The ancient novelty of Working Class literature
Working-class literature, that is literature produced chiefly by & for the working class, comes in many forms & in many mediums, many informal & ephemeral, others not so, but all defined by their ease of access to both the producer and receiver of the work. They generally do not cost much to make, or to enjoy. Short forms are favoured in all mediums, as well as content relevant to the lives & struggles of the working-class audience.
For most of its history, the working class has created its literature mainly through the medium of the voice, & chiefly in the form of the song. The typical, representative working class writer throughout the pre-digital era is the singer-songwriter. The singer-songwriter can claim direct descent from the tradition of sung poetry which stretches unbrokenly back to the very beginnings of ‘Western’ literature in the city states of Ancient Greece & before that Mesopotamia. The singing bard, the sung poem, the song, the songwriter – this is the longest, largest, broadest & deepest of global literary traditions. If any literary tradition has right to claim itself as THE literary tradition, it is this one.
In contrast to the culture of text literature, where ownership of the text and individual artistic vanity are often foremost, authorship often does not matter much in working class literary culture. Instead, the particularities of the delivery of the song, either on record or at a live event, are what matters, not atall who the song belongs to. It is not who in the past wrote the song, or who initially came up with the story, or who first cracked the joke, but how well these are being sung or being told here and now at the ongoing concert or session or sing-song.
An exciting contemporary echo of this long tradition of non-proprietal, non-profiteering, anonymised literature-making came during the recent referendum on the 8th amendment, in the form of the poly-authored testimonies of the I Believe Her & In Her Shoes – Women of the Eight facebook pages. Hundreds of women anonymously contributed to these evolving online anthologies – with the literary standard often as high as can be found in most literary journals. Hundreds contributed personal essays & tens if not hundreds of thousands shared and engaged. No money changed hands, there was no artistic narcissism at work. I Believe Her & In Her Shoes are of course a product of the radical end of the women’s movement in the wake of #metoo, rather than of the working class movement per se. Nevertheless, the characteristics of anonymous poly-authorship & widespread community distribution of community relevant content that we see in these immensely popular online storytelling initiatives, added to their freedom from vested interests in arts admin & profiteering publishing houses, give us something altogether remarkable in the history of literary forms. A new genre of long, poly-authored, metamorphic, open-ended and above all inclusive narrative which looks nothing like the short story or novel and is on the whole far more suited to working class self-expression than the novel could ever be.
Up to now, & many many country miles, the most important working class literary tradition in Ireland has been our native folksong tradition, growing over as it has into our thriving contemporary folk song tradition. The most important Irish working class creator of our time & indeed of all time is Christy Moore. It is in the Christy Moore songbook & in the repertoires of other folk-literary giants such as John Spillane, Mary Coughlan, the Black sisters etc that the artistic record of the Irish working class experience, working class hopes, working class losses & working class sorrows is to be found.
This tradition remains easily our most vital working class literary tradition in Ireland today & is currently being revitalised by a new & diverse generation including Damian Dempsey, the poet laureate of working class Dublin; Mick Blake; Bernzy Mac; Sharon Murphy; Evelyn Campbell; Stephen Wall, & countless other talents.
But in 2019 becoming a singer-songwiter is no longer the only practical, likely option for individual working class writers who wish for a working class audience. The digital revolution in the form of the universally available smartphone has massively expanded the genre possibilities for a working class literature by opening a completely new & practically infinite terrain of accessible multimedia creativity to the entire population – at least in the OECD countries.
Moreover, this new multi-terrain of human creativity is one into which skills learned in the old oral & live terrains natural to workers (& absorbed by many of us in the rambunctiously oral environment of our childhoods) are easily transferable. Our age-old, if most often informally acquired, literary inheritance of storytelling, performative displays, communally relevant content, passionate intensity – all these seem made for the multimedia literature age. These inherited skills combine & hybridise with new digital skills and tools to great effect in the creation of new or entirely revitalised genres such as the poetry video. The possibilities are enormous and many of our finest young talents are already beginning to realise them beautifully.
One obvious example is Emmett Kirwan, whose brilliantly conceived poetry videos Just Sayin & Heartbreak are among the most popular & engaged-with works of Irish literature in recent years – but there are countless other irish working class creators involved in poetry video & the related genre of performance poetry. It is clear to me that among the younger generations of irish working class writers at least, the poetry video is far more important & sustainable & artistically exciting a form than the short story or literary novel – both of which only continue to exist here because of the state’s willingness to heavily subsidise middle-class literature.
It is not and will not be only the working class that takes advantage of the artistic possibilities of the newly emerging ecosystem in the literary arts, – so much is obvious. But this is the first time in history that the working class en masse has gained access to the prevailing tools and methods of creative expression. Such notions as working class cinema & the working class novel are pipe dreams, or at the most can only be exampled in rare and exotic cases. The working class cannot afford to make cinema, or participate in any level-playing-field way in the literary novel. But every irish worker has a smartphone or knows someone who will lend.
Smartphones, despite the moral panics they generate – echoing similar establishment anxieties upon the arrival of the printing press, & no doubt of papyrus & vellum before that – are unique in world history as creative devices & mark the beginning of a new era in human creativity. Using on board apps, cameras, social media, it is possible to produce – collaboratively as well as individually – distribute, broadcast & receive innumerable & diverse works of art in a variety of mediums. No-one can say, ten years into this new era, what the long term effect of this incredibly creative technology will have on literature, but that it will completely transform it there can be little doubt.
In fact the transformation, even at this early, post-natal stage is well under way. It has taken less than ten years for the twinned disciplines of live poetry and the poetry video to become far and away the major arenas for both accessible participation in poetry, and in the public encounter with poetry. Now that poetry books sell in the dozens while poetry videos are regularly watched by hundreds of thousands, & DIY performance poetry festivals such as Lingo dwarf the size of long-established, heavily subsidised page-poetry festivals, only reactionaries & vested interests can deny the major changes taking place in the poetic art in Ireland.
Working Class Literature and Working Class Division
Working Class researcher Emma Penny of UCD notes that the key factor in the growth of womens’ poetry circles in parts of working class Dublin in the 1980s was the accessibility of poetry to women of no means and no property. There are no educational barriers to participating in poetry – poetry being fundamentally an oral artform, one does not even have to know how to write. There are no technological barriers to participating in poetry. There are no financial barriers to participation in poetry. These poetry circles, led by women writers such as Cathleen O Neill – who was in contact with Audre Lorde at the time – were collective and collaborative & mutually supportive in nature – characteristics essential to making them welcoming to everyone who wished to participate; no forms, no hoops, no ‘qualifications’, no gatekeepers. All working class literary scenes bear something of these qualities of openness and accessibility to all-comers.
Simply put, working class people make the literature they can afford to make, afford in terms of both time and money spent.
Working class cultural practices are of course diverse, but in many instances worldwide, and most instances in my homeland of the west of Ireland, it is while present at an informal session or sing-song that the workers in the pre-digital era would have participated in their own literature of song, story, joke & so on. The poetry circles Penny echo these sessions in their communal, collaborative, & mutual validating nature. So do our contemporary open mics, story circles & so on. Though of course these latter may look very different, younger, & more cosmopolitan than the sessions of yore, the basic structure is similar, and the participants will be, in the main, working class people just as before.
Importantly, Penny also records that these women in 1980s Kilbarrack & Raheny often had to struggle against husbands and boyfriends for their art, in some cases even to win the right to attend the poetry circles. This is no surprise to those of us who grew up under the regime of actual or implied male violence which was and is the rule in far too high a proportion of working class homes & working class communities. Working class women have too often endured and continue to endure an extra layer of oppression imposed upon them by backwards layers of working class men. If we were to take a tour around Saint Mary‘s graveyard in Clonakilty, down that long avenue of the suicides it contains, we would find ourselves stopping off on several occasions at the graves whose suicides are without question the result of male violence towards them and of general male tolerance of the violence of other males towards them. This is to say nothing of the poor young working class woman who I remember as one of the shyest slightest women in the whole town, and who had her throat cut in front of her children by a violent male.
Considering the above, isn’t it true that the working class writer, in particular the working class male writer, needs to establish their ground of spiritual independence and free expression in opposition to and in contrast to much of their own inherited ‘hard man’ culture, as well as in contradiction to middle-class artistic culture?
Working Class Literature and Working Class Struggle
The relationship between working class literature & working class struggle is naturally strong & long-established. Singer-songwriters, & these days increasingly performance poets & producers of literary video, make an important contribution to both the clear, memorable expression of, & the moral sustenance of many working class or majority working class campaigns.
The connection between literature & cause is one of the bedrocks of working class literature – there is no working class literature to speak of which does not connect with working class struggle or progressive campaigns in which the working class plays a key role in some way.
As well as their role in memorialising & validating daily struggles, the working-class writer also plays a role on a more abstract level, in keeping alive the dream and the hope of a socialist future, free of all oppression & exploitation.
These proudly political roles form another strong contrast with the literature of the middle class, which, generally speaking, valorises formalism and an aesthetic of faux-neutrality, seeking to deny the inevitably political nature of all art, & to occlude its own foundations in social & educational inequality.
Even though working class writers, mainly employing the new media, have placed themselves at centre of literary creativity in today’s Ireland, we still have far from a level playing field for working class people of talent who wish to make a sustainable life for themselves in the Arts.
Measures to level the playing field – this side of a revolution – will not happen unless the cause of the working class writer & the working class artist as a whole is taken up as a campaigning priority by the working class movement, by trade unions & working class political parties and community organisations. Our best chances as artists then lie in maintaining and deepening our solidarity with the working class movement.
A literary essay is not the place to determine campaigning priorities & I would hesitate to individually make any detailed programmatic proposals here. I look forward to reading suggestions from other working class writers responding to this essay.
Perhaps, however, as a first step, we need to demand that the arts council open a funding stream for working class writers with working class audiences which is at least equal to the current literary bursary scheme which is entirely and prejudicially reserved for middle class writers with middle class audiences. We need a bursary scheme for performance poets, singer-song writers, video lit producers, community writing facilitators & so on & this needs to be overseen & distributed by working class literary representatives – not the strategically embedded, out-of-touch, middle-class gatekeepers who currently oversee literary funding in ireland in a manner starkly prejudicial to working class writers & working class communities.
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