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On the lack of authentic working-class fiction

Of the four million functionally illiterate people in Britain, all but a few have had the benefit of eleven years of state education, and all but a few are working-class.

Annually thirty-five thousand working-class youngsters leave our schools with no qualifications - and not much literacy.

Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire, responsible for the development of literacy across much of the third world, famously said that literacy is not just a technical event; it is bound up with identity, participation, politics and desire. The relationship between literacy and working-class learners’ own lived experiences is at the very heart of Freire’s method, the materials used generated from the learners’ own observations, knowledge and understanding. The aim is not merely to facilitate the skills required to decode text at the surface level, but to achieve a literacy integral to the personal, political, economic and socio-cultural well-being of the working-class individuals and groups.

British working-class children should be so lucky.

In the UK, intermittent calls for books relevant to the lives of our working class youngsters are routinely given a bad press. Myths and legends are considered better fare for the development of the psyche; stories of ghosts, witches, wizards, princes, princesses, magical realisms and phantasmagorias more appealing to the imagination; animal characters in books for young children more engaging.

Children’s imaginations - particularly the imaginations of working-class children - are somehow thought better ‘developed’ by divorcing their psyches from their own experiences and observations. It is not uncommon for middle-class teachers to state that ‘they’ don't really want to read books based on  their own realities - it would only depress them. Backing up such diversion theory, a whole middle-class academic edifice has been developed, dissertations and doctorates abounding.

Fiction for adults, with plots and themes purporting to affect working-class people in particular, isn’t much better.  Violence, crime, drug addiction, thuggery, alcoholism, sexual abuse – a whole exotica of deprivation is portrayed. Feeding a sense of middle-class superiority, promoting false understandings, justifying fears about, and oppositions towards, their working-class contemporaries, the profits from this stuff is mostly generated by a voyeuristic middle-class reading public. 

The teen-lit single-issue version, focusing on the likes of homelessness, inadequate mothers, clueless fathers, under-age sex, drug-taking etcetera, is often ‘taught’ inside the more ‘difficult’ classrooms on the assumption that such fictions are appropriate instruments for the moral development of working-class pupils. What doesn’t enter this reading equation are the socio-economic and politico-cultural forces which in real life contribute so largely to such behaviours.  Nor does it seem to occur to the middle-class authors that in the real world working-class people don’t have the luxury of problems coming at them one-at-a-time.

Of the 9,000 or so books published for youngsters each year, some of the non-single issue type will indeed use working-class characters, have a working-class setting. But where a working-class character is shown to partially resolve a book's dramatic conflict, it is likely to be by adherence to middle-class values, moralisms and behaviours. Except stereotypically, class conflict is rarely featured, the class relations intrinsic to everyday lived experience seldom truly imagined.

Whether via the ancient priest classes, modern media moguls or the ‘education’ system, the powers-that-be always seek to control the socio-cultural narrative. Right up there with ownership of the means of production is the appropriation and curtailment of the imaginations and aspirations of the majority.

But what about Dickens? Or contemporaries like Roddy Doyle, William Mclvanney? Or…? Sympathetic portrayals of individuals caught up in the socio-cultural circumstances of the day are all well and good. By keeping the characters, conditions and mindsets much responsible for producing those circumstances to the background, such works do not contribute as well they might to the possibilities of any socio-cultural transformations. Written in 1910 and still in print, Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is probably still the work of modern fiction to foreground  class conflict and the socio-cultural constraints within which, materially, emotionally psychologically, politically, working class people struggle daily.

If you disbelieve the state of our fictional offerings to working-class youngsters, indeed to all young people, if that offering has become (as for most people it almost inevitably does) so socio-culturally normalised as to be unremarkable, do one small piece of research. Go to the children's or teenage section of your local bookshop or library and look for books that meet the following criteria:

Find books that portray characters of the working-class majority - but not in an exotica-of-deprivation manner.

Find books that show working-class characters, individually and in groups, dealing in a variety of ways with the many obstacles, material and otherwise, small and large, that come the way of real working- class people daily, inclusive of protest, generosity of spirit, rage, heroisms, depression, decency, humour.

Find books that show working-class characters and situations whereby those daily obstacles are well known by the protagonists not to be merely bad or good luck, coincidence or ‘human nature.’

Find books that portray the true class relationships between protagonists, with the conflicts, emotions, psychologies, intelligences authentically portrayed.

Find books showing working-class protagonists understanding that the world can indeed be reconstructed in a fair manner for all – and well knowing what such reconstruction requires.

Amongst all the charmingly illustrated books on the shelves, if you find one book to match even a couple of the above criteria, be well pleased - shout it's title from the roof tops.

The sad fact is that for working-class youngsters to believe in and hang onto their true identities in a world that seeks to misrepresent and marginalise them, to distort and divert their intelligence about themselves, they have little choice but to struggle daily amongst a cacophony of misleading noise and misdirection, not least in the books presented to them as their means to literacy.

Career 'educationists' , promoting their latest tricks and tick boxes with the hype that they’ve discovered the class-blind alchemy for producing higher middle-class school attainment whilst - at the same time - eliminating school failure for working-class youngsters, have a lot to answer for. With content and method , geared, in effect, for a middle-class clientele, working-class children are permanently disadvantaged.  Via the 1980s educational initiatives on race and gender, progress of a sort was made on these issues. As a step too far, social class was again left unaddressed, leading to further decades of school failure for working-class children, male, female, black, white.

Of course, a minority of working-class youngsters do become more than successful decoders of surface text. Some also gain the qualifications, the educational capital, required for a leg up in the employment market. But for the majority of working-class pupils to acquire a literacy promoting critical understanding, cognizance of what it will take to transform society into one that supports the life chances of all children, what is needed is a much more holistic Freireian approach. In language modulated to children’s ages and stages of development, basic to such an approach is the production of an authentic working-class literature rightly portraying working-class youngsters’ experiences, observations, aspirations for themselves and for the world they inhabit. 

We need a literature that portrays the depth and richness of the truly dramatic events and emotions via which we attempt to secure our place in the world, build our relationships, construct our psychology, pursue our desires. For working-class people, indeed for all people,  that such a literature is next to non-existent is nothing less than culturally criminal.

If such a literature did exist, how much credence would then accrue to the closed-off worlds of single-issue fiction, the melodrama of the outlandish adventure, the award-wining flights into magic and magical realism? For those who wish to read such books, there’s plenty to choose from. It’s high time the working-class majority, of whatever gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, had their choice.

An authentic working-class literature would guide our youngsters to the true ‘magic’ of the uniqueness of each being; to cognizance of the roots of both our fears and fascinations with each other; to the ability to detect true human interdependence versus the overt and covert suppressions suffered daily, and not least, to an understanding of our true rights and responsibilities towards one another.

Nowadays three per cent of books provide fifty percent of sales, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that some savvy eye-to-profit maverick publisher could launch worldwide tomorrow an authentic working-class literature, i.e. a literature for the world’s majority.  The use of online publishing  by an up-and-coming generation of working-class writers is now also a possibility.

A few well-written books meeting the criteria above and accorded the level of publicity the socio-culturally emaciated but much hyped titles currently on offer could help turn the tide.  Bring it on.