When I was 16, in the summer of 1984, I made a vow that I would never read another novel as long as I lived. I was completely convinced that I hated books and the night of my final English “O” level exam my friends and I met up on a piece of waste ground and made a bonfire of all our hated examination texts.
My Irish school was very old fashioned and the novels we read were mostly 19th-century three-volume works by Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope. These thick books incinerated very well. As we passed around cans of Special Brew and watched the sparks fly upward we were completely unaware of the multiple ironies of burning books in what was not only Winston Smith’s summer of love in the novel 1984, but what was also the 30th anniversary of the publication of the British edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
As a working-class kid growing up in public housing in the north Belfast suburbs there was nothing in the English curriculum that appealed to me. My father had worked in Harland and Wolff shipyard (the yard that built the Titanic) and as a self- improving welder and boilermaker he had bought a set of encyclopedias and those I occasionally read, but the Victorian fictions we were tackling in school seemed utterly preposterous. Characters from the lower orders were either comic foils or simpletons or villains with no motivation for their villainy. Even in a work of genius like Pride and Prejudice I remember wondering who the servants were and what their story was and I was bothered by the fact that Lizzie, so empathetic, perceptive and kind could not even seen the girl who was cleaning out the ashes from the grate in her room. (Jo Baker’s brilliant novel Longbourne explores this idea much further.)
Belfast is in Northern Ireland, and back then almost all of our cultural products came from London. At that time the novelists we saw on TV and heard talking on BBC radio seemed to originate from an entirely different species. English fiction in the 1980s was dominated by a small cadre of mostly male authors who apparently had all gone to the same boarding school together. The Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award, appeared to be given out to members of that clique on a rotational basis. So deep was the fix, double winner Julian Barnes, called the Booker “posh bingo.”
But the Booker Prize-winning novel was continually pointed to as the novel that you were supposed to read if you wanted to be an engaged member of the culture. When one of these books made its way into our house I invariably discovered that it was about rich people living in North London who were having affairs with one another. These novels, to paraphrase Morrissey, said nothing to me about my life.
The Booker’s problem was (and still is a little bit) in the judging. The Booker judges, especially the chairperson of the jury panel, are always Baroness This or Lord That and they almost always come from a wealthy boarding school background. Despite the Harry Potter stereotype, only six percent of the British population actually goes to private school and only one percent to boarding school. And yet this tiny minority still dominates almost every aspect of British cultural life. Britain’s rigid class system, policed by social cues and accents and an old boy network, largely excludes working class talent and many of the British authors, film directors, actors and journalists you can think of all hail from this tiny elite.
“Working class people were on TV as performers and footballers but I don’t ever remember a program about a working class author.”
When I was a kid if you wanted a working-class role model you had to look to football players and pop stars. Television was a despised medium among the intellectual classes until Clive James began to treat it with the seriousness it deserved in the Observer. But TV was where you saw working-class people. I loved watching articulate football managers like Brian Clough holding their own with the posh presenters from the BBC. And then there were the former Beatles, John Lydon, Morrissey and a few other mouthy singers who ran rings around presenters with the effrontery to attempt to tell him that what they were doing was not art.
Working class people were on TV as performers and footballers but I don’t ever remember a program about a working class author. I’m sure such shows did exist but they were few and far between and made no impression on me whatsoever.
I wasn’t aware that in 1970s Belfast, right under my nose, the Queens University poetry circle had brought together the greatest assemblage of English poetic genius since the circle around Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in World War I. Just a couple of miles from my house Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Edna Longley, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and Tom Paulin were meeting in pubs and little book shops near the university to read their work in progress. The piddling upper middle class fictions being sold to us as great works of artistic brilliance would quickly vanish into oblivion while just down the roard from me future Nobel, Pulitzer and T.S. Eliot prize winners were reading poems that would become classics.
But that was typical of the era. In interviews now people sometimes ask me if I always wanted to be a writer. The idea would have seemed nonsensical to me back then. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Iris Murdoch were authors, not people like me. You had to be born into money, you had to go to the right schools, you had to talk in a certain way and then, of course, you had to write about the right sort of people.
I had no idea then that English literature in the British Isles had just had its period when it looked like working class novelists were going to smash the system and throw out the posh boys and girls. The books of John Braine, Barry Hines, Margaret Forster, Alan Sillitoe and David Storey were all about the lives of people like me. But that moment (circa 1955 to 1969) flared and faded and by the late 1970s and 1980s it was almost all posh all the time.
The chilly, preening, mannered dullness of British fiction in this period can beggar belief. If one was conspiratorial in nature one could almost suspect that these novels were made deliberately obscurantist and hermetic to keep the general public from developing an interest in literature and getting ideas above their station.
Back in 1984 I dropped English from my “A” level studies and picked sciences and history instead. No one in my family had ever gone to a university before my older sister Diane, but my mother was determined that each one of her five children was going to get the chance if they wanted to. I planned to study law and could envisage a happy future whereby I would never have to read one of those ghastly, boring novels ever again. Hence the bonfire.
Luckily for me, though, shortly after that I discovered the secret cult, or rather cults, of genre fiction.
I’d occasionally catch my mum, auntie or older sisters reading a book with the word “sex” or “wives” or “bitch” on the cover. “What’s that?” I’d ask naively. “Oh just some trashy thing,” they’d say. The word “trashy” was revealing. They enjoyed what they were reading but they were ashamed of it. It wasn’t written by those people with the upper class accents who popped up on BBC 2 or Radio 4. These books were written by earthy northern lasses like Barbara Taylor Bradford (who went to the same school as Alan Bennett) or tough, whip-smart sheilas from Oz like Colleen McCullough or failed Broadway actresses writing biting roman-à-clefs like Jacqueline Susann.
“Highbrow writers mocked not just the clumsiness of genre writing but the poor plebs who thought they were reading real novels.”
There were other book cults too. My dad, who had left the shipyard and gone to sea for 20 years was often to be found out in his shed reading Douglas Reeman or Alexander Kent. My little brother loved Stephen King and Clive Barker and through some of my less cool friends at school I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and shortly thereafter epic fantasy and science fiction.
Science fiction introduced me to probably Britain’s best writer since World War II, J. G. Ballard, whom I had never previously encountered. From the science fiction of Ballard and Philip K. Dick it was only a sidestep to crime fiction and this is where I really fell in love with reading. Here I found writers who were writing about my life and the people I grew up with. I particularly admired William McIlvanney who wrote about the working class slums of Glasgow and Jim Thompson’s small-time hoods in Texas and Oklahoma. It was such a thrill to recognize the archetypes and characters from Thompson’s books in my own street. After Thompson a sympathetic librarian suggested I try Chandler and then Hammett and then Patricia Highsmith.
I noticed that reading was surreptitiously going on all around me, but what the people were reading weren’t “proper” books as sanctified by the BBC and the TLS, they were reading romances, thrillers, sea stories, science fiction and horror.
All these cults were somehow disreputable. Highbrow writers mocked not just the clumsiness of genre writing but the poor plebs who thought they were reading real novels. The class dimension was rarely mentioned then, but was always bubbling beneath the surface. Proper books won prizes and got talked about on the telly. Proper books could fit easily into FR Leavis’s The Great Tradition or Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. J.G. Ballard, for example, could never be part of the club because he wrote science fiction and that was a genre read by chubby men with thick glasses and Iron Maiden t-shirts.
It wasn’t until I went up to Oxford in 1991 that I saw fully the fraudulent nature of the entire British class system. The suspicion that they really were smarter than us was completely smashed by the end of my first week. The posh kids I met were mostly idiots who had gotten into Oxford because their private schools knew how to game the admission system. The working class kids and foreigners had gotten in because they worked hard and were clever.
After Oxford I moved to America and by this time I was a literary junkie, keeping a reading journal and devouring two, sometimes three books a week. I photocopied and worked my way through the list at the end of Western Canon. I read all the Booker, Pulitzer, National Book Award and Nobel Prize winners. I became a Steinbeck completest, then a Faulkner completest, then Hemingway, then Baldwin, then DeLillo, then Pynchon, then Atwood, then Zora Neale Hurston. I worked places where I could feed my addiction: nights in Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side and days in the stacks at the Columbia University Library. According to my reading journal from 1994 to 2004 I read just over 1,200 books and I was still an addict. I devoured Dostoyevsky and went to St. Petersburg to follow Raskolnikov’s route through the city. I read The Aleph in Buenos Aires in the library that Borges used to run. I visited Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi and Hemingway’s villa in Havana. I read La Nausée and L’Étranger at the Deux Magots, in Paris, in French.
But here’s the thing I discovered from all this eye-watering page turning: Harold Bloom and F.R. Leavis were wrong. There is no Great Tradition, there is no Western Canon. There are great traditions, there are western canons. And eastern and southern and northern canons come to that. There are good science fiction novels and bad science fiction novels. There are good sea stories and bad sea stories. Same with mysteries and romances and historical novels and thrillers. Read the best of Ursula Le Guin, China Mieville, Patrick O’Brian, J.G. Ballard, Hilary Mantel, James Ellroy, Donna Tartt, Angela Carter, Harvey Pekar, Philip K Dick, Alice Walker, David Peace, Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Diana Gabaldon, Daniel Woodrell, and Don Winslow and explain to me why they don’t deserve to be in the canon.
Genre authors write books that people actually want to read. When a literary snob says, “Oh, I don’t read that garbage,” they’re trying to elevate themselves over those deluded chumps who do. In America this kind of talk is just as much about class as it is in England or Ireland: if someone is reading Stephen King or John Green in a trailer park in Arkansas, well, it stands to reason that King or Green can’t be any good, doesn’t it? And then, of course in America particularly, there is the whole racial dimension. America’s original sin and perpetual third rail complicates the genre story. One of my favorites, Chester Himes, had three strikes against him: he was black, he wrote crime fiction and his protagonists were mostly black too. This kind of stuff still happens. Even the magnificent Walter Mosley sometimes gets urged to make his books “more accessible.”
America’s greatest post-war novelist, Saul Bellow, had a different view about all of this. He read everything. His favorites were the usual suspects: Proust, Kafka, Montaigne, Dostoyevsky but he read deep and wide, old and new. As he says in his introduction to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind:
European observers sometimes classify me as a hybrid curiosity, neither fully American nor satisfactorily European, stuffed with references to the philosophers, the historians and poets I had consumed, higgledy-piggledy, in my Middle Western lair. I am, of course, an autodidact, as modern writers always are. ‘’The world belongs to me because I understand it,’’ Balzac declared.
To understand the world you have to be a magpie. You have to read everything you can get your hands on. You can’t allow snobbery and insecurity to trap you in biblio prisons. Yes, race, gender and geography complicates the whole class equation but complicates it in rich and rewarding ways. You’ll only get rewarded by reading books outside your race, ethnic, gender, sexuality and class comfort zones. On my bookshelf Louise Bagshawe nestles next to James Baldwin, J.G. Ballard, Iain Banks, Elizabeth Bishop, Tony Birch and Isaac Babel. That, I think, is the way it should be.
On Twitter I often get into dialogues with people who lament the fact that so few novels are written by working-class people. Haven’t you read any crime fiction? I’ll say, but I take their point. This is still largely true of literary fiction in America where the circles of influence are virtually a closed shop. Poor people simply cannot afford to do an MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop or intern for free (or minimum wage) at one of the big New York literary magazines.
And this, I’m afraid, is why high falutin’ American literary fiction is often so very dull. Rich people tend to be pretty tedious. Life has been too easy for them and has taught them nothing. Can you imagine having dinner with Eric Trump? One shudders at the very idea. Two of my favorite autobiographies of the last few years are Rabbit by the comedian Patricia Williams (who is known as Ms. Pat) and Too Fat To Fish by the comedian Artie Lange. Both Lange and Williams came from straightened blue- collar backgrounds and with the help of co-writers were able to turn the circumstances of their life into funny, moving and brilliant books. I’d kill to have dinner with Ms. Pat or Artie Lange although I’d probably be too busy laughing to get much eating done.
In the UK the situation for working class writers has improved considerably from the dreary early 1980s. Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith, David Peace, Courttia Newland, Andrea Levy and Hanif Kureishi are amongst the many new voices of working class Britain. For these writers though, writing about class itself seems to be an outmoded and rather staid thing to do. Class is only one arrow in a sophisticated quiver filled with more exciting weaponry such as gender politics, ethnicity, sexuality etc.
If you want to read about British working class people actually at work I suggest you check out Magnus Mills, Monica Ali and James Kelman. Or you could read crime fiction. The best British crime writers are all from the working class—their complicated heroes are working class, their complicated villains are working class, their books navigate the landscapes of Britain’s blue collar towns and estates. These novelists, one senses, know what it feels like to be evicted from one’s house, to be terrified about how one is going to pay the bills, to know what it’s like to sit shivering in a bedsit that has a 50 pence piece meter on the heating unit.
One doesn’t necessarily have to suffer to become an artist but the more well off you are the harder it is. Orwell understood this, which is why he lived the life of a tramp for a year in Paris and London. Henry Miller understood it. Bukowski too. Kerouac got worse as a writer the more successful he became. (With exceptions like Bellow this is the curse of all writers.)
Authors should write about whatever they damn well please but they would do well to remember there is a huge class of people who don’t ever read a novel because none of the books they hear about in the media are about people like them. The outsiders who don’t think they could ever be a writer are exactly the kind of people who should write.
This essay is not meant to be a “J’accuse!” but I do think changes could be made to encourage more working class participation in the literary arts. Maybe Iowa could have a few more scholarships for underprivileged people. Maybe the BBC could put the kybosh on Agatha Christie adaptations for a while and commission a few dramas with working-class protagonists. (Oh and while they’re at it, maybe give a job to some of the fine British actors who didn’t all go to the same bloody boarding school.) Maybe influential institutions like the New Yorker, the TLS and the NYRB could make an effort to hire or give paid internships to people from less fortunate backgrounds. Perhaps there could be an award for the best blue collar novel of the year. And maybe the next time someone mocks the literary tastes and mores of the poor we’ll react the same way we do when someone is racist or sectarian or homophobic.
But even if none of these things are done I want to address people out there who—like me at 15—think that reading novels is not for them. You’re wrong. My world has been enriched by books and yours will be too. There is something out there for everyone and whatever you find to read you should feel absolutely no shame in reading it. If I could go back to 1984 I’d stop myself from throwing all those Thomas Hardy volumes into the bonfire. “You won’t believe it, kid, but some day you’re really going to dig Hardy’s 20-page description of a heath. You’re going to wonder how he sustained it and you’re going to ask yourself if you could get away with doing it too. But for now, go try some Le Guin or Frank Herbert or Philip K. Dick—trust me, its going to blow your mind.”
I feel sorry for my interlocutor on Twitter who told me he doesn’t touch crime writing or YA or romance. He’s never read Winter’s Bone, The Cartel, The Secret History, Outlander, The Girl With All The Gifts, Let The Right One In or The Cold Six Thousand and that’s his loss. We should all be careful about reading only from the approved list. History can play funny tricks on writers and their reputations. Conan Doyle was infuriated that he was going to be remembered for his Sherlock Holmes stories rather than his “superior” historical novels. Herman Melville died in obscurity and they got his name wrong in the obit. Today’s literary colossus is tomorrow’s hack and vice versa.
To illustrate let me end with one my favorite bits of dialogue from one of my favorite even-numbered Star Trek films.
In Star Trek IV, for reasons too complicated to go into here, the crew are forced to travel through time from 2286 to 1980s San Francisco. Spock is somewhat taken aback by the way Kirk speaks to everyone he meets. . .
Kirk: You mean the profanity? Oh, that’s simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays attention to you unless you swear every other word. You’ll find it in all the great literature of the period.
Spock: For example?
Kirk: Oh, the collected works of Jacqueline Susann. The novels of Harold Robbins.
Spock: Ah, the Giants.