The Bookseller recently surveyed people in the UK book trade about how class is a barrier to entry into writing and publishing.
80% of people who see themselves as working class felt that their background has adversely affected their career.
(Incidentally, I’m not comfortable talking about people as ‘working class’ and wonder if that comes from living in Australia, where we tend to think of ourselves as an egalitarian society – but I think the only way to address these issues is to acknowledge that different socio-economic ‘classes’ for want of a better term, exist).
Barriers include: low paid internships, nepotism, the cost of travel for events or courses, lack of confidence and time to network. And even earlier, perhaps less chance of growing up with the habit of reading. As Noel Murphy has pointed out:
“Reading is not a given for all. It is a tenuous product of years of nurturing that the more working class you are, the less likely you are to receive … If we want more working class stories, authors and editors then we have to look at how first we might encourage and develop working class readers.”
I’m interested in this as a reader because I want the widest possible range of books. I read diversely and increasingly am seeking out books in translation, books by own voices authors, Aboriginal Australian stories, queer stories and a mix of fiction and non-fiction. So far, so good (or so latte liberal? I’m not sure I can even talk about working class issues – but what is the alternative? I suppose the difference is in being genuinely open to a wide range of books, not just ticking a box).
But until recently it hadn’t occurred to me that few of the books on my shelves are by working class authors (aka ‘unconscious bias’).
I think the unconscious bias which leads us to read more books by white, middle-class men has a trickle-down effect, starting with publishers and reviewers. It’s harder for working class people to get a job in publishing or to have their stories published, so there are fewer such books for us to read. UK publishers are beginning to address this, with things like blind recruitment, paid internships and workshops outside London.
What can we do as readers? Reading and championing more working class books is a good start. Here is a list:
One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton.
This is a terrific read, with all the things I love in non-fiction: beautiful clean writing; interesting narrative with colourful stories of growing up in Australia’s remote outback, his brother’s ice addiction, coming out, and forging a career despite the barriers of poverty. But Morton also goes beyond the anecdotes to give us a big picture view. It opened my eyes to how tough it is to be poor and try to build a career in journalism.
His writing is crisp, matter-of-fact, and honest, but with a sense of humour too. I enjoyed his company as a narrator and (despite the confronting topics) kept wanting to pick it up again when I wasn’t reading it.
Books like Educated by Tara Westover and Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance also show how hard it is to overcome poverty and obtain a university education and a career. I preferred One Hundred Years of Dirt. Morton’s forthright, unvarnished style (but still inventive writing) coupled with the research, appealed to me. I highly recommend it!
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton.
A wonderful debut novel about growing up in the working class suburbs of Brisbane. It’s a generous, touching and at times funny book, with so much heart. I loved Eli, the lively and engaging narrator. The characters are larger than life but realistic and vividly bring to life that era. It gives a sense of the culture and people doing it tough in the outer suburbs. It became a word-of-mouth sensation in 2018, deservedly so, and has just been shortlisted for two New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards. Highly recommended.
Lowborn by Kerry Hudson
Kerry Hudson has been outspoken about the issue of class in publishing. I’m keen to read this. She did a video with Simon Savidge which was delightful and made me want to rush out and buy the book! Alas, it is not out in Australia until May.
The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal
Kit de Waal is another author who has spoken out about the lack of working class representation in publishing. I thoroughly enjoyed this and read it pretty much in one sitting. An engaging read and great story with original characters who surprise you – I loved that it wasn’t predictable. The dialogue and setting felt real. De Waal has an easy writing style and handles serious matters with warmth. Beautifully moving.
An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman
This is also on my ‘to read’ list, after Geordie Williamson’s recommendation. A semi-autobiographical account of growing up in the Western suburbs of Sydney. Williamson says it is “the smartest, funniest, most eloquent and intellectually urgent account of what it is to be a working class Australian that I have encountered.” I’m sold. 😉
What books would you add to this list?