The working class is the class of people who depend on the continuous sale of labour power, their own or family members’, in order to live a decent life. Workers & their dependants have little or no say over the conditions or the products of employment. They must do what they are told to do, make what they are told to make, turn up when they or told to turn up, & so on. They do not ever benefit proportionately from the success of enterprises that exploit them & which without them would be nothing. They lose out disproportionately should these enterprises fail.
Working class lives are about as far from ideal conditions for producing artistic works – especially lengthy works such as the novel – as it is humanly possible to get. Fundamentally we have so few working class novelists for the same reasons we have so few working class symphonic composers – reasons of educational disadvantage, time poverty, economic insecurity & eternally stressful living conditions.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, to be born into the working class is to face a life obstructed by chronic inequality & injustice in every sphere – health, education, leisure & arts provision, housing – you name it and workers are losing out badly in it. In 2018 Ireland’s University system – the font of our contemporary textual literature – remains a fortress of privilege. While 99 per cent of young people from affluent Dublin 6 attend college, the figure for Dublin 17 is 15 per cent. Working Class people in Ireland are 73 per cent more likely to die by suicide than others – the figure for Travellers, by the way, is 660%. I could go on all day – the statistics are endlessly tragic, endlessly troubling.
On average, life for working class people is much more difficult, much more complicated, much more tragic, much less rewarding than it is for people from luckier backgrounds. If you, like me, are a working class person or from a working class background, you will have no trouble accepting this – you have lived & are living it.
Obviously, numerous factors complicate & qualify the basic definition of working class offered above – & will deepen the oppression experienced – gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, occupation, location…. The lives of working class women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ in Ireland are without doubt more difficult & more traumatic, on average, then those of white working class men like myself. And it is often white working class men who are doing the front-line oppressing.
But all workers & their dependants are similarly alienated, similarly dispossessed, similarly disadvantaged to begin with by their working-class status & we all share a common interest in overthrowing capitalism and establishing a society free of economic and social injustice.
The working class is at its weakest and most vulnerable when divided against itself along lines of gender, race et al, and the ruling classes of the world have long used these implicit & potential divisions strategically, to guarantee their own rule.
However, recent referendum results in Ireland have seen the most spectacular votes for the right-to-choose & marriage equality often emerging in densely populated urban working class areas. This should remind us that the working class is also, as revolutionary socialists have always argued, potentially the most progressive class, capable of throwing off centuries of oppressive ideology overnight when it comes together in active struggle to improve its own conditions & those of others.
An ounce of struggle is worth a ton of votes, says Lenin.
My conception of a working-class writer then is one who is not only biographically from the working class – an accident of birth & hardly something to congratulate oneself for – but also politically for the working class – a conscious choice which implies a certain pragmatic approach to form & medium. My aim as a working class writer who is for the working class is to contribute honestly & constructively, in as entertaining & thought-provoking a way as possible, to overcoming the divisions within the working class, & to helping workers in whatever small way I can, & always as part of a wider movement, to realise & enact the world-transforming nature of their collective power. For this I need a working class audience & so I must make literature in a form or forms accessible to & preferred by working class people.
This point about finding a working class audience, however & wherever it can be found, is crucial to me. If I, or anyone else of similar ambition, were to only follow the waymarked way of conventional literary advancement in Ireland, marked out entirely by and for middle class people, this would not be possible. Working class people do not engage, by & large, as producers or consumers of our conventional, textual, literary culture – a culture which in a revealingly colonial-elitist manner terms itself Anglo-Irish – rather than say, Hiberno-English. Who indeed, one wonders, are these Anglo-Irish the universities and publishing houses are talking about? Where is their homeland? Their capital? The colonial elite historians refer to as the Anglo-Irish vanished a century ago – that our academies & literary culture industry do not seem to have noticed is a troublingly clear indication of how fortified, how castellated the marginal arena they have generally existed in for the last 100 years is. Another way, in other mediums, in another accent, must be found by an Irish working class writer who wants an Irish working class audience.
Working class literary fiction?
What has literature got to do with the working class? On the face of it, not a lot – at least not if we confine our idea of literature to literary fiction. On the whole, literary fiction has not now nor ever had a whole lot to do with the working class – even or especially way back when the literary novel was the central medium of artistic & intellectual expression in society .
Few will deny that the literary novel achieved its zenith in the 19th century, when very few workers could read. Only 17 per cent of Russians could read when Anna Karenina was published; very few of those were workers or peasants. Dickens & Zola & Deledda & how many others of that era wrote about & even for the working class – but an artform of & by the working class is different matter. Contemporary studies of the readership of the literary novel – an insignificant number of people these days in most cases – confirm that not a lot has changed in this regard, with the bulk repeatedly found to be ‘educated and affluent’ – a code for middle and upper class.
I mention this because it is normally literary fiction being referenced in discussions of working class writing, at least as the discussion takes place in the Guardian & similar middle-class forums. There is a part of me which recoils at the very idea of discussing working class culture in publications such as The Guardian, which has relentlessly campaigned against the socialist working class movement in Britain for many decades, most recently by its brazen support for the anti-semitic slander against Jeremy Corbyn. Discussing working-class culture in the Guardian seems to me the equivalent of discussing women’s rights in a lads magazine – something which quite rightly would never be accepted as a genuine approach to the question.
If we are going to discuss the working class, lets find ways to involve workers in the conversation, let’s actually look at the working class and try and see how they make literature and how they receive literature in our day and age.
The concentration on literary fiction is too constricting to live up to the reality of working-class literary practices, past & present, & is also somewhat misleading in our current circumstances. Because of the well-documented extreme cultural marginality of literary fiction, as well as the inevitable poverty of the returns on the practice, the chances of a working class person under working class pressures making a sustainable life for themselves in the literary novel are nearly zero. The literary novel is in a sense the fool’s gold or the imperial vestment or the bear-shitting-in-the-woods of the contemporary writer – there are prizes & grants & residencies galore for the few who make it – but there is no economically sustainable readership to speak of in most cases, certainly no working-class readership.
This is not to say that people from working-class backgrounds do not write literary novels – evidently they do – recent years have seen a welcome boost to our contemporary novel in Ireland by several such writers. But no matter how working class these novelists are themselves, it is middle class people they will have to sell books to – in large & frankly highly unlikely amounts – to remain in favour with publishers for any significant period.
Besides, one or two novels does not a novelist or a sustainable artistic life make. It is very difficult to envisage all but a tiny minority of working class people making a 21st century life in textual literature alone. In practice, many working class writers of my acquaintance and generation who have lasted more than a couple of years in the writing vocation have done so by relating to the new media literatures in one form or another.
In part 3 of this essay I will outline a history of working class literature and explore which medium or mediums of literary production are best suited to today’s working class writer guided by working class principles & wishing to speak in the main to a working class audience.