Stories matter, class matters

Natasha Carthew
Opinion - Books Friday, 26th July 2019

Author Natasha Carthew on how to kill the culture of elitism in publishing

The debate about diversity in literature is not new, but when we refer to it we tend to talk about gender, sexuality, race and disability. They are important, but where are the champions of working class opinion? There are not enough voices from this corner being heard. Diversity in literature fosters knowledge and understanding of people outside our own sphere of experience. It's only through knowledge of and empathy for how others live that we can attempt to communicate and connect with each other.

Not enough working class writers are being published in this country. I want to change that by encouraging the support of low income writers in a more consistent, sustainable way. Working class writers must be supported to ensure their stories are told and that the characters they create come from a place of truth that is neither stereotyped or clichéd. Without authenticity, readers are not getting a true account of what it's like to be poor or socially isolated. It is about making culture belong to all of us.

Children and young adults feel respected and validated, and their self-esteem is enhanced, when they see themselves and their wider communities reflected in books. That means it is paramount that we tell stories of lived experience, both positive and negative. Without erasing the struggles of economic hardship or limited options, working-class literature should remind us of the strengths of working-class culture: humour, integrity, hard work and loyalty, among many others.

"The word 'class' is often missing from the debate about access and diversity in publishing"

We can trigger a different way of thinking about poverty and increase support for better policies by talking about the issues and telling our own stories. I like to think about my own background when writing: brought up by a single parent in a council house, no money, no transport, no visible prospects. I can inspire others to believe that they too can change their own narratives. It's also important to tap into the positives in our lives, no matter how small, to make a difference to the way we perceive ourselves. If it wasn't for my working class background and dogged tenacity I definitely wouldn't have become the writer I am today.

How to change things
First, we need to address the fact that there is not only a shortage of working class writers being published in this country, there's a shortage of working class people working in publishing. The stories that get published come mostly from higher up in society, chosen by those higher up in society, and it's a distorted reflection of the country we live in.

There is a cultural drought because of a lack of empathetic thinking. The offer of free training to writers on a low wage is great, but the thinking behind it needs to go deeper. Be aware of what that writer might need to access the training: what else can you provide in the way of transport, accommodation, lunch/coffees, whatever? You need to offer these things before being asked, because as lots of working class writers have said, asking for money is embarrassing!

Publishers need to look outside their small circles of influence for writers, and especially writers from backgrounds that they want to portray. Have the people write the people! It's important that what gets commissioned tells our stories with accuracy and with our genuine voices: stories rooted in community, shared experience and belonging.

The word "class" is often missing from the debate about access and diversity in publishing. When you come to choose judges for literary prizes, good practice is to take into account class as well as gender, disability, sexuality and people of colour. Try to not to have more than one judge from Oxford! This goes equally for book reviews: middle class writers reviewing middle class writers means the support for diverse voices is almost non-existent. Everyone needs to look outside their circle of influence - and not just look, but step out and say hello. Open your arms to all the incredible working class writers who deserve to be on your radar.

Working class people continue to be hugely under-represented in all the arts, and the people at the top – mostly well-paid, middle-class white men – are least likely to see it. They are the ones who need to ask themselves: what are we doing to extend our reach? Or are we just going to employ arts graduates from elite universities? There is a huge hole when it comes to novels that represent readers from poor socio-economic backgrounds, and that hole needs to be filled.

We as writers and you as creators need to work together to change the story people hear. Source material isn't beyond reach: it's within every working class writer, but you have to encourage those writers and tell them that their stories are valid and that you want to read them. You have to open up the playing field.

We need more compelling and believable stories with true representations of different economic backgrounds, because our stories matter. Class matters.

All Rivers Run Free, Natasha Carthew's first novel for adults, is out from Quercus/riverrun. She has also written three novels for young adults with Bloomsbury, and is the judge for the 2019 Writers & Artists Prize for Working Class Writers. She is currently touring the UK with her Writing The Wild tour, on which she discusses "wild writing" and working class themes in literature, and is speaking on the subject today (26 July) with Kerry Hudson and Cathy Rentzenbrink at the Port Eliot Festival. Her agent is Jane Finigan at Lutyens & Rubinstein.