In this guest article, Natasha Carthew, Founder and Artistic Director of the Working Class Writers Festival, argues that it is essential that more authentic working-class stories are told and heard, such as those of Booker winner Douglas Stuart
The tradition of working-class authors writing quality fiction is not new, but even today those authors are too often overlooked and under-represented.
There are exceptions, such as Douglas Stuart, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize with his debut novel Shuggie Bain, and only the second Scottish author to win the prize in its 53-year history.
Like his eponymous central character, Stuart grew up in a poor home on a Glasgow housing project with a mother who struggled with addiction. In a new BBC Imagine programme, he revisits Glasgow to discuss the childhood experiences that have inspired his fiction.
Both Shuggie Bain and Stuart’s second novel Young Mungo deal with the shame of living with economic depression and addiction. Yet his narratives are painted with a fine brush, creating a world of brittle beauty. This fine dividing line between beauty and brutality is where most of us published working-class writers find ourselves; it is a place where we are all too aware of the gravitas of the position we are in, and the responsibility of being a voice for so many.
I was struck by a quote from an interview Stuart gave after his Booker win, in which he recalled that ‘books were never seen as for people like us because they never contained people like us’. As a writer he had found himself doubting the value of the stories he wanted to tell, and this is something that all working-class writers experience. We feel that we are being told that voices from the margins are uninteresting, that our experiences don’t matter.
The thing that defines Shuggie Bain is that it is about a working-class family who are slipping through the fabric of society. Readers that are not familiar with working-class fiction don’t often get to hear those authentic voices that highlight the struggles associated with economic hardship, family dysfunction and limited options.
The notion of the authentic voice has become increasingly important across culture; the idea that stories should be told by people with lived experience has gained traction. Yet at the same time, working-class voices in fiction are still on the margins and largely unheard.
This is the overriding reason why, as a working-class author, I set up the Working Class Writers Festival in 2021. ClassFest, as it is known, has its roots planted firmly in fairness for all, and has single-handedly reinvented what literary events can look like by giving working-class writers across the country (and indeed the world) a platform where their voices can be heard and their lives and books celebrated.
Douglas Stuart took part in 2021, live from New York, where he now lives. He said, ‘The joy of writing a working-class novel is really having a robust cohort, having a lot of voices that are going through the same thing’.
As well as Classfest, there are now several opportunities that exist for writers from low socioeconomic backgrounds, such as the Write Now programme from Penguin Random House and Hachette’s Changing The Story initiative, as well as A Writing Chance from the brilliant New Writing North. But initiatives like these depend on funding, or that vital person who works in the trade who has some clout when it comes to making decisions around diversity and sponsorship.
These initiatives are up against a culture of elitism that continues to exist in publishing, and I have been working with some of the biggest publishers to try to ensure that more books by working-class writers are signed up. But it’s important that these books aren’t just a poverty safari for a middle-class readership. Douglas Stuart didn’t want readers to pass through his pages as though on a poverty-porn tour bus before returning to their safe and financially secure lives. He wanted to ensure that readers took something significant away with them. He wanted to leave them with a deeper understanding of the environment and its authentic experiences.
It is also important that working-class fiction shows the positives and strengths of working-class culture; it’s important that its humour, integrity, hard work and resilience, are not being overlooked.
This is why working-class writers need to be a part of the conversation when it comes to those important decisions; about who gets to be published, who gets to be reviewed in magazines and newspapers, and who gets to be longlisted and shortlisted for literary awards. The conversation about access needs to be embedded in every policy of every literary charity and organisation, ensuring that working-class writers, both published and unpublished, are not held back by gatekeepers, but that we are able to become the gatekeepers, guaranteeing that the voices that need to be heard find their way to the top, not by luck but because there is a clear route to success.
Of course, besides Douglas Stuart, other working-class writers of quality fiction have been recognised by the Booker Prize, including Anna Burns, Sunjeev Sahota, Ali Smith, Bernardine Evaristo, James Kelman, David Storey and Andrew O’Hagan, amongst others. I hope this trend continues, because ultimately those authentic voices, and the rich tapestry of that robust cohort of writers that stitch together to make up working-class literary fiction, is incredibly important. Without those voices, real experiences - and even dialects - will start to be lost. And if we as writers start to sand down the rough edges, we are in danger of writing (and reading) the same thing.
It comes down to fairness, because, ultimately, class matters, and our stories matter.
Natasha Carthew is a working-class writer from Cornwall and the author of eight books. Her next book, Undercurrent: A Cornish Memoir of Poverty, Nature and Resilience, will be published by Coronet/Hodder & Stoughton in April 2023. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Working Class Writers Festival and The Nature Writing Prize for Working Class Writers, in association with Octopus/Hachette.
Douglas Stuart: Love, Hope and Grit is on BBC1 at 10.40pm on Monday 14 November and then on BBC iPlayer