Caution. Reading in Progress! Class

Gesa Stedman takes a look at a recent trend in publishing, and comments on a number of memoirs and novels which focus on class issues.

All novels are about class

All novels are about class. But no one seems to notice. Why? Because the vast majority of contemporary novels are written and read by middle-class readers and writers. And the middle classes only become interested in class issues when their own position is questioned, or begins to feel volatile and threatened by those above, or more likely, below them on the social ladder.

And that is currently the case. The EU referendum and 9 years of austerity politics have opened up rifts and deepened them which have always existed in the UK but which have become too visible to be ignored – not even the least interested middle-class home owner from the South of England can ignore the rumbles from below. And the threat of a no-deal Brexit makes economic hardship so much more likely for everyone, which doesn’t improve things for the middle classes, either. It is for this reason that the UK literary field is currently showing an interest in class issues – because its gate keepers can no longer ignore the issue. There have always been upper- and working-class authors whose class focus is obvious, but they have not been the dominant figures, neither as writers, let alone as readers, nor as agents of the literary field. Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose trilogy shows the awfulness of an upper-class upbringing and has the same fascination as Downton Abbey – which, let’s face it, attracted viewers more for the upstairs than the downstairs perspective – although the latter is also important.

But working-class voices? They are quite rare, and need to be sought. The current attempts at diversifying the literary field go in several directions – regional, thematic, ethnic, but also social. It is, once again, a good moment to be heard if you want to tell a story which is not so common, just like in the heyday of social realism. Today, not just the scholarship boys but also women and not just white working-class women, can get a publishing deal and find readers.

What do middle-class readers get if they want to move outside their own comfort zone, and by doing so, perhaps question their own class values, social position, and hitherto largely unquestioned privileges?

What is currently on offer? Class-based memoirs

Widely talked about, Kelly Hudson’s memoir Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns was published this summer (London Chatto & Windus 2019) and is a likely point of departure for anyone who wants to find out about the importance of class from a first-hand perspective. Kelly Hudson charts her childhood odyssey from one bedsit to the next hostel all across Scotland and England by travelling to all these places as an adult and successful novelist – one, in other words, who got away.

image of high-rise estate in Glasgow

high-rise estate in Glasgow 1960s

In contrast to Darren McGarvey’s account in Poverty Safari (see my Scotland post earlier this summer), however, there is virtually no analysis, only highly personal emotional accounts of what it was like to live in such dire circumstances. It is not a book I would recommend to the readers of this blog. Why not? And who am I to say so?

For one thing, the memoir does not move beyond the personal, awful as it must have been, and that matters for political reasons. Because the accounts all centre on the re-experiencing of past horrors, the reader is incited to feel empathy with both the child and the adult Kerry Hudson. That is all well and good. But books can do more, and this one simply doesn’t incite reflection, discussion, let alone analysis of the reasons for poverty and political, rather than individual solutions and ways of overcoming these reasons. It can leave middle-class readers happily remembering their hopefully more comfortable childhoods without ever asking for solutions, let alone political change. Kelly Hudson got away and one might think that nothing but a good teacher or two, a local library, a nice partner and brains are needed to make it. But that is simply not the case, as Darren McGarvey convincingly argues when he rips apart the “poverty industry”. His conclusions on the need for working-class people to self-improve I find fall short of real change, too, but he spends pages and pages beforehand explaining the problems of the poverty industry, and provides us with political analysis and explanation, rather than just emotions. Kelly Hudson, unfortunately, doesn’t.

Representation, in other words, is not all, I find. Advocates for change beyond empathy and the genre of the misery memoir need to do more. In her recent Observer article “The system lifted me from poverty” (The Observer, 11 August 2019), Kelly Hudson admittedly points towards austerity politics as key to social division, extreme poverty, and mental health and drug abuse issues. She does so in no uncertain terms. She defends the welfare state as she encountered it (benefits, the NHS, libraries) during her childhood some 30 years or so ago, and is justified in being worried about its contemporary dismantlement and absence and what that will mean for the future of impoverished people and UK society as a whole. But again, there is no real analysis which make it difficult for the reader to come any conclusions beyond the immediate case which is presented by the article.  There is no meta-level reflection and only an implicit suggestion that a return to welfare policies of the past would be sufficient as a solution.

Contemporary Fiction and Class

And what about fiction? There are a number of recent novels which give readers an insight into the different classes in the UK. Melissa Harrison’s novel All Among the Barley (London Bloomsbury 2018) portrays rural life in 1930s England, from the perspective of an adolescent girl from a small farmstead on a large aristocratic estate. Evocative nature writing view with rural politics, gender relations and the rise of fascism for the reader’s attention.

horse-drawn reaper in a field

farm-yard picture early 19oos England

The hardship of small farmstead life before large-scale mechanisation is hauntingly portrayed, but the novel and its class perspective of the impoverished smallholder and the brutal landowner ultimately is lost in the author’s quest to make her main character gay, phobic, superstitious, and a victim of abuse. The message is ambivalent.

Kit de Waal’s first novel My Name is Leon (London Simon & Schuster 2016) is a lot less ambivalent in its overall message. It champions both the working-class carers, as well as the difficult situation of single working-class mothers, and the suffering of her children. The key character is Leon, who tries hard to keep his small family together. He is taken into care, and his younger brother is adopted by a different family. Leon is befriended by a black man who helps him to accept himself as a borwn boy who has to live in a racist society. My only problem with this otherwise highly evocative novel was the fact that is a historical novel. It is set during the 1970s and ‘80s and one might read it as something that happened safely in the past. Poverty and racism are not in the past, of course. As the recent exhibition of poor children’s homes “Bedrooms of London” at the London Foundling Museum shows (, this no historical matter, not for black and not for white children. Whether readers will make this connection is a question I asked myself when I read this powerful novel.

Alys Conran’s award-winning novel Pigeon (Cardigan Parthian Books 2016) tells a similar story of a boy’s road from a dysfunctional family, abuse, and violence and back to a kind of life, and a masculine identity which forgoes all of the above. The novel has a similar ‘ring’ to My Name is Leon, but is perhaps even starker. From the North of England to Pigeon’s de-industrialised and impoverished North Wales, Anna Burns’ astounding Booker-prize winning novel Milkman (Faber and Faber 2018) provides readers with a further insight into a class-bound life, set in Norther Ireland during the height of the Troubles. This time, it is a decidedly female voice which dominates this unusual literary account. The topics of a coercive Catholic working-class community, rumour, mental health, local politics versus Politics, gender relations, violence, abuse, and how to sustain the life of the mind, the intellect, creativity, and personal integrity in such conditions of social exclusion and political violence is rendered in a highly unusual style.

Kit de Waal’s second novel, The Trick to Time (2018) is characterised as “A universal story of love and loss (…)” (front cover, Penguin paperback edition 2019). That the story is also very specific, and very specific in terms of class, is conveniently ignored by the Times reviewer quoted here. It is indeed a painful and harrowing read, as it deals with a sensitive topic: stillborn babies and the grief this causes their parents. That this calamity can hit families of any class is made clear by the inclusion of different families who have suffered the grief of loosing seemingly perfect babies shortly before or just after birth. But the setting of the novel is so very specific that I wonder why reviewers would not mention this. The protagonists are working-class Irish migrants who live in Birmingham and the North of England, as seamstresses, construction workers and the like. They turn into self-employed shopkeeper and craftsman, respectively. A further important character impersonates an upper-class educated gentleman, only to be revealed as a working-class migrant who became the valet of a rich aristocrat. Class, in other words, is decidedly present, as is the related issue of doubly determined social exclusion of being both working class and not English. It is, however, a novel which can be read by the average middle-class novel reader, probably without questioning themselves too deeply, because the way the feeling of grief and devastating loss, of ageing, and of relationships as they change over time, can indeed be understood without reference to class. It ensures Kit de Waal’s place in the literary field but perhaps a more pronounced class debate would have a greater effect?

Class, Exclusion, and the Literary Field

Kit de Waal uses her position in the recently-published collection of accounts, articles, and poems and stories Common People. An Anthology of Working-Class Writers (London Unbound 2019).

cover of anthology Common People

cover of Common People

I will leave this to Sandra van Lente to review in a later “Caution. Reading in Progress” post but would like to point readers to the last contribution by Dave O’Brien “Class and Publishing: Who is Missing from the Numbers?”. Short, to the point, it explains why the literary field in the UK is white and middle-class, and why this is a problem. If the current political phase and contemporary writers like Kit de Waal and the authors she collected in Common People can change this, so can middle-class readers and academics. By reviewing their work, pointing out that class is always an issue, and perhaps even making room for people who are not white and not middle-class.

There is enough material out there to be read, and it is getting easier to find it, if you are interested and care to look. I hope that it will prove not just another short-burst trend for publishers, but more of a sustained effort to diversify everything in the literary field: writers, gate-keepers, reviewers, agents, publishers, designers, editors and readers.