A question I’m often asked by well meaning people is what do I mean when I talk about the working class, as if I could sum up everything that this label means.
The problem is that there isn’t a single, homogenised working class experience. I can tell you about my own experience, and how it fails to align with the image projected by most publishers. There are many stories of outsiders confined away from polite society in brutalist housing, single mothers or ‘it’s grim Up North’, the Up North being emphasised as if Thatcherism and the miners strikes of the 1980s are the only possible way to approach the issue in literature.
The social policy editor of The Guardian used an official survey defining the working class as those in manual occupations (1), and while this is in my personal experience often the case, I have to wonder how they defined manual occupations and if they fully considered the massive difference between the 25% of people considered working class in these terms and the 60% of people who self-identify as working class. Marxists often termed the working class as being those who have nothing to sell but their labour and skills. We live in a time where more Britons than ever before are millionaires while the poorest fifth of households have seen their wealth diminish in a range of £3,000 to £32,000 each year (2). Out of work households who rely on the benefits system are facing increasing pressure and demonisation – one only needs to watch an episode of the Channel Four series ‘Benefits Street’ to see where this is going. I’d argue this definition is more relevant as Britain is facing a greater wealth inequality than ever before. The working class isn’t just a resource for the wealthy, and in particular those in all forms of media careers, to neatly package away as an asset to create stories for the rich about council estates and working men’s clubs.
I believe that it’s impossible to define a singular working class experience. Not in Britain, and especially not globally. Outside of my experience are those who’ve been called ‘trailer trash’ and collect food stamps in America, the dalits of the Hindu caste system, or others facing similar inequalities in all the countries of the world…
But this doesn’t mean that the working class shouldn’t be able to tell their own stories.
I proposed to Lynn Michell, the Director at Linen Press, that she waives submissions fees for those from low income backgrounds, thereby removing barriers to authors from less privileged backgrounds who can’t afford to buy a book from her list. We hope this will allow the working class to have a voice in societies where their opinions are often ignored.
The response to this was strong and mixed. Should publishers be charging for submissions anyway? Some don’t charge but most independents do as their profit margins are tiny and they take greater risks by publishing unknown and debut authors which usually means low revenue from sales. Conglomerates won’t take unsolicited submissions at all, and often require an agent. Agents aren’t free.
During my graduation from university, I heard one parent lament to their child about their friend who hadn’t worn robes for the ceremony. They asked, quite flustered, if he was doing it to be provocative. This seems to be a running theme where the working class are concerned. When they can’t afford something and show it, it’s considered provocative. Since this incident I’ve begun to notice people using this term more often. I was asked that if by suggesting removing a barrier to low income writers to a senior publisher, I was being too provocative. When I tweeted about the lack of representation in mainstream publishing of writers from the working class, I received one sharp reply that stated that publishers don’t do enough to support the middle class either and I was just being provocative. I wasn’t saying there shouldn’t be middle class authors or publishers and I’m not suggesting this now. Publishing shouldn’t operate as a penal system. The point I was making then and am making now is that there’s a clear lack of writers and publishers from low income backgrounds.
One has to ask if this is provocation or if the question is actually related to the asker being uncomfortable with the idea of someone unlike themselves. If it’s provocative to speak up for working class authors then so be it, we should all be provocative.
Publishers create cultural capital, and it’s time to stop cultural capital only meaning content created by the white and upper middle class. What I really want to say when I talk about the working class is this: it’s time to be the change we want to see.
1. Butler, Patrick (2016) Most Britons regards themselves as working class, survey finds. Accessed 4th February 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jun/29/most-brits-regard-themselves-as-working-class-survey-finds
2. Peachey, Kevin (2018) More Brits become millionaires. Accessed 4th February 2018. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-42904875