In Bluemoose Books' first online deli a couple of weeks ago, writer Heidi James revealed some uncomfortable truths. She’d been told early on by a supervisor that "the novel was for the middle classes" and that her work was "too shouty" for the typical novel reader.
If you’ve been following recent debates, this won’t come as a surprise. It’s similar to what Lisa Blower was told by one publisher about her first novel: her writing was ok for the short story market, but "too angry, too working class" for a longer form (Blower used this advice to good effect as a strapline on the cover of Sitting Ducks when it came out with Fairacre Press in 2016: 'If you’re not angry, you’re not listening’). Ten years earlier, Nicola Monaghan was told by an agent who looked at her debut novel, The Killing Jar (2006), that she didn’t think the characters should be working class.
And if you think this is just about angry young women, let’s remember that Alan Sillitoe was told by an editor that "this wasn’t how the working man’s mind should be portrayed. It wasn’t how he acted" as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning did the rounds in the mid-1950s (after being rejected multiple times, it became one of the first million-selling paperbacks in Britain). And that D. H. Lawrence, long before Sillitoe, had Sons and Lovers rejected for its "lack of unity" and "want of reticence". Lawrence was glad to work with publisher’s reader Edward Garnett, who tamed it down for the typical novel reader. "I don’t mind if Duckworth crosses out a hundred shady pages", Lawrence wrote to Garnett in 1913. "It’s got to sell, I’ve got to live."
So the problems in the publishing industry we’re talking about now - and the important work being done by writing agencies, campaigners, and reports such as 'Common People: Breaking the Class Ceiling in UK Publishing' and 'Re:Thinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing' - are nothing new. And of course, as the authors of these reports well know, that’s the problem. Last year, novelist Pat Barker warned the sounding bell about big London-based publishers jumping on diversity initiatives post-Brexit as a timely fad. "I welcome it, but I also distrust it because I think it can be quite fashionable to do this," she said.
The big publishers’ interest in working-class writing has always been subject to fashion. It’s not surprising that the growth of interest in working-class writing over the last few years comes on the back of a long period of austerity. In the 1930s, when mass unemployment, Hunger Marches, slum clearances and the Means Test made working-class lives an unavoidable part of public debate, mainstream publishers scrambled over themselves to find the next Love on the Dole (Walter Greenwood’s bestselling break-through was published by Jonathan Cape in 1933). Methuen picked up the first works of Leslie Halward and miner Walter Brierley – the later after he was printed in the BBC magazine, The Listener, following a call-out for articles describing the effects of unemployment. Chatto & Windus took on the working-class sagas of Irish-Liverpudlian James Hanley (his first novel Boy had been prosecuted for obscenity), believing there was enough of a market in the mid-1930s to take the risk. Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press published the Welsh collier poet Huw Menai and the Birmingham Group’s John Hampson (not working class himself, but his Saturday Night at the Greyhound was a piece of working-class realism). Academic studies on the 1930s has even coined a name for this topical fad – ‘Going Over’ – to describe a time when authors and publishers became more interested in workers’ daily lives.
But while many of these 1930s writers continued to write long after the decade in which they became famous - some moving on to the new forms of radio and BBC drama - most published only one or two books before editors, publishers, and audiences moved on. The same happened to many of the working-class writers who made it in the 1950s and ’60s. Alan Sillitoe published over twenty novels, plus essays and short stories and collections of poems, up until his death in 2010. But it’s only his first novel that is widely remembered. The same is true of Shelagh Delaney, who enjoyed a varied writing career after the phenomenal success of her first play A Taste of Honey. Delaney’s biographer Selina Todd argues "that her achievements have been overlooked is due to the condescending belief that a working-class woman has only a limited amount to say". We have a short attention span. And these are the big names whose work was translated into film and could still count on some audience recognition and industry support. The writing careers of the more obviously political working-class writers of the ’50s – Len Doherty, Herbert Smith, David Lambert – were more typical of the fate of the average working-class writer: writing in their spare time before or after work, able to write only one or two novels before being forced to give up.
In Saha and van Lente’s 'Re:Thinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing' report, the problem of the big publishers essentially catering ‘for a white and middle-class audience’ is upfront and centre. Research we’ve been doing on the longer history of working-class writing and publishing in the archives of British Publishing and Printing at the University of Reading bears this out as a long systemic trend. Editors’ and readers’ rejection notes in the Chatto & Windus archive from the 1890s to the end of the 1920s, for instance, are quick to come down on perceived regionality as being uninteresting to their key white, metropolitan, middle-class audience. "A mining novel. Two little girls grow up and get married. The picture of life in a mining village should be good but are just dull", Harold Raymond notes in rejecting Yorkshire-based Malachi Whitaker’s first novel in May 1926, one day before the General Strike. "A gloomy novel apparently written by a working man. V. R. says it is ungrammatical and has no merits" is the comment on Glasgow-based Daniel MacDougall’s Wages of Living one month later. Even topicality had its limits.
The recommendations in the 'Common People' and 'Re:Thinking ‘Diversity’' reports are important: de-centralising the UK publishing industry; getting literary agents outside of London; increasing investment in regional writing development agencies; rethinking audiences, how to reach them and what is considered ‘quality’; rethinking how you measure diversity, your hiring practices and who you could join forces with. There hasn’t been this kind of sustained attention on the systemic prejudices within publishing for some time. Working-class writers have always had to work harder to get their voices heard. As writer Sharon Duggal said at the Bluemoose event, "we’re tired". And as independents like Bluemoose will tell you, they are still doing most of the heavy lifting. Now is the time for real change.
Nicola Wilson is Associate Professor of Book and Publishing Studies at the University of Reading and co-director of the Centre for Book Cultures and Publishing. She is author of Home in British Working-Class Fiction (2015), co-author of Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities: Making the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (2017), and general editor of the Ethel Carnie Holdsworth series (Kennedy & Boyd).