The Man Booker prize 2017 longlist was announced just over a week ago and, as with most announcements these days, Twitter didn’t miss a trick.
Often this comes down to what’s unsaid rather than said, slighted rather than sighted, excluded rather than included. Cue tweets on who didn’t make the cut - as well as from someone who did: Jon McGregor, tongue firmly in cheek, innocently asking when the longlist would be revealed. Twitter can be funny, too.
Among the responses were those hashtagged diversity, chair of judges Baroness Lola Young describing the selection from more than 150 titles as…well, ‘diverse’. The prize opened up to US authors in 2014, this year’s longlist comprising four UK authors, four US, two Irish, two UK-Pakistani, and one Indian writer, with seven men compared to six women.
But what about the background of authors on the list? I wondered as I scrolled through my timeline, finger hovering over that blue button, was I alone in asking how many, if any, came from what I might recognise as working-class stock? I tweeted and discovered I wasn’t.
The author Tim Lott argued not long ago that working-class artists are under-represented in the creative industries, this inequality, for him, ‘blindingly obvious’ in the book trade. As a working-class author responding to a working-class author bemoaning the lack of working-class authors in publishing I think him half-wrong, given it’s a problem throughout society. Access to the arts is indeed disproportionate, one recent report suggesting half of top actors in the UK come from independent schools - despite only 6.5% of all schoolchildren actually going to one. But January’s Social Mobility Commission found those from a privileged background still dominate the professions and, even when they do break the glass ceiling, the working class can expect to be paid far less than colleagues from affluent backgrounds.
And yet, to echo Lott, this is one area people still feel uncomfortable talking about, whether that’s because they don’t see class as relevant - much like ‘I don’t see colour’, the speaker then revealed as egregiously privileged - or they view it as something an individual ultimately self-identifies with. It can be hard, though not that hard, to pin down. Take a look at the longlist and you might find yourself struggling to name more than three or four authors with anything like a working-class upbringing - but whether they or you or I identify with it there are some things that make class discrimination all too real, especially for those at the bottom.
This is not to play what the writer Roxane Gay calls ‘Oppression Olympics’, one perceived injustice trumping another until only those who have it the absolute worst can play victim. When we talk about diversity we mean everyone - not them, not us, but all of us - and the question of class or background (call it what you will) cuts to the heart of representation in our society. In publishing, this is apparent in the writing of novels but also awarding of prizes, in the judges on panels and the editors commissioning books in the first place. To tackle diversity properly, publishing will eventually have to open up to what diversity really means.
Looking at who gets our best-paid jobs - or makes the longlist of a major literary prize - is a pretty good place to start.
Gavin James Bower is a writer and senior lecturer at Bath Spa University. He tweets @gavinjamesbower. The Man Booker Prize shortlist of six titles will be announced on 13th September.