Diversity means little without working class representation
If publishing continues to ignore the working class, then efforts to boost the industry’s diversity will offer little more than a gentrified shell, so let’s hear it for the Common People report —for daring to demand change. By Mark Cantrell
CONSIDER it a cynical proposal, if you must, but there’s a largely unarticulated notion in England that suggests working class people shouldn’t be reading books, let alone writing them.
Some might feel that’s putting it strong. Maybe it is, but this is England; infamously bound and obsessed by class, but curiously reticent to talk about it in any meaningful sense. Hardly surprising, really, given that social class remains such a powerful pre-determinant of our life chances.
Privilege, of course, likes to pass itself off solely as hard work and talent; nobody likes to think they got where they are because they were given every advantage thanks to the circumstances of their birth. Understandably, it leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. So imagine being shut out, regardless of talent, simply because you weren’t born to ‘acceptable’ circumstances; denied a voice for who and what you aren’t.
“The Common People initiative is vital in challenging the issue of representation by making space for new voices, so that working class writers and readers might feel their language and their lives are full of power.” Jessica Andrews
That’s a good many of us Brits, but to articulate such is to risk accusations of envy and sour grapes; this is a meritocracy, right? Sadly, as a wealth of academic literature and research indicates, it tends to be the case that money all-too-often ‘buys’ merit. And who has the most dosh, connections, and advantages in our society? Clue: it ain’t the working class.
In a sense, class is the diversity issue that for too long has been discouraged or denied the opportunity to speak its name. You might say it’s the poor relation. It cuts far too close to the bone in our bitterly unequal society, yet it is fundamental to so many of those still much-needed inter-sectional battles for diversity and representation.
Before we go any further, put away the tinfoil hat; we’re not talking about some shady conspiracy to keep the proles in their place. There’s no committee that meets in secret to vet the socio-economic credentials of writers and other creatives to make sure they’re the ‘right’ kind of people. There’s no need.
Publishing is a middle class industry staffed largely by middle class people; give them the benefit of the doubt that as individuals they are not seeking to keep the ‘riff raff’ out. No, but like the rest of us, they are embedded in a socio-economic system rife with structural inequalities that serves to deflect working class voices long before they reach what we might call the industry’s conventional gatekeeping function.
Simply put, like be-gets like, with seldom a need for conscious (or even unconscious) bias to rear its head. You might almost consider the process as some blind algorithm running on automatic. Well, then, it’s time for some human intervention to make the outcome a little less mono-cultured.
In a roundabout way, this brings us to the Common People report, published by New Writing North (NWN) earlier this year on International Workers Day (1 May); a passionate demand that the class ceiling in publishing be broken. Timely in more ways than one, especially in these troubled times, it represents a bold declaration for daring to invoke class.
Between the lines
The report was written by Katy Shaw, professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University. She based her research around the Common People project; a collaboration between the UK’s seven regional writing development agencies, launched by NWN and Writing West Midlands back in 2018.
“This report lays out the barriers, the realities and the issues faced by working class writers… [It] shows what needs to be done.” Nikesh Shukla
The project culminated in the Common People anthology, published in 2019, which was edited by British writer Kit de Waal. As part of her research, Shaw interviewed 17 emerging working class authors featured in the anthology, as well as professionals working within the publishing industry. No surprise, of course, but she identified the existence of “pervasive barriers” that stand in the way of working class writers.
Well, we might ask, so what? What can working class writers possibly have to say that’s worth hearing? Doubtless, such a question reflects part of the problem. After all, in recent decades, it has became all-too common to see the working class filtered through the eyes and bias (unconscious or otherwise) of middle class writers, journalists and broadcasters; a narrow perspective that even when sympathetic in its gaze risks caricature.
More often than not, it’s the ‘white working class’ we hear about; discussed and dissected, probed and oft-ridiculed. It’s not a pretty picture.
In this discourse, the working class is a rump; a relic of bygone days of traditional industry, rife with a nasty cocktail of some pretty unsavoury views. Perhaps we mentally throw in pejorative terms like ‘chav’ or ‘gammon’ or ‘benefit scrounger’. Hold that thought.
Here’s the thing: the ‘white working class’ is largely a political construct; it doesn’t really exist outside of the narratives created to steer our perceptions. The role it serves is twofold, but it boils down to an effort to stifle class as an issue, and inoculate against class identity.
On the one hand it serves to toxify the concept of the working class; associating it with one ethnic group and a set of reactionary views that in truth are held by people from across the spectrum of social class. Given this, it is unsurprising that people from ethnic minorities, say, or the LGBT+ communities might recoil from wanting to be associated with the working class.
On the other hand, then, the construct of the ‘white working class’ strives to neutralise the concept of social class disadvantage among people who identify as one of more inter-sectional group. Class identity — solidarity — is shredded, and that may be of service for some, but when we neutralise class, we also essentially hamstring diversity and representation.
The working class is many and varied, it must be said. For sure it has its racists, misogynists, homophobes and all the rest, it has its imperial nostalgists too, but in that it is no different to its ‘social betters’ in the middle and upper classes of our society.
The working class is also multi-ethnic, it is black and brown and white, it comes in many faiths and none, it is native born and immigrant, it is LGBT+, it is disabled, it is female, it is trans, it is old and it is young. Indeed, the working class is wholly representative of modern Britain, yet its many voices shamefully go far-too-often unheard. And that has to change.
On that note, let’s go back to the Common People report. This isn’t just about identifying barriers, but a “clarion call” for the publishing industry to change its ways, and allow the flourishing of a literary ecosystem that better reflects modern Britain. It’s time that the industry recognised that working class people — in all their diversity — have something to say and something that needs hearing.
It’s all about representation; something those operating within the wider diversity arena can surely appreciate. But if we cut off the working class, don’t we risk the latter becoming a hollow, gentrified shell?
Speak for yourself
“For me, the most difficult part of writing is self-doubt,” said Jessica Andrews, author of Saltwater and winner of the Portico Prize 2020. “When I was writing my first novel, I learned to constantly push back against the fear that my experiences were trivial and uninteresting, or were not ‘poetic’ or ‘literary’ enough, and that is because I had rarely seen a life like mine represented in literary fiction.
“The Common People initiative is vital in challenging the issue of representation by making space for new voices, so that working class writers and readers might feel their language and their lives are full of power.”
Claire Malcolm, NWN’s chief executive, said:”The UK publishing industry, publicly funded culture, and government all have a crucial and collaborative role to play in deconstructing the barriers to working class writers. 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.”
To read the full report, go herebut in essence, Common People demands:
- New public and private investment to support new publishing ventures outside of London. The aim is to bring publishing “closer to broader audiences” and generate more avenues for talent from across the UK to enter the industry
- Increase investment in regional writing development agencies to improve “talent pipelines” and otherwise nurture “fairer, more equitable talent development practices”. This, it claims, would also help to improve access to professional support and networks for working class authors
- Decentralise the UK’s publishing industry. This would include more literary agents being established outside of London to facilitate change and “broaden the base of the industry’s taste makers”
- Improve access to the publishing industry by establishing clear routes of progression into the industry; transparent pay and job opportunities; and accessible recruitment campaigns. This would serve to enhance diversity among agents, editors, and publishers; this would also shift the profiles of the industry’s gatekeepers
- There needs to be greater awareness — and acknowledgement — of the multiple barriers working class writers face, through “meaningful designed and sustained” programmes of support across the UK
- The industry needs to recognise that developing and supporting new working class writers will “ultimately benefit us all”
- The Government must create new policy options that will help overcome barriers and incentivise partnership working through public funding and regional initiatives
“There has never been a more vital point at which working class stories and voices needed to be heard in mainstream culture.” Professor Katy Shaw
“This is an incredibly timely report that clarifies the barriers writers from working class backgrounds face,” said writer Nikesh Shukla, who is editor of the essay collection, The Good Immigrant. “When I first started working on The Good Immigrant, a lot of people said that class was something that really needed to be explored when it came to publishing. This report lays out the barriers, the realities and the issues faced by working class writers… [It] shows what needs to be done.”
David Loumgair, founder and creative director of COMMON, called the Common People report “essential reading” not just for those working in literature and publishing, but for decision-makers across the creative industries.
“It fuels the growing demand for cultural institutions to move from conversation into action,” he added, “and provides practical, achievable examples of how to address the socio-economic inequality which for decades has prevented access, inclusion and representation across Britain’s cultural industries for the working class.”
Since the report was published, the cultural and creative industries have found themselves caught in an existential struggle to survive the economic impact of Covid-19. Though book publishing is faring a little better, going by sales of new titles, it inevitably raises the prospect that matters of diversity and representation will be lost overboard in the rush to the lifeboats.
According to Shaw, however, the crisis renders the findings and demands of the Common People report all the more critical; this isn’t just about representation and diversity now, it’s also about maximising our society’s prospects for recovery.
She said: “Given the financial ripple effect publishing has on other creative industries and our economy, the Common People research is a vital addition to our thinking at a time when the focus is not only on the global pandemic, but also the looming recession and the growing inequalities that it will bring. There has never been a more vital point at which working class stories and voices needed to be heard in mainstream culture.”
In a very real sense, the pandemic has also shed light on the nature of Britain’s working class; so many of them hitherto dismissed as low-skilled and low-value, and yet — when the Covid chips are down — proved essential. Not just the nurses and care workers, but the warehouse and delivery staff, supermarket workers and bus drivers, and so many more; key workers all.
And we have glimpsed, however briefly, the diversity of the working class; no whitewashed caricature, but a living, breathing presence that puts the life into British society itself. Among them are writers and creatives — and it’s way past time they were allowed to speak for themselves.
Let the last words go to de Waal: “There is a lot yet to do,” she said. “The publishing industry — and government — still needs to wake up to the world beyond the M25… We are past the time for listening and now we need some action.”
Find more writings at Mark Cantrell, Author.