Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fiction and class

I quite like some of  what William Nicholson has to say in yesterday's Guardian on the issue of class and fiction. There is now a prejudice against middle-class characters and settings in novels, he says, and his anatomisation of how this came about seems to me about right:
A hundred years or so ago the language of idealism changed. As Christianity fractured, the imagination of those who wanted to make a better world was seized by a new idealism: socialism. In this new understanding of society the working class had virtue and was the future; the middle class had power and was the past. Bourgeois values came to be seen as vices. The middle-class consumers of art and literature gradually found themselves cast in negative terms, as exploitative, parasitic and reactionary.
As 'one of those' middle-class people and a novelist, he finds this troubling, and points out rightly that the proper pursuit of fiction is to see the humanity in all of us, not just a certain section of society, and he gives us the wonderful sentence: 'Everyone deserves to be the hero of a novel.'

What I don't like is the way that he feels bound to align himself with any particular 'class'. If the proper pursuit of novels is our common humanity (which I think it is) then we need to be able to get away, in the discussion of fiction, from even thinking in these terms.

Personally, I'm always pretty open-mouthed whenever someone manages to do that, identify with a particular class - but then in Wales, where I come from, we've never been so class conscious. As I think I may have said before, in my immediate Welsh forebears there are women in service and farm labourers with sisters and brothers who were schoolteachers, church ministers, and businessmen. So I've always felt pretty much connected to several levels of society, and it took me until the age of ten or so to realise that people thought of them as levels. I was stunned when one reviewer called one of my early short stories, based on my own background, a depiction of a 'working-class childhood'. The class of the characters simply hadn't been an issue for me (the issue of the story was actually religious prejudice), but here, it seemed, was a reviewer for whom class was the main issue; he was reading the story through a prism of class consciousness. And then, ironically, some people, feminists, complained, in precisely the way Nicholson describes, about the 'middle-class' viewpoint and milieu of my novel The Birth Machine: I had a definite feeling that had my protagonist been a 'working-class' woman, rather than a doctor's wife, then these educated (middle-class!) feminists would have been much more sympathetic to her predicament, and to me as a novelist.
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