About reappropriation and class struggle in the very closed-up class of the publishing world

In sociology and cultural studies, "reappropriation or reclamation is the cultural process by which a group reclaims terms or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group."


Please allow me to share this article on the issue. I will have to develop further. But let's start with this:

Where’s Literature’s Class Diversity?

For writers, socioeconomic class is still hard to talk about.

In every field, the answer to the question of diversity tends to hinge on questions of representation. With the arts and media especially, there’s the question of seeing a version of oneself (or one’s actual self!) on a magazine cover or onscreen. With written stories, there’s the hope for diversity not just among authors and characters, but stories themselves. 

Writing—both fiction and the various forms of personal writing that now occupy that same storytelling space—is, like most everything, easier for the rich and upper-class. While the act of writing is technically cheap enough to accomplish (it’s to oil painting what jogging is to skiing), getting published is less of a hurdle for life’s haves. The end result: a lot of stories about people with fairly similar lives and concerns, albeit, these days, with disclaimers tacked on about how the author is very aware that surely things are much harder for the less-privileged.

The call for literary diversity is now beginning to extend to class. In a Literary Hub essay from last month, Lorraine Berry describes the alienation she’s experienced as a writer from a working-class background, and makes the case for adding socioeconomic status to the “essays, articles, charts, graphs, and surveys”-driven conversation. “[J]ust as the expansion of the literary world to more fairly represent a world in which people are more than white or male or straight has added untold riches to the canon,” she writes, “so too would the stories of working-class folk go a long way toward improving our representation of and understanding of the greater world.” 

Meanwhile, at Hazlitt, Andrea Bennett described the extent to which writers from less-posh beginnings aren’t so much excluded as invisible—it only seems that writers are all upper class because the ones who need to work for a living aren’t, she explains. Bennett discusses “making the reality of my background invisible,” as well as her own seasonal night-job at an unnamed chain bookstore, and specifies, “I didn’t embed myself […] in service of a tell-all; when I clicked apply four months ago, my intention was to pay my rent.” (It’s worth noting that both Bennett and Berry acknowledge that socioeconomic diversity is intersectional. Neither piece is a class-is-what-actually-matters argument, along the lines of what Alana Massey recalls putting her off of an already-lacking first date, where the pseudo-concern about class just amounts to a dismissal of the continued existence of racism.)

When reading both of these essays, though, I wondered whether class is, in this context, just one more box to check, one more injustice to correct. Is it simply a matter of locating structural obstacles and raising awareness?

It seems to me that socioeconomic class is a tougher sort of diversity to bring to writing. Unlike the other varieties, it’s at odds with what readers are used to and what they’re likely to want—namely wealthier, more glamorous, or just less drudgery-having versions of themselves. Which is to say: What does aspirational look like? As a rule, I suspect, those of us who aren’t white men don’t dream of becoming white men, (and more to the point, becoming a white guy because they sure seem to have it easier isn’t an option). But rich isn’t an identity, exactly. You get to be yourself, but you can afford a hi-tech Japanese bidet-toilet.

But aspiration doesn’t quite cover it. There’s a special hate-reading joy to stories about the rich, or, more accurately, the richer-than-oneself, wherever that may fall. (I always come back to Alessandra Stanley’s observation: “Someday there will be an anthropological study of that other exotic tribe: privileged people who devote their lives to exposing their even more fortunate neighbors.”) Whether one attributes this to protest or to envy (or—because reading is complex, to an unknowable mix of those sentiments and others still), this is a form of reading that’s if anything growing more popular. That tension—ooh, shiny!, but tsk-tsk, not relatable!—explains, or at least describes, the continued appeal of stories that seem as if they shouldn’t capture our attention. The ugh-rich-people genre both condemns and drives traffic to its inspiration.

This ambivalence extends to the persona of The Writer. Structural factors—such as the fact that work even peripherally related to writing tends not to pay—are a factor, but so too is a cultural fantasy of what an author’s up to behind the scenes. To produce escapist literature, you certainly don’t need to be from a wealthy background. But as Bennett points out, writers “trade on prestige, and talking about how little we’re paid lessens that prestige[.]” I’m thinking of writers’ bios—on Twitter, in articles—and how they focus on publications. This gives the illusion of either a full-time writing career, or a full-time lounging career, with a book or article effortlessly tossed off whenever convenient. The side work a writer has or needs won’t come up. It’s just not sexy. Berry denounces “representations of the writer’s life on TV or in movies, where it appears that most writing professors live in large Arts and Crafts houses, or in multi-room, Midtown buildings with doormen,” but this is, given all that discretion, an understandable misconception.

And I wonder whether, if the economics of a writing life were rendered transparent, this would lead to outrage and remedy or, conversely, to resignation, and aspiring writers without millions in the bank not even bothering. I’d like to think it would be the former, but have my doubts.
Next is the question of whether readers want, or could be prompted to want, a shift in the social-realist direction. Put another way: Is wealth and ease what’s irritating about the irritating books about whiny rich people? Is the genre Alexander Nazaryan called “a 30-Something White Guy in Glasses Writing a Metafictional Novel About a 30-Something White Guy in Glasses Writing a Novel While Living in Brooklyn and Wearing Glasses” tired because it’s boring to read about someone without real problems? Or is it more about that landscape getting old, even for those who live that life and suffer/benefit from a touch of narcissism? Is it the wealth that’s off-putting (for even if dude is broke, he’s still found a way to pay for that brownstone and those glasses), or the fact that we’ve met too many variants of him before? Might a story with a different but wealthier setting (like, say, the super-wealthy ethnically-Chinese community of Singapore; and yes, I’m thinking of Kevin Kwan’s delightful if unfortunately-titled Crazy Rich Asians) also function as an alternative? Or—for a less extreme example—a novel like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which depicts some financial struggles (as well as Lagos, Nigeria, which isn’t on the F train), but which is ultimately about elites.

Which brings us to the question of why, exactly, representation matters. Is it about familiarity, or about equal opportunity for daydreaming? Both, I think. 

But the fact that the latter enters into it already skews the results. There are echoes—faint ones, I’ll grant—of certain fashion-industry debates: Is it a shame that fashion models are not particularly representative in the hotness department? Perhaps so, but a sort of consensus emerges around a particular idea of justice: We aren’t owed mirrors of ourselves, but we’re all, ideally, entitled to some kind of ridiculously good-looking version thereof. Diversity means getting a sense of how whichever clothes would look on us by seeing them on a tall, stunning, 19-year-old who happens to share our build, skin color, and hair texture.  

It’s not, to be clear, that great works can’t be about poverty, or just being broke. Many are; more should be. And a decadent romp doesn’t require a wealthy protagonist (although the counterexample first coming to mind, Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel Animals, involves a working-class woman’s debauchery sustained by a rich friend-landlord who doesn’t ask for rent). And escapism can, as fans of genre fiction would surely point out, involve other planets, say, and need not be limited to financial comfort here on earth. But the rich-but-troubled character isn’t going anywhere, because there’s something appealing about a situation where life’s more usual obstacles are stripped away, leaving only the petty or romantic ones. The allure of the not-quite-relatable scenario—and of the at least seemingly aristocratic author—is likely to persist.


I believe some stories need to be told by those who know what it feels to go through it. 

But I also believe that disadvantaged people, sons and daughters of the non-powerful, also have the write to express themselves, on issues they know better, such as poverty or discrimination, but also on other topics reserved to the upper class!

I’m not doing this, writing, for me only. I’m writing and publishing stories for all the ones that were prevented before me to speak for themselves, and for all the ones that will be allowed after me to speak for themselves.


To which I'll add this article: 

‘Only certain people are permitted to write books’

Conceived in response to media analysis of the EU Referendum, in which the working class was presented by the media as primarily scared, backward-looking, insular and monocultural, Know Your Place gives a platform to working class writers to discuss the impact of class on their own life and work. By doing this, it stands alongside fellow crowdfunded anthologies The Good Immigrant (Unbound) and Nasty Women (404 Ink) in providing a snapshot of the socio-political situation of contemporary Britain through a literary lens.

The writer’s position within the class system is poorly defined. On a purely economic level, judging by recent reports into average earnings, most writers might expect to earn a significantly below-average salary, on a par with unskilled or junior clerical work, whilst a smaller number are comfortably bourgeois. If you want to look at Max Weber’s three-class system, you could say that writers enjoy a high-status role, possessing a talent decreed to be beyond the means of most, which would separate them from the working classes. A Marxist interpretation, however, suggests that writers, like other members of the proletariat, are alienated from the product of their labour, as Lee Rourke explains in his essay, ‘Hop-Picking: Forging a Path in the Edgelands of Fiction’: 
'I work tirelessly, repetitively, mind-numbingly, painstakingly towards creating something, which, if I'm lucky, will be taken away from me, made into something else by others, for others to supposedly enjoy, despite there not being much in return for me.'

Much of publishing, by contrast, is dominated by the middle and upper classes. As Sarah Perry explained in a recent Twitter thread, being working class in the publishing world is an isolating experience: 
‘If you’re from a small town and went to a v.v. modest uni (or none at all) the chances of pitching up to a media/publishing event and meeting someone you know from uni is almost ZERO and it DOES have an effect . . . the only sense of isolation and exclusion I’ve ever felt in publishing was when I realised that I would never look up and see a familiar face.' 

In her essay, ‘An Open Invitation’, Kit de Waal expands on this, citing research which found that 43% of people working in publishing come from privileged backgrounds, compared to 14% of population as a whole. This creates a problem for working class writers looking to get their work accepted: ‘You have to hope ‘that whoever reads your book doesn't equate working class with white trash sink estates populated by single mothers in tower blocks, that they don't reach for the lazy label, “gritty”, “dark” and “northern”.’

The ultimate effect of this imbalance, argues de Waal, is an erasure of the working class voice: 'The definitions of 'literature' and what constitutes “good taste” are tightly bound up with class. What the working class or underclass produce is rarely included in the canon; street literature, songs, hymns, spoken word, dialect and oral storytelling is nowhere to be found.’ Tracing the historic root of this class imbalance, Lee Rourke reaches back to Marx’s analysis of the novel as a product of bourgeois tastes, an art form which developed coincidentally with the rise of the bourgeois in society at the end of the 19th century, to reflect the tastes of bourgeois readers – a trend which is still reflected in the contents of the average Booker Prize shortlist. 

Working class writers have the option of conforming to these tastes, or else to 'write the gritty, clichéd accounts of working class, inner-city misery they are expected to write' for the amusement of the middle class. The third, and most difficult, option, for Rourke is to produce 'bad' literature, which rejects conventional styles and aims to ‘destroy, take apart and disrupt the bourgeois notion of what a novel should be.’ 

If this sounds academic or theoretical, Kath McKay’s essay ‘Reclaiming the Vulgar’ reinforces the extent to which bourgeois literary tastes have come to represent literature as a whole. To get a Brownies badge, McKay had to write a story, and found herself drawn towards an ‘appropriate’ subject for literature – a horse – despite the fact that 'the only experience of horses I had was watching The Grand National on TV.’ Her teacher signed the form, 'but I sensed his disappointment. Yet how could I write about my parents' arguments, or drying knickers in the oven before school, or the escaping steam from a tin of Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney Pie? I was silenced.’ The knock-on effect of the domination of literature by bourgeois tastes is that people feel that only certain subjects are permissible for fiction, and, in Len Deighton’s words, ‘only certain people are permitted to write books.’ 

McKay and fellow contributor Rym Kechaca both mention a further barrier for working class would-be writers – the existence of ‘higher register’ Norman-derived vocabulary, which is used to signify status. As Kechacha explains, ‘when we want to be more formal or sound intelligent, whether we intend to or not, we switch our vocabulary to favour Latinate words brought here by the Normans’ – a register with which the middle and upper classes are more comfortable, and which tends to exclude the working class. Accent is also a strong social signifier. Kate Fox, in her essay ‘The Wrong Frequency’, recalls that, before taking a college course in Radio Journalism, 'I hadn't noticed there had never been a national news reader with a northern accent' – a subtle reinforcement of middle-class norms. Her own accent became a barrier to employment: ‘I didn’t sound like a newsreader.’ 

On top of these long-standing issues, Austerity has bought about a crisis in working-class access to culture. Cuts have limited access to essential resources such as libraries, whilst the knock-on effects of reduced Health and Welfare spending have disproportionately affected the working class. Sam Mills, in ‘The Benefit Cuts’, and Rebecca Winson in ‘Disguised Malicious Murder’, both discuss the impact of austerity on working-class households, in reducing horizons and an increased need to care for relatives who can no longer rely on state aid, as well as an accompanying media narrative which seeks to divide the working class into ‘skivers’ and ‘the deserving poor’. Schemes such as the New Deal, which gave working class graduates time to write without the pressure to find work, have disappeared. 

All of this has made the writer’s dream of financial independence and a room of one’s own even less attainable for working class people – as Durre Shahwar Mughal observes in her essay Navigating Space, 'both were luxuries that only upper middle class women from wealthy families with no burden of domestic labour were able to afford . . . I have become accustomed to working within small rooms and small spaces. I sometimes wonder if this transfers to small expectations and ideas in my writing.’ 

In the digital world, there are more opportunities for working class writers to find their voices, and make themselves heard, through blogs, online journals and social media, and there is a small but vibrant collection of publishers who are agile enough to identify and promote their work. That there is a desire for such voices to be heard is evident through the crowdfunding successes of anthologies such as Know Your Place. Mainstream publishing is also responding, to some extent: Kit De Waal founded a scholarship for working class writers, which has been supported by agents and publishers, and some of the larger houses have begun talent outreach programs into less-privileged areas. But there is more to be done.


More soon.

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