Whilst watching the latest series of The Choir, something struck me as curious.
Over two one-hour episodes, I observed choirmaster Gareth Malone’s attempts to form a choral group from the louche and largely uninterested population of inmates at a young offenders’ institute. A disproportionate number of these adolescents at Aylsebury Prison were black; almost all, it appeared, came from poor working-class backgrounds. Those convicted of the most serious crimes – such as murder - were locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. With only time to kill, and denied all tech devices, I noticed many of the boys turned to reading books.
And it was this that got me thinking.
How many of these same boys would have picked up a novel to read for pleasure outside in the free world? How many would have lost themselves in the pages of a book to while away an hour or two, for the simple entertainment of it?
The answer, I suspected, was: not many.
Was this, then, I wondered, why working-class writers writing about the “working-class experience” - not to mention other such marginalised groups, BAME or LGBTQ+ writers, for instance, writing about their experiences – was this why they were so grossly under-represented in publishing? Did the lack of interest in one beget the lack of interest in the other, in some seeming infinite regress?
As a working-class writer myself - that is, a writer who identifies as working-class (Mum was a dinner-lady, my Dad a crane-driver) - albeit a writer who now mostly tells stories featuring educated middle-class characters - mostly because he sees how these typically predominate the titles on bookstores’ shelves and hence feels that this is the only way he might get his work noticed by, let’s face it, literary agents and publishers who largely descend from the middle-classes - and not least because of the difficulties he's had in trying to find an agent who would represent a novel which has been recognised as being "very well-written", but otherwise set in a "particular place" and that, therefore, made it "too risky" a bet - it is an issue that has caused me much frustration.
So I decided to investigate.
And what I found was this. Study after study has shown that those from high-income households read more than those from low-income households, that girls read more than boys, that white people read more than Asian people, that Asian people read more than black people. It doesn’t take a genius, then, to quickly deduce that, if you are a well-off middle-class white female, you are about a gazillion times more likely to read a book than a black male from a deprived estate.
So why are the stats still not improving? And who’s to blame? The government? Schools? Teachers? Parents?
My 14-year-old daughter is, she tells me, something of a rarity at her high school: she’s a reader. Likely she has absorbed this good habit from being read to as a child, and from always seeing both her parents with a book in their hands. While I can only speculate that this must be true also in the homes of a number of her peers, I can see it could be as unlikely, too. Either way, it seems almost none of her friends read books.
In part, she tells me, it’s because of the type of books pupils are force-fed by the curriculum. Books which, even if they didn’t find them “boring”, they couldn’t read for the simple enjoyment of it. But rather, that they must pick them apart and identify in the text such themes that most kids are still too young to have experienced, and thus struggle to see, which makes some feel, somewhat unfairly, a bit inadequate. What is more, few fail to understand how reading poems and difficult-to-decipher Shakespearean plays and fictional stories, often based in a long-ago world as alien to them as Planet Zuton, will be of any benefit to their future lives. Together, this had pretty much destroyed any intimate and long-lasting relationship they might have developed with reading stories.
In this method of literary analysis, it's as it has always been, and it would therefore be a little churlish to suggest that schools alone are responsible for this enduring problem. In turn, my daughter and her friendship group are not, of course, representative of all teenagers. And antipathy towards reading amongst the lower classes is nothing new.
So where else might the fault lie? With publishers themselves, then? Well, possibly. Or is it, perhaps, something altogether more insidious?
During the sixteenth century, reading, and by extension, critical thinking, was, for some, as Jonathan Rose pointed out in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, a perilous activity, and therefore best avoided. Thomas Cranmer, leader of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, "proposed to confiscate heretical texts and prosecute bible readers", and in this regard, at least twenty people were burned at the stake for discussing heresy. Illiteracy, then, among the lowborn, could, quite literally, save your life.
Forward a couple of centuries, and the family members of lumpenproletariats feared that one of their kinfolks might "come out" as a thinker, writer, and aesthete (God forbid!). One Irish labourer who tried to write, rather than to simply read literature, was held in scowling disdain by his brother: "If you’d just been a poof the priest could have talked to you or one of us could have battered it out of you. But what the hell can anyone do about a writer?"
We might laugh at this now, in 2020. But the fact remains, in a world more literate than at any other time in history, in which we are reading more than ever – think SMS texts, WhatsApp messages, emails, blogs(such as #TWCBlogger), Instapoetry (hugely popular) - attitudes towards reading "books" are, in some quarters, still not getting any better.
"It’s 2013, not 1813. We have electricity now. We can buy DVDs and watch television rather than read books,” so said one young respondent answering a survey just 7 years ago.
Researching a piece for The New Yorker, which he would title Why We Don’t Read, Revisited, journalist Caleb Crain unearthed a Dutch "time-use" study that showed how, between 1955 and 1995, television had slowly eroded the reading habits of its people. If back then, then, this increasingly dominant medium had presented, as it must have, something of a challenge for publishers in enticing back their dwindling audience, worse, much worse, was to come.
On August 6th, 1991, with barely anyone noticing, a media force more powerful and more influential than anything seen before was quietly released into the bloodstream of global culture. Though few of us could have known it then, this slow-working (at least at first), furtively exploitative (and sometimes overtly, too), and highly manipulative (as it can be and is still), intoxicant that was notionally trialled out as, amongst other names, the “Information Superhighway” - would soon hook almost every single person on Earth. And the way humanity received its entertainment was changed forever.
In 2018, Smartphone sales worldwide reached 1.56 billion. Add to that the number of devices already in existence by which the Internet could be accessed anywhere anytime without a physical connection, and it’s easy to imagine how many people were then, and are now, hopelessly addicted . . .
Though actually, you don’t need to imagine. You just need to step into your living room, or walk outside, stand at the bus stop, go into a pub.
Everybody everywhere day and night is plugged-in, ensuring their fix is always topped-up to the max.
We are constantly “using”, constantly scrolling, with barely a pause to look away, through content, ingesting image after image, a morsel of text here, a bite of text there, before quickly moving on to the next infographic or social media newsfeed post, wanting, needing, hungering for more more more. (And let's not even go there with the online video gaming industry, with its big-bucks allure to teenagers, in which players of, for example, Fortnight, can win millions.) It's no wonder our attention span has, in just three years, lowered by 4 seconds, from 12 seconds to 8 – that’s one second below a goldfish's!
One Oxford professor, a synaptic pharmacologist, has suggested over-usage of social media risks “infantilising” the human mind, and that performing tasks requiring greater longevity in concentration – for example, book reading – is in danger of serious decline.
Yes, book reading necessitates a long-concentration span and an investment of time. But if the majority of us are too distracted, or too zombified, by the blue-light of our screens; or else are unprepared, or again, are somehow unable, to commit and put in the requisite hours for the weak (comparatively), delayed-gratification-dopamine-payoff that social media platforms deliver in neat little instant shots every few seconds or so - what chance do working-class writers have in tempting away from their devices and back to reading books – as many must have done so as children - not just their own kind (the working-class account for a third of the population), but other lost readers, besides?
But there are those, on the writers' side of things, at least, who, in the face of a Sisyphean struggle, have recently secured a foothold on publishing’s Mount Elite. And who, indeed, are throwing down ropes to help others up to make a stand alongside them.
When I typed into my laptop’s Google’s search-bar "famous novels by working-class writers", a knowledge graph containing thumbnail images for 51 associated titles popped up. Of these, I recognised less than a dozen. Stand this number up against all the well-known bestsellers published in, say, the last fifty years alone, it is a paltry, pitiful, shameful figure to behold. And the first title listed wasn’t even a novel. And neither was it published by one of the Big Five publishing houses. Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers is a collection of essays, poems, and memoirs published by the independent, crowdfunding platform, Unbound, and is edited by Kit de Waal (listen to her talking on radio 4: Where Are All the Working-Class Writers?), who helped launch this book on the back of her own against-the-odds success, with My Name is Leon. The former magistrate from Birmingham has since also set up and funded a scholarship at Birkbeck ,University London, to support one talented creative writing student from a disadvantaged background.
Which is to be applauded, of course. But putting one bright star through university, as Kit herself has recognised, will do little to level the playing field for social-mobility in mainstream publishing, arguably one of the most nepotistic middle-class institutions in this country. Even with laudable initiatives by such behemoths as Penguin Random House to hire interns - and to buy books - that reflect society’s diversity, the balance is still woefully tilted towards favouring employing graduates from the most select universities, whose parents are prosperous professionals – in other words, people like themselves.
No wonder, then, there is an (unconscious?) bias in the industry towards accepting manuscripts whose stories mostly look like their own, featuring protagonists with whom they can more closely identify, with a sort of self-reflective narcissism. And no wonder the perception is that nobody wants to read about the impoverished and violent lives of the "criminal" underclass because those working in the industry itself show scarce interest (which, incidently, makes me think of the way travellers abroad always gravitate towards their own nationalities, towards who and what they know. Therein likeness connotes safety and comfort).
Except publishers are notorious for getting it wrong. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected 14 times before Bloomsbury took the risk and published. And even then, as the initial print of a thousand copies was run out, JK Rowling was told that she was unlikely to sell more than a few hundred at most. (Those original first editions first issues are now each worth considerably more than the average debut author receives as an advance.)
Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing took ten years to find a publisher - that is, the small indie set up, Galley Beggar Press, before going on to win two literary prizes.
Stephen King’s Carrie (which needs no introduction) received 30 rejection slips.
Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance heard "No, thank you" 121 times, then eventually sold 50,000 copies in the first 3 months, 5 million more thereafter, and was translated into 27 languages.
And a novel due for release by Picador on 5th March 2020, The Young Team, by Graeme Armstrong, based on the author’s experiences of growing up a teenage gang member in Strathclyde, was, he told his agent, Jonathan Ruppin, at the Ruppin Agency (one of a very few agents who, I should add, actively scout for and champion writers from under-represented groups) - was rejected a staggering 300 times.
The list goes on.
Now I don’t know what the solution is for encouraging more people from more diverse backgrounds to put down their games consoles and Smartphones and once in a while pick up a book, especially books about them.
Neither do I know the answer for encouraging a more proportionate class intake of employees in mainstream publishing houses and then consistently maintaining the balance.
But I do understand that without demand, supply is a futile exercise; while similarly recognising that market-demand can always be created to justify the supply (who knew we wanted to drink so much coffee in multiple different ways until Starbuck’s ad-targeting men told us we did?)
Therefore, I'm going to shuffle out onto a limb and suggest that unless the big-moneyed publishers focus a little less on maintaining huge profits, and now and then, with certain titles, allow themselves to "just break even" (yes, I said it), and in this way support ALL writers by simply taking a few more risks and letting in those who might, just might, begin to draw in and/or re-engage with those who have forgotten the enjoyment they had reading books, or being read to, as a child, and passing that back down to their own children - in the end, we’ll all be much poorer.
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My latest novel, The Yewtree Effect (not a book about the working-class experience), is currently seeking representation.