ENOUGH ROPE TO HANG THEM WITH
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, being a working-class writer is fucking hard. The mainstream publishing industry is primarily owned and staffed by the middle class, and it exists largely for the benefit of middle-class authors, even though most readers, I suspect, are working class. The only available avenues of admittance to this self-serving, incestuous coterie are via education – public school, Oxbridge – or through social and familial connections. If you’re fucking a literary agent, or a literary agent is fucking you, so much the better. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but that’s not much help if you’re a working-class writer like myself. Moreover, if you happen to hail from County Durham – how dreadful! – that’s yet another disadvantage given the London-centric bias of the mainstream publishing industry.
This inbuilt prejudice against working-class writers is not the only obstacle to achieving publication. If you’re from an ethnic minority you will face a similar kind of discrimination. Nevertheless, given my own white, working-class heritage, I am going to focus on that particular aspect since it is an essential part of my own lived experience.
The reasons given by the mainstream publishing industry when they reject your work are frankly laughable and indefensible. As R.M. Francis has commented with regard to my novel Black Art, which was turned down by a number of literary agents and publishers because they couldn’t envisage it actually selling sufficient copies to make it worth their while, ‘in what universe is Nazi art theft not marketable?’
Authors Kit de Waal and Carmen Marcus have recently attempted to challenge this stultifying state of affairs through initiatives aimed at improving the visibility of working-class writers. Their forthcoming anthology of working-class writing – Common People – which is due to be released by the crowd-funded publisher Unbound deserves an honourable mention in this article. However, to kick against the pricks and remain true to my anarchist self, my own strategy is to reach out to readers through self-publication. Fortunately, technology has come to the rescue of the working-class writer. In the past you had to be relatively well-off to go down that route – look at Proust. But now anyone can do it for next to no outlay. Even this flashy website only required me to shell out a piddling sum for the domain name.
The mainstream publishing industry still does its best to disparage self-published writers, but I pay no heed to these out-dated gatekeepers and naysayers. Indeed, have they forgotten the likes of Blake, Woolf, Proust or Joyce who all, at some stage in their careers, dabbled in this mode of literary production? In many ways, using one of the tools of capitalism – print on demand – to undermine one of its own industries feels very satisfying indeed. It reminds me of that apocryphal phrase which is variously attributed – erroneously – to Marx or Lenin:
The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.
If you are looking for recommendations when it comes to contemporary British authors let me point you in the direction of the wonderful Anthony Cartwright (How I Killed Margaret Thatcher, The Afterglow), Carmen Marcus (How Saints Die) and Benjamin Myers (Pig Iron, The Gallows Pole).
Amongst modern poets I especially enjoy the work of Liz Berry (The Black Country) and R.M. Francis (Corvus’ burnt-wing love balm and cure-all, Transitions, Orpheus).