If there’s one thing the pandemic has brought home, it’s the importance of the uncelebrated. As well as the applauded NHS, it’s the people behind the supermarket till and the wary, newly-masked posties delivering parcels gathered by warehouse workers on zero-hour contracts who keep the fabric of society from coming apart at the seams. So much hinges upon those who often go unheeded and unheard.

In this respect, Common People: Breaking the Class Ceiling in UK Publishing, which calls for action to redress the systemic classism of literary fiction, could hardly be timelier. While a fine pun, the title is something of a misnomer. You can’t hit a ‘class ceiling’ if you can’t pay the entrance fee on the door. The report, written by Katy Shaw who is Professor of Contemporary Writings at Northumbria University, is based on interviews with working class contributors to Kit De Waal‘s Common People anthology – and patiently and methodically spells this point out. 

Several themes emerge. London, inevitably, is a large part of the problem. Or rather, a particular, rarefied version of the capital distorts what is deemed publishable, one in which a circle of vanity mirrors (the publishing houses, the newspapers and their reviewers) largely echo the received wisdoms of their own reflections, as though the frictionless lives of the comfortable metropolitan bourgeois are the norm rather than the exception.

The sociologist Mike Savage has characterised such systems as perpetuating the transmission of advantage; connections are cemented inside groups, creating a presumably unintentional closed shop. As the class structures of the 19th century re-solidify, it really is who you know (and how you know them), rather than what you know that’s important.

Left outside, the aspirant writer can come to internalise the belief that it’s somehow their fault that they haven’t been invited to the party. Jessica Andrews, writer of the Portico Prize-winning Saltwater, pithily encapsulates the potentially corrosive effects of seeing only unobtainable lives granted validation by fiction, and the effect on her own confidence: “The most difficult part of writing is self-doubt. I learned to constantly push back against the fear that my experiences were trivial and uninteresting.”

Any regular reader of The Guardian’s Saturday magazine might well conclude that such self-consciousness is hardly something which troubles more middle class columnists.

How, then, to set the balance right? The report makes several recommendations designed to open the doors to the club on a more permanent basis. Indeed, this wedging ajar of the doorway seems key. Without such structures firmly in place, the entrance is all too apt to swing closed once more, making any progress forged in the interim appear merely tokenistic.

common people front coverDecentralisation appears fundamental. There needs to be more lines into the industry than the already congested one that terminates at Euston. Rather, publishing and its associated apparatus – development agencies and literary agents in particular – need to branch out beyond the borders of the M25 and into the regions, following the lead of relocations in broadcasting such as the BBC‘s Salford satellite.

More entry points are an important step towards greater equity of access, but it is equally important that they do not simply replicate the enclaves of privilege that have evolved in London. Here, transparent recruitment with the guarantee of a living wage is a necessity. The unpaid internship is a remarkably efficient process for keeping the working classes tethered to their day jobs.

Lastly, Shaw argues that proposed changes should be sustainable. There have always been historic moments when working class voices have been fashionable, or their clamour has simply been too urgent to ignore, but the status quo has inevitably been swift to reassert itself, putting things back in to their rightful order. Ensuring history does not repeat itself is perhaps the greatest challenge since it requires the relinquishing of privilege by some of the existing players, so that as well as writers from all class backgrounds, there will be scope for a like proliferation of commissioning editors, literary agents and publishers.

There are many inspiring presses north of the Watford Gap, and the North has been fortunate to have heard itself articulated by those who have swam upstream – the Waterhouses, the Bleasdales, the Unsworths who have leapt the Thames barrier. But how many more voices might flourish given the opportunity? Now, more than ever, should be their moment to speak.

By Desmond Bullen


To read Common People: Breaking the Class Ceiling in UK Publishing by Katy Shaw, click here