’t the time or the place for me to school you in the doctrines of Marx and Althusser, you certainly should be aware of the proposition that literary works are part of society’s superstructure. As such they tend to legitimate and promulgate the ideology of the ruling class. It therefore follows that writers who challenge the establishment are typically ignored by the mainstream publishing industry.
Instead of giving you a crash course in Marxism, I’m going to present a study of the prevailing conditions based on my own experiences, so let’s establish some facts to begin with. According to the BBC’s Great British class calculator I am Traditional Working Class, but only because I happen to be a property owner. Were that not the case, I’d be right at the bottom of the heap, propping up the whole edifice, as a member of the Precariat.
So, what’s it like being a working-class writer? Well, what it means in practice is exclusion. When I look at the way in which the middle class monopolise the whole shebang, where the hell am I supposed to fit in?
Take the Curtis Brown creative writing courses which are priced in the region of £300 (a week’s wages for me). Yes, there are handouts for the deserving poor on some of the Arvon courses (where five-day retreats will set you back an eye-watering £800) and the Penguin Write Now scheme is free apart from travel costs, but I can well imagine that many of these retreats and creative writing courses are stuffed to the gills with predominantly white, middle class people who have no problem in affording the extortionate fees.
Even when well-meaning individuals attempt to buck the system, the existing order has a habit of throwing a proverbial spanner in the works. Kit De Waal, for example, recently launched an initiative to compile an anthology of unrepresented working-class writers entitled Common People, due for publication by Unbound in May 2019. To be considered for inclusion writers like myself living in the North East of England needed to be recommended by their local Arts Council agency, in other words by New Writing North. The problem was that only writers who were already being mentored by New Writing North were eligible, which of course meant that I and many others were immediately excluded. So much for a level playing field. This one was about as level as the football pitch at Crook Town.
Bearing this in mind, I hope you are now able to appreciate just how deftly the gatekeepers operate when it comes to silencing working-class voices. Anyway, not to be outdone, I decided to expand the piece I’d written and incorporated it within my composite novel The Prison where it functions as an introduction to the collection.
Although I’ve recently pitched a book proposal to Unbound I’m definitely not holding my breath. Even if I’m successful, I will then need to raise the money for its publication through a crowdfunding campaign. And we all know that, generally speaking, the middle class have more disposable income than the working class, not to mention wider contacts in the media and with people in their circle who hold positions of influence, so once again I’m at a disadvantage.
Cold, hard cash is also the primary barrier when it comes to promoting your work. Blog tours, book-signing sessions, talks, all of these cost time and money. Likewise, Amazon and Facebook advertising are a sure way to drain what limited resources you might possess.
What I do know for certain is that as a working-class writer no literary agent will ever represent me, nor will I ever be traditionally published. That is the harsh reality of the world I inhabit. Consequently, I favour an anarchic, disruptive approach to the prevailing status quo. Like Brexit, and John Lydon before he pocketed his forty pieces of silver, my goal is to destroy the existing order, since I have no place within it. But always remember this. To destroy is also to create.