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.