OPINION Hannah Austin

NWR Issue r31

Exquisitely Rough: Outsiders, Social Class, and the Iceberg of London Publishing

Earlier this year, the Arts Council England awarded me a £10,000 grant to start writing my first book. I celebrated by spending the day crying, cwtched up with my dogs, deep in a corner of the sofa. I’d never applied for anything like that before, and I’d gouge out my eyes before having the audacity to call myself an artist. I was overwhelmed. I am still overwhelmed. I keep expecting a phone call saying they’ve made a mistake; that this sort of thing isn’t for the likes of me.

Most of the funding was for wages replacement for me to take four months off work. The remainder was for ‘development activities’, the most expensive of which, at £750, was a five-day writing course at one of London’s most prestigious publishing houses. Including return train travel, an Airbnb in the publisher’s plush neighbourhood, and basic subsistence (I cooked pasta- or bean-based meals every night, took a sandwich to class every day), the five days ended up costing more than my usual monthly income. Still, I reasoned, it would be worth it; when else would I be able to afford such a thing?

I was born in Pontypridd, raised near Bridgend, and now live in Weston-super-Mare; I’m accustomed to feeling out of place in uber-posh neighbourhoods (just ask the panel at my catastrophic Cambridge interview). So my unease, when I emerged from the tube station into a neighbourhood of leafy squares, blue English Heritage plaques and imposing old buildings, wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Get your shit together, I told myself, shakily lighting a roll-up and steeling my butterflying stomach. You’re here to learn.

And learn I did – albeit not what I’d expected.

* * *

Our Esteemed Teacher is a well-to-do bohemian woman with glittering eyes and a stack of published books under her belt. She gives us writing exercises and homework, which we spend much of the class time reading aloud. Most of my contributions are from my memoir-in-progress, particularly my teenage years, when I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality and mental ill-health while being bullied for both.

‘I just love how exquisitely rough the world you’re describing is,’ Our Esteemed Teacher says, beaming, after I read a vignette about my friends and I getting queer-bashed in Bridgend. My straight, wealthy classmates nod their agreement, smiling.

The most eccentric of these classmates is Mr Millionaire, a septuagenarian with crumpled clothes, who nonetheless exudes the kind of unchecked confidence only old money can buy. Unlike the women on the course, who apologise profusely and espouse multiple disclaimers before reading their work, Mr Millionaire reads out 1,000-word pieces when we’ve been instructed to write one hundred – and Our Esteemed Teacher doesn’t interrupt him. With a punnet of plums in his mouth, he relentlessly namedrops famous people, tells anecdotes about his multiple trips around the world, and muses over his latest plan: to fly a light aircraft around the Statue of Liberty.

On the other side of Our Esteemed Teacher is a tall, slim, deeply English academic who reminds me of Hugh Grant. He has floppy brown hair, matches his socks to his shirt, and uses his black-framed glasses to punctuate the air when making a point.

One afternoon, our teacher is discussing a book called The Examined Life.

‘Ah, “the unexamined life is not worth living,”’ says my next-door neighbour, a holistic health practitioner.
‘Aristotle!’ Hugh Grant says triumphantly, as if this were a bougie pub quiz.
Pretty sure it was Socrates, I think but don’t say; I’m not 100% sure, and honestly, who cares?

When I look up after reading my work, he often catches my eye. His forehead is deeply furrowed, and he’s chewing on an arm of his glasses; the overall effect is that of Hugh Grant playing a concerned therapist.

I know that look. Pity. He pities me.

* * *

The irony is that, growing up, I was more advantaged than many kids at my school. Dad had a good job for most of my childhood and has done exceptionally well for himself. His father was a lorry driver, his mother a maid, and he left school at fourteen; Dad’s a classic example of working-class boy done good, working his way up, back when that was a possibility. Mum taught music at a comprehensive school in the Valleys by day and piano to snotty kids at home by night. I always had dinner money in my pocket and clothes on my back. More than that: I learned to swim; to play the piano; even to ride horses, for fuck’s sakes.

I now have a Master’s degree and a decidedly middle-class job. I’m self-employed and childfree, so I often work until I have enough money for the essentials, then take the rest of the month off to write. I recently bought a house with my girlfriend. I’m white. I’m able-bodied. Sure, I’m a bit mental, but who isn’t? And, unlike many, I can afford therapy.

But apparently, the basics of my personal history – being born in the Valleys; going to a comprehensive school in Bridgend; being queer; experiencing mental ill-health – just these facts, which seem pretty standard to me (if this were a game of bingo, all my friends would be shouting ‘house’), are enough to mark me an outsider in the heady world of London publishing. I dread to think how anyone who grew up on a council estate, or in care, or on the breadline, would’ve experienced that classroom.

Not that they ever would have, of course, because who can afford to take a week off work and spend £750 on a writing course? And, given the cost, what did I expect?

I’ll tell you what I didn’t expect. Our Esteemed Teacher to call the world I depicted ‘exquisitely rough’. My classmates to look worried or shocked or like I was speaking a different language whenever I piped up. The gnawing suspicion that I was the token, and that I was offering up my life for the entertainment – or worse, pity – of the more privileged.

* * *

Writing classes are just the tiniest tip of the looming, centuries-old iceberg of privilege in publishing – an iceberg that’s proving glacial-slow to melt. In February, The Bookseller published the results of a survey of 1,167 people working in publishing. Nearly 80% of working-class respondents felt their background had adversely affected their career, and nearly half had experienced class-based prejudice or discrimination. Over 90% of all respondents thought the industry’s London-centrism made it hard for working-class people to break into it. Almost all publishing internships – usually unpaid but nigh-on essential to get into the industry – are based in London, and therefore are only suitable for those who can afford to work for free in the notoriously expensive capital. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, in January, another major survey reported that 35% of publishing professionals grew up in south-east England. Just 1.4% were Welsh.

All of this is important, because these are the people commissioning and publishing books (and designing and teaching on writing courses). The further an editor is from the author’s world, the less likely they are to relate to it. Is this one of the reasons why working-class authors are underrepresented in publishing? Is it why, conversely, some editors’ hunger for books that portray ‘gritty’ lives – in all their exquisite roughness – comes across as fetishising, patronising, tokenising?

Either way, the lack of books portraying underrepresented lives is bad news for both writers and readers. As CS Lewis said: ‘We read to know we are not alone.’ We also read to see our own problems reflected – and, hopefully, resolved – on the page. This can only happen when literature (and therefore publishing) reflects the diversity of human experience.

Some working-class respondents to The Bookseller survey reported being singled out because of their accents. Such incidents, along with a lack of confidence to ‘network’ (shudder) and the industry’s nepotism, made them feel out of place in London publishing. This leads us to an important point: class might be primarily about money, but that’s not where it ends. It’s also about confidence. It’s about contacts. It’s about whether your family is into the arts. Whether your town has any cultural offerings. It’s about access: having books in your house, or being able to borrow them from a library (remember those?). It’s about whether you feel entitled – whether you’ve been made to feel entitled – to a ‘creative life’. Whether you know what that means.

These factors congeal to inform whether pursuing writing, or any other artform, is even on your menu of things you could possibly do. And even if you manage to jump all those barriers, you then need to make your own way in a world that neither understands nor welcomes the likes of you.

The odds are stacked.

The iceberg is titanic.

The struggle is real.

* * *

On the last day of the course we discuss the Booker Prize-winning novel, Milkman, which is narrated by a teenage girl and set in Belfast during the Troubles. In the book’s acknowledgements section, author Anna Burns thanks the Department of Work and Pensions, her local food bank, and a housing charity for enabling her to write the book.

A blonde GP, who has a Master’s in Creative Writing, says she found the voice of Milkman’s narrator too sardonic for the darkness of the material. Personally, I found the book’s humour hilarious; my copy is tan and crispy-edged from a couple of tea-snorting incidents.

‘But she’s describing some serious mental health problems,’ the Doctor says, ‘yet she’s so sarcastic; it was such a difficult tone; I found it really upsetting.’

Flashback to being eleven years old, hanging out at the beach with my best friend Emily. We are taking the piss out of each other relentlessly, the way everyone around us did. We think we are hilarious. We’re also showing off a bit in front of a tourist girl we’ve met, who seems deeply confused by our interactions.

‘You’re horrid to her,’ Tourist Girl says in a plummy Home Counties accent. Emily and I explode into giggles. It becomes an in-joke for months after. We repeat it constantly – ‘You’re horrid to harrr’ – imitating her accent, her naïve earnestness.
‘I think it’s probably a class thing,’ I say to the Doctor now, ‘that sort of humour.’ She blinks slowly. In her face I see a fleeting impression of Tourist Girl, confused at how darkness could be acceptable, let alone funny, let alone a sign of affection.

Señora Basque, a Londoner who lived in the Basque Country for years, steps in to say she found the community there very similar to that depicted in Milkman. She is writing a book about her disgruntlement with the Basque people, their alleged distrust of ‘outsiders’, their dogged insistence on using their own language.

‘Yes, it’s a weird language, isn’t it, all those zeds and exes,’ says Our Esteemed Teacher. She suggests Señora Basque ‘draw a parallel’ between the attitudes of the Basque people and their landscape; locked into tightknit valleys between all those mountains, how could they not become a bit insular?

The class knows I was born in the south Wales Valleys, but Our Esteemed Teacher does not ‘draw a parallel’ between the landscape – geographical, political, emotional – of my birthplace and that of the Basque Country. Nothing is mentioned about either region’s oppression at the hands of their colonial neighbour; the reasons they’ve had to fight to preserve their native cultures and ‘weird’ languages; the historical evidence base informing any lingering distrust of outsiders.

I wonder aloud (it’s the last day of the course, so frankly, fuck it) whether it’s a bit politically questionable for a middle-class Englishwoman to criticise the Basque people without a full consideration of their history. Our Esteemed Teacher carefully steers the conversation back to Milkman. Anna Burns is critical of her insular Belfast community, she says; Señora Basque is merely doing the same sort of thing.

‘But Anna Burns is from Belfast,’ I say. ‘It’s different. It’s like how you can criticise your own family but nobody else can.’
‘I disagree,’ says Our Esteemed Teacher. ‘Only outsiders can see a place clearly.’

***

I was in two minds about writing this essay, and was in two minds about sending it out. I could do without being blackballed by the publishing world, and I was raised to be grateful and polite – you don’t bite the hand that feeds. I know I’ve been outrageously lucky to get this funding. It’s not just luck, though; it’s regional privilege. Weston-super-Mare is hardly a hotbed of that, but it is in England; Arts Council Wales’ equivalent fund grants individuals a maximum of £5,000 – half of what I’ve been handed just over the bridge.

But I’m sick of being silent. If writers from outside publishing’s privileged London bubble are ever going to get our voices heard, we need to be our own microphones – and to amplify the voices of others like us.

And working-class writers with a platform are doing just that. Kit de Waal used part of her advance from her first novel to set up a scholarship for working-class writers on Birkbeck’s creative writing MA; her edited anthology, Common People, is due out in May. Kerry Hudson, Scottish author of Lowborn, an acclaimed memoir about growing up in Britain’s poorest towns, is organising Breakthrough Festival this year for working-class writers. Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant anthology, recently launched the Good Literary Agency in Bristol to represent underrepresented writers. Publishers and writing centres are offering scholarships for writing courses, and literary prizes are popping up for working-class writers only. Wales, of course – like Scotland and Ireland – has its own publishing ecosystem; one that, perhaps inevitably, seems to welcome working-class writers more warmly than London’s publishing iceberg.

In the rarefied world of the arts, purists sometimes argue that politics shouldn’t come into Literature. But who can afford to make that distinction? Not the outsiders. We can see the iceberg too clearly. And we know the only way to melt it is by lighting – in Celeste Ng’s words – little fires everywhere.

Hannah Austin was born and raised in south Wales. For her sins, she has eloped to England, and now lives in Weston-super-Mare with her girlfriend and two gorgeous dogs. She works as a freelance editor, specialising in social justice, social policy and the social sciences. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in publications including the Guardian, Mslexia, The Moth, Aesthetica and Planet: The Welsh Internationalist. She is using her Arts Council England grant to write her first book: a mental health memoir largely set in south Wales. Find her online at @HAustinEditor, HannahAustinWriter.

Image: Catwalk Photos/Shutterstock.

       


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