I hope my blog gives some insight into the difficulties facing working-class writers and why our stories are so important. Recently, of course, there have been fantastic efforts by people involved in the publishing and creative industries to be more inclusive. And that is a positive and welcome shift for everyone concerned.
My blog is temporarily suspended at the moment, while I work on another great narrative. But I shall return in due course with working-class memoirs and autobiographies.
Thanks for reading, if you did.
As a transmitter of bourgeois ideology, literature is a form of oppression in society. But literature can transcend the mechanisms of oppression with which it is unknowingly complicit. In this respect, class-based readings are essential:
Performing readings of texts to which class is central (although not necessarily determinative)
can reveal to people how the cultural practices they learn in school (and long before)
help maintain the status quo of a society increasingly polarised by privilege and want.
Seeing class differences operate in the literary realm encourages people to develop and extend their reading strategies:
To have realised that using language a certain way takes education, that making books requires money,
and that achieving critical acclaim demands a particular set of circumstances involving all
of the above can provide people with a new critical perspective from which to see their culture at work.
Class-based readings assist people in thinking critically about the class system and, in particular, their position within it. For the first time, perhaps, middle-class people can consciously engage with class conflict, while working-class people may recognise their own lives reflected and affirmed in literary texts.
Victimised individuals and minority groups can and do appropriate literature as a means through which to articulate the suffering of their lives. In subversive rewritings, their stories reveal realities often overlooked in society. Economically disadvantaged people are often isolated individuals at the mercy of the brutal workings of the capitalist system. Also, ideologies diagnose their incapacity and pathologise them for their unfortunate circumstances.
In this respect, working-class literature and class-based readings act as consciousness-raising vehicles. They can offer a source of strength, self-affirmation and political affinity for the members of minority groups. They can also lend some understanding and insight into their lives to the members of broader society (who are usually their oppressors).
In 1976, The Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP) was formed to combat conventional publishing practices that excluded writers from disadvantaged backgrounds. A non-profit umbrella organisation for independent writing workshops and writers, the FWWCP operated under the belief that writing and publishing should be made accessible to everyone.
In 1987, The Working Press (WP), an off-shoot of the FWWCP, was organised by Stefan Szczelkin (an independent publisher in South London and a second-generation immigrant). The WP's area of publication is 'roughly that suggested by books by and about 'working-class artists', and it prioritises 'firstly as an agency to encourage working-class people, especially from marginalised groups, to realise their work in book format'. Even when it does not result in publication, this activity is beneficial because it validates working-class artists and fosters their self-confidence.
Loans from the WP realised the publication of Howard Slater's previously mentioned research pamphlet 'British Working-Class Novelists 1930-1950.' The WP also funded the book Writing on the Line: 20th Century Working-Class Women Writers: an annotated list of working-class women writers by Sarah Richardson, including essays by Merlyn Cherry, Sammy Palfrey and Gail Chester, all of whom I previously mentioned in this blog.
Working-class writers can challenge bourgeois literary conventions that are incompatible with their own experience of gender and class, and left-wing politics, through specific narrative tactics.
We can revise the traditional bourgeois bildungsroman in a way that calls into question popular assumptions about the individual and progression. We can rewrite the individual quest into a collective one through the use of heteroglossia, polyphony, multiple narrators, and family and gender solidarity to supplant the individual with the community; and we can use techniques that play on linearity, vertical narrative movement and temporal order.
We working-class women writers not only challenge capitalist values and the conventions of the classic bourgeois realist form of the novel as our male counterparts do, but we also challenge the male-centredness of texts. Women writers work within the existing working-class literary tradition by appropriating common themes, such as unemployment, poverty, regionality and community. However, in our appropriation of this tradition, we subvert its inherent maleness through our focus on women’s experiences and interpersonal relationships between women.
We can also challenge preconceptions that undermine the literary qualities of our working-class writing: the alledged historical image produced by the working-class novel is not merely a passive reflection of working-class conditions in ‘documentary’ realism. The ‘reality’ created maybe a documentary at one level because the work appears to be a faithful reproduction of aspects of working-class life at a specific historical moment. But in most cases, the text also questions its realism. It indicates its fictionality through strategies employed by the writer, such as narrative form, structure, and chronological time disruption.
Critics attacked the working-class writer Walter Greenwood for propagating middle-class values in retaining the bourgeois form of the classic realist novel without question. He was a working-class novelist, writing about working-class life, but he never challenged the bourgeois novel's structure or underlying ideology.
In many ways, Greenwood's acclaimed novel, Love on the Dole (1933) conforms to bourgeois realist conventions:
To write in a literary way in modern society is to collude with class divisions
- the institution of literature testifies to the division of language and classes.
It follows that working-class fiction can (and should) challenge bourgeois literary conventions by subverting conventional realist texts. And it can do this with attention to form, individualism, progression, linearity and resolution.
Another reason for the discrimination against working-class fiction is because it is measured by middle-class literary conventions:
The novel as a literary genre has an intimate relationship
with the middle-class, both in terms of its historical emergence
and its continuing sociology, its readership and conditions of
In the classic bourgeois realist novel, the narrative structure is purposive and progressive, beginning with the individual moving out into the social world and finally into individual consciousness. This linear narrative, together with the plot and action, is directed towards an affirmation of conventional values. The novel moves inevitably towards a resolution, where there is a transformation and progression ordered through the making of marriages and fortunes.
In contrast, working-class life is less ordered and more precarious:
Working-class life shifts uneasily between the static and the
lurching, endless calamity. Its beginnings and end are arbitrary
and brutal; over and over again, working-class novels end with
death, that class’s only reliable inheritance.
In this respect, working-class experience is incompatible with the traditional bourgeois novel form.
Working-class writing, in general, is prone to discriminatory practices, not just working-class women's writing. In 1933, Walter Greenwood's first novel Love on the Dole, received an appreciative review in The Times Literary Supplement:
'As a novel, it stands very high, but in it's qualities as a social document, it's great value lies'.
Greenwood's novel has generally received more attention from historians than from literary critics who have treated the novel as important documentary work. In 1959, critics acclaimed Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner for similar reasons; one review reported:
'As a mirror of working-class life, it is worth several sociology works'.
Critics commend working-class texts for their attributes of social documentation. Specific positive criticism focuses on stories about the poor and disadvantaged as giving voice to the silent and economically marginalised, such that any writing involving working-class life they eagerly receive with anthropological fervour.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels appreciated the value of working-class writing as social documentation. They spoke highly of proletarian realist fiction as a mode of social analysis and critique, comparing it favourably to sociological and political exegesis works. Indeed, one aspect of literary criticism, especially for the Marxist critic, is that they should look at a piece of fiction in terms of its socio-historical context:
'A work of art is a product of time and place. Our first apprehension is in terms of its period.'
These kinds of sociological readings on working-class fiction are helpful, but it often means the literary qualities are ignored. The writer may employ literary devices, such as stream of consciousness technique, disruption of chronological time and dark humour, but these qualities are generally overlooked. This kind of discrimination possibly accounts for the historical lack of working-class writers on the official syllabuses in schools or universities, despite a few notable working-class writers having emerged. Several notable ones include Robert Tressell, Walter Greenwood, and the acclaimed Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
In recent years concerns have turned to issues of difference regarding social class, sexuality and racial identity, and the difficulties of writing from a marginal position. For working-class women, black or white, the obstacles to leaving any message, let alone a mark on British culture, are enormous.
The psychological barriers of underrating yourself, cultural snobbery, and concerns with language use are added further to the list of impediments suffered by working-class women writers. There are perceived ideas and conceptions about women's writing, even more so about working-class writing, and this affects how she is read and judged by the critics:
What chance is there that you will find anyone to whom you can show
your work in the expectation that it will be read, understood, supported,
answered, propagated and built into culture, without being in some measure
stolen from you and from the world that gave rise to it?
Therefore, even when against all the odds the working-class woman does get around to writing something, the chances are stereotypical notions will perceive her efforts as inferior, and her ideas will be appropriated and restructured into a more acceptable bourgeois form.
Working-class women not only suffer exclusion in writing but in publishing too. Publishing companies are out to make a profit, and writing which does not conform to the status quo of published material in style or content is in serious jeopardy. Women employed in publishing are overwhelmingly middle or upper class and are too often ancillaries of the same networks that gained their father's admittance to the club. It is unreasonable to expect these women to alter the nature of what is published radically, and this has significant consequences:
By working-class people being denied access to publishing, both as publishers
and as authors, we are denied access to the power to communicate our ideas widely.
This stops us from achieving sufficient access to cultural resources and developing
our belief in the possibility of us affecting positive change.
While these mechanisms operate in all areas of publishing, academic publishing is the ultimate gate-keeping activity where the prejudices and unconscious biases of the reviewer affect what is ultimately published. Therefore, any claim to academic objectivity or artistic judgement is a myth.
When all of this is considered, it is easy to see how working-class people have been excluded.
Apart from the material hardships of poverty, women have faced other constraints writing as working-class members. The limitations imposed on writing practices by tradition and conventions are also constraints. Writers do not simply express themselves in a vacuum but write in particular styles, including the repetition of subject matter and theme and trope in writing, because of conventions.
Historically, working-class women have found it more difficult than working-class men to adopt a voice within a novel. It is difficult for women to construct female characters as protagonists in a genre where the protagonist is generally male, urban and engaged in some form of political activity. Furthermore, women would not be motivated to write as working-class members or from a position of class-consciousness, as their class position was not determined by their relation to employment but by their husbands or fathers.
Literary representations confined working-class women to the domestic, encompassing romanticised homely images. Unindividuated women are portrayed as good mothers who manage to feed and clothe the family despite having no money. But female characters never had delineated roles in diverse fiction genres. They were generally passive and concerned with expressing emotion, further compounding the difficulty of portraying convincing female protagonists in working-class texts.
All this illustrates that women write within a range of textual constraints that do not affect male writing to the same degree. Therefore, a significant barrier for the working-class woman writer was the lack of an indigenous literary tradition to invoke and work within.
The aforementioned research, shows that working-class women were inclined to write, so what are the reasons for their literary absence for so long? In this section, I discuss historical and sociological background, opportunities for the practical and psychological application to writing, and literacy and motivation as determining factors in working-class women's writing.
The most obvious obstacles preventing working-class women from writing are discontinuities and duties - those necessary activities that displace writing for working-class women, such as domestic labour and earning a living. In other words, working-class women have been too preoccupied with housework and the raising of children and did not have the time, the space or energy to write novels:
A novel demands time, both physical and emotional.
The imaginative space has to open sufficiently wide and
stay open to let the work form.
The majority of working-class women could lay no claims
to these conditions.
Historically, while working-class men struggled for recognition, equality, and justice within society, middle-class women were actively fighting against a sexual division of labour that kept them economically dependent on men. And while middle-class women were often decorative and functional appendages to their husbands, working-class women toiled from morning to night with little or no leisure time. They were vital to the survival of their families and the country's economy. Poverty is a terrible handicap to a writer.
The years I should have been writing, my hands and being were
at other (inescapable) tasks…what should take weeks takes me
sometimes months to write; what should take months, takes years.
Many women who were able to write had moved away from the working-class, illustrating the impossibility of combining their creativity with their class position. When women do begin to articulate their class experience through education, politics or writing or some combination of all three, they are perceived as no longer of the working class. It is infuriating that working-class women are most fully of their class when silenced.