TaitMail Class action - literally

It’s hard to find a headline these days that doesn’t feed back into the dreadful impact of the coronavirus and the economic freeze which has followed.

Media coverage of the arts has either been about the disaster befalling the sector (latest example being Cameron Mackintosh’s warning that the West End might not be up and running again for at least a year, or the news about the closure of the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton). Or it’s been a pat on the back for the numerous instances of artists responding magnificently to the crisis by sharing their talents for free across the digital space.

So in a way it's unsurprising that a new report out just a week ago, championing working class writers, should meet with almost total media indifference. The report, called Common People, comes from a literary agency called New Writing North and was compiled by Northumbria University’s Professor Katy Shaw. What it finds is that “the full diversity of voices active in British society is neither heard nor acknowledged in UK publishing today”.

It used the experiences of 17 emerging working-class writers who featured in a wonderful anthology called Common People, edited by Kit de Waal, herself a working-class writer of some renown, and published last year. Regional writing development agencies, writing mentors and some publishers also took part.  

While it will be news to no-one that the publishing business is even more London-centric than many of the other arts, the report lays bare exactly what that means for many writers who live not just outside the capital, but outside the intensely middle class set up that is the literary world.  Living on a council estate in Croydon is just as much of a barrier as living on one in Hartlepool.

Recent surveys show that less than 10% of all authors, writers and translators hail from families from working class backgrounds, and just 12% of those in the influential editorial roles had parents who carried out routine or manual labour.  The trade newspaper for the business, the Bookseller, published its own survey last year and found close to 80% of people in the publishing industry who see themselves as working-class felt their background had adversely affected their career.

What the report makes clear is that lack of confidence, lacking “cultural capital” or even a bookshelf in the family home, makes it doubly hard to break into the world of publishing, where there is no-one who looks like you manning the gateways.   

As one respondent said, meetings with agents had made them “cringe and really depressed because they’re all very posh, white. It just seems like people from another world, another age”.

While none of this means that books written by or about working people do not get published, without a fundamental change in both the workforce and the audience these writers, as De Waal has warned, “end up being just another product for middle-class consumption”.

Kit de Waal

She points out that working-class writing when it does see the light of day is too often bundled into pre-set categories - the misery memoir, the escape, the clever boy or girl “done good”.  Whereas middle-class writers can explore the world, the universe and beyond, readers are allegedly only interested in working-class stories which regurgitate these standard tropes as if working class lives are somehow marginal. “They are not” says De Waal. “More than a third of the population is from traditional working-class origins”.

Common People suggests that decentralising the world of publishing and an industry-wide push to develop new working-class voices, through investment in regional writing development agencies, encouraging literary agents to set up outside London, better recruitment policies and more partnerships with the voluntary sector, will help reset the balance.

“The UK publishing industry, publicly funded culture and government all have a critical and collaborative role to play in deconstructing the barriers to working-class writers” Claire Malcolm, chief executive of New Writing North, said. “There is no longer anywhere to hide when it comes to issues of class within our sector. We need new ways of working and new collaborations that understand how we can all play our part to lead the change that this report shows is desperately needed.”

It’s odd that the report hasn’t gained a bit more traction, especially when we have been made aware of similar complaints in the acting profession.  High profile stars have pointed out that the twin impact of government policies and “bubble” mentalities are blocking the pipeline of talent from working class communities and raising uncomfortable questions about the middle-class grip on the arts.

Not everything that the report suggests is down to government action. There’s plenty that the publishing industry can do itself. Yet it might be worth the culture secretary, when he isn’t busy writing letters complaining about the BBC’s political coverage (that’s not your job, Mr Dowden), spending a bit of time having a look at the recommendations in Common People. After all, this is a government which prides itself on understanding the needs and wishes of the “common people” and professes itself dedicated to “levelling up”. If anything needs a bit of “levelling up” it’s the books business.

 

 

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