In a recent interview, author Kit De Waal made headlines when she asked the question “Where Have All the Working Class Writers gone? “What I don’t see in bookstores are stories that speak about my life, my experiences and see something about someone who came from a working class background”[i].
Hadrian Garrard, director of the arts organisation Create, has also warned “that the UK is in danger of returning to a pre-1950’s era when the arts were considered to be largely the preserve of the rich”[ii]. Movements that gave the working class a voice, such as the “Angry Young Men” [iii] in the 1950s, including writers such as Kingsley Amis, Colin Wilson and John Osborne, are hard to come to by today. While the “anger and disillusionment with conformity and the conservative values” from that period in time remain to this day, systematic problems have led to a culture that does not give voice to the disillusioned and disadvantaged. A recent survey by the University of Goldsmiths and Create found that “three-quarters of creative industry workers came from a middle class background.”
In the ’70s, Government benefits gave many working class writers the opportunity to kick-start their career. Author Alan Warner has said that his time on the dole “absolutely formed me as a person. It gave me a haphazard literary education and it made me appreciate the incredible value of free time.” [iv] Similarly, writer Geoff Dyer described his time on the benefits system in the 1980s, as “idyllic”. Providing support for writers, musicians and other artists may have been an unintentional side effect of the benefits system, however there was not the feeling of ‘cheating the system’ that there is today. A culture of ‘Scrounger stigma’, brought on by shows like Benefit Street, has put “poor people off applying for essential benefits”. [v] There seems to be a resentment of the poor, and even more so for the unemployed. For a work driven culture with a need for instant results, long form writing is not seen as a resourceful field. Monetary cuts, and changing societal views has led to the total disbandment of the idea you can be on benefits and develop towards becoming a writer.
Like the working world, the current education system has also become increasingly results and measurement driven. It favours grade results in pursuit of higher league table placements, summed up by the OCR board as “Too many exams and not enough education” [vi]. Creativity is said to become one of the most important “skills for workers by 2020” [vii] , with the “creative industries being the fastest growing sector within the UK” [viii] yet schools are basing their education system around Ebacc, a government programme that measures school performances only on results of the traditional and more ‘academic’ subjects. This has been linked to a “28% drop in the number of children choosing creative subjects”.[ix]
We are not encouraging enough children to go into the creative world at a young age, “60% of jobs are hidden behind connections” [x] and the little work experience that people get at a school age heavily focuses on traditional 9-5 jobs. Freedom of career choice is being severely limited for those unaware of the opportunities around them. Perhaps there is the feeling that the middle class will cover the gap the working class cannot get into, but by losing that voice, publishers are losing potential stories, markets, and interest.
There are many problems facing writers from lower class backgrounds, a big one being the balance between pursuing creative endeavours, while having to maintain the necessity of a working life. For Kit De Waal, it was only when “she was 45 and had adopted her second child” that the opportunity to take “writing seriously”[xi] became available. Financial woes have restricted the amount of ‘free-time’ people have, with “12.7 % of Britain working 50 plus hours a week”[xii] in order to survive in the current climate of housing crisis, and rising rent. For the middle and upper class, this is less of an issue. Having the financial support of parents, or a partner, provides a base of a stability to write that the working class cannot afford. The problem was big enough for Kit De Waal to take personal action, by setting up her own scholarship for an MA Writing degree, as she was “keen to back someone who would not ordinarily think about taking a creative writing course” but, outside of sparse opportunities like this, there is a clear lack of options for working class people wanting to become published writers.
De Waal has also recently led the production of an anthology of working class writers. “Too often, working class writers find that the hurdles they have to leap are higher and harder to cross than for writers from more affluent backgrounds. ‘Common People’ will see writers who have made that leap reach back to give a helping hand to those coming up behind.” [xiii] What this and the scholarship provide are an immediate direct solution, but the broader issues remain embedded societally.
It’s hard to get noticed as a writer, and even harder to get signed by a publisher, so it would seem that self-publishing could be a solution for the working class writers who don’t have the connections within the industry. Unfortunately, this again goes back to the issue of ‘free-time’. While it may seem easier, self-publishing requires the knowledge of editing, EBook formatting, print design, printing and all the other processes that publishers typically handle. In the case of self-publishing, these would either have to be self-taught, or out-sourced for a fee. Plus with “786,935 titles being issued to self-publishing in 2016” [xiv] alone, writers face an “uphill battle to gain the credibility for work” [xv] within an incredibly large market.
Working class writers need space to breath, to make mistakes, to take the kind of chances that the middle and upper classes can. As stated earlier, the arts continue to grow in importance for the British economy, writing is potentially a viable career, and, while from the economic point of view of those at the top it makes no immediate difference whether a writer is working class or not, choosing not to help the disenfranchised will have consequences in the long run. People want stories they can relate to, they will want working class stories, and while writers from the outside could do this, that genuine perspective will be lost. Kit De Waal is doing a great thing by providing a helping hand to working class writers, but it’s time for the government, and the rest of the publishing industry to follow suite. By choosing not to nurture the creativity of the young and the poor, we are setting up a narrow field within the arts.
[ii] Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. 2015. “Middle Class People Dominate Arts, Survey Finds.” The Guardian. November 23, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/23/middle-class-people-dominate-arts-survey-finds.
[iv] Dyer, Geoff, A. L. Kennedy, Kerry Hudson, Alan Warner, Lemn Sissay, and Chris Killen. 2015. “Gissa Job! Writers on the Dole.” The Guardian. August 1, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/01/writers-recall-time-dole-unemployment-benefits.
[v] Ramesh, Randeep. 2012. “‘Scrounger’ Stigma Puts Poor People off Applying for Essential Benefits.” The Guardian. November 20, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/nov/20/scrounger-stigma-poor-people-benefits.
[ix] “GCSE Results Announced Today See a Continuing Free Fall in Arts Subject Entries.” 2017. Cultural Learning Alliance. August 24, 2017. https://culturallearningalliance.org.uk/gcse-results-announced-today-see-a-continuing-free-fall-in-arts-subject-entries/.
[xi] Foster, Dawn. 2016. “Kit de Waal: ‘Working-Class Stories Need to Be Told’ | Dawn Foster.” The Guardian. February 3, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/feb/03/kit-de-waal-working-class-stories-need-to-be-told.
[xii] Cary, Peter. 2017. “A Landmark Report Just Made It Clear How Bad British People Have It.” The Independent. November 15, 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/british-workers-longer-hours-lower-pay-expensive-housing-oecd-developed-nations-uk-comparisons-a8055736.html.
[xiv] “Self-Published ISBNs Hit 786,935 in 2016.” n.d. PublishersWeekly.com. Accessed March 2, 2018. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/manufacturing/article/75139-self-published-isbns-hit-786-935-in-2016.html.