Claire Malcolm hopes that the month of May will change how we think about class in writing and publishing – and asks publishers to do more to hire, and publish, working class talent
I'm hoping that May will turn out to be a transformative month for the issue of class within writing and publishing. Common People - a new anthology of work by working class writers - was published on the first of the month, and seems already to be generating some useful and provocative debate and conversation. Let's hope that it's a tipping point.
It's not just publishing that recognises that we need to do more in this area. On 13 May I'm giving evidence to the Performers’ Alliance All-Party Parliamentary Group, as part of their inquiry into the class ceiling in the creative sector. According to recent research by Orian Brook, Dave O'Brien and Mark Taylor, the cultural and creative industries are often cited as one of the greatest forces for openness and social mobility - but there is actually no evidence to support this. They submit that there never was a "golden age" of meritocracy in the creative industries, and that we are definitely not in one now. There is now not really anywhere to hide from this problem.
"Class should be considered in everything from recruitment to who is actually published"
It's really only in the past year or so that I've felt able to talk openly about my own working-class background in my professional life. Over the years I've learnt how to "pass" in the middle-class circles that I now work in, and inevitably the job I now do has given my own family opportunities and resources that I didn't have growing up. I find the debate about class and what happens when you're socially mobile disingenuous, as it seeks to supress the issues of inequality, not help to progress them. What it's like to find yourself journeying between the classes is also underexplored - Lynsey Hanley's Respectable comes the closest for me in reflecting the realities of this experience in a creative life.
We need more people telling and exploring these stories, not as misery memoirs, but as open narratives of circumstance and change. Following my trip to parliament I'll be back in Newcastle hosting a book launch for Kerry Hudson's memoir Lowborn, along with Jessica Andrews, whose new novel, Saltwater, echoes these themes from a North East perspective.
Both books are remarkable in that they tell stories that are sometimes hard to share, and which might not always be understood. Through both fact and fiction they explore what it's like to grow up in a family where resources are tight, or at times non-existent, and where your parents can't necessarily be relied upon to support the day-to-day needs, never mind your broader creative aspirations. It's tough. Money is an ongoing, grinding issue, practical help and role models are difficult to find, and many real and psychological barriers hold you back. Triumph can be - and is - hard won. At least now we can read these accounts and stories with a different understanding: not as exceptional stories of success, but as reflections of the creative aspirations and real life endeavours of the majority of the people in this country. We need more books like these.
In the Common People anthology, we're launching 17 new writers who might go on to write those books. They are all part of a national development programme managed by New Writing North and our fellow writing agencies, with funding by Arts Council England.
One of the take-aways from this burst of activity is that we are now more able to talk about class and more aware that it should be considered in everything from recruitment to who is actually published. We recently worked with Faber to produce an insight into the publishing day for a group of young writers who went to visit the Faber offices to hear from a range of staff about jobs in publishing. A couple of day later, I bumped into one of the young women who had gone on the trip. She was still buzzing from the experience. It had awoken something in her, and presented new options for how she thought about what she might do in life.
Publishers: the regions are full of talented young people who don't know how to get jobs in your industry and who financially cannot consider moving to London for short-term internships. We need more partnerships that support the talent pipelines for both writers and aspiring professionals, and we need more investment and opportunities in the regions.
In the North East we're looking to boost the development of writers and publishing in our region by building on the relationships that we now have with Hachette, Penguin Random House, Faber and HarperCollins. We're also working with the Publishers Association to bring its Get Into Publishing course North for the first time later this year.
We recognise that talent is everywhere but that the opportunities to develop it are not. We're ambitious to make more change happen through new collaborations - we hope that you'll consider joining us to do so or following our lead.
Claire Malcolm is the chief executive of New Writing North, the writing development agency for the North of England. New Writing North runs a wide portfolio of work: it produces festival and events, commissions and publishes new work, manages prizes, and has an award-winning programme of activities for young people and communities. @nwnclaire
@newwritingnorth will be celebrating #WorkingClassWriters from Monday 13th - Saturday 18th May.