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.

16 comments:

Sue Guiney said...

A very interesting issue. I just don't think a character's class always makes a difference, in the way his/her religion doesn't always make a difference. If class has been a crucial part of making the character who he is, both in his past or the present of the story, then sure -- it needs to be addressed and dealt with. But you're right. it is a very English way of looking at things, and there are plenty of characters for whom class just isn't that important. But maybe my American upbringing is showing.

Elizabeth Baines said...

It's clearly less of an issue for Americans, Sue. Although I think I may recently have read something saying that in fact it IS...

Elizabeth Baines said...

ie is an issue for Americans...

Sheenagh Pugh said...

It can become an issue (though only sometimes; it doesn't worry me at all that Emma Woodhouse, by the standards of her day, is posh, yet I can't bring myself to watch a bunch of toffs in Downton Abbey). In Polly Samson's recent collection of stories, whose title I forget, I did notice after a while that all the people were much the same and moved in the same narrow milieu; there didn't seem to be any awareness of a wider society and I did start getting a bit bored with them. But some of what WN came up against was typical publishers' pigeonholing: you're a man so you can't write domestic, FFS...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

"The proper pursuit of fiction"... indeed? Lord preserve us from definitions.

And Lord preserve us from those who put our poor characters (in all senses of 'poor') into class structures and strictures.

My grandfather was a collier. He had five daughters. One died of TB. One became a headmistress, one a country librarian, and two did not do paid work.

T'other grandfather worked on the coal trains. Two sons. One, my father, became a civil servant, District Valuer positions in England. The other was mangager of Woolworths in Tonypandy.

Bless em all.

Elizabeth Baines said...

V, I'm sorry you don't like my phrase 'the proper pursuit of fiction', but I was trying to widen the concept of what fiction is all about rather than narrow it, and defend it from those who do narrow it (into class consciousness terms) as was WN, I think.

Sheenah, yes, FFS.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Sorry for misspelling, Sheenagh!

Dan Holloway said...

Class is such a difficult issue in literature at least in part as any denial of its relevance is likely to be parsed as a symptom of an alive and kicking problematicity.

'Everyone deserves to be the hero of a novel.'
That is, indeed, a wonderful sentence. I think where there is a problem is that sometimes readers want to read books that touch not on the generalities of human nature (I have a problem with the notion of writing in pursuit of common identity, but even if I didn't I think the point stands) but on the specificities of their life, and without saying wheher I agree or not, I can very much see the point that there is something disquieting about feeling that someone is speaking for you. To put it in class terms (I agree with you, class isn't a particularly helpful category - in large part because, like you, so many people come from such diverse backgrounds), someone struggling on benefits in a tenement may want to read books that feel as though they engage directly with their lives, but when all such books available are written by people brought up in a suburb the existence of those books, far from connecting with them, may well feel like a further disenfranchisement. And that's a problem that can only be addressed from within the publishing industry

Elizabeth Baines said...

Some very good points, Dan. I'd make a distinction between 'common humanity' and 'common identity': I think the former allows for distinct differences in experience, outlook etc. You touch on a very important point: I do think people strongly want books to reflect or explore their own experience, and yet many books that the publishing industry offers for this purpose actually patronise. I'd say that Pat Barker's early books, published by middle-class feminists, do this, and I've never yet met a reader of them who belongs to the section of society they describe. On the other hand, one of the things great fiction can do is allow us to empathise with those different from ourselves...

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Oi - it wasn't your phrase - I thought you were quoting him!

vxx

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, I was paraphrasing him, but also agreeing with him: I do think that the main concern good fiction is the humanity of all of us - that's what I value it for, and strive to achieve in it, anyway.

Dan Holloway said...

"On the other hand, one of the things great fiction can do is allow us to empathise with those different from ourselves..."

Very, very true

Vanessa Gebbie said...

oops. In that case I will retire gracelessly - it was the notion that fiction has any 'proper' purpose that I found difficult!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, that's lit-fic jargon for you - and why I often try and avoid it, but failed to here. Meant 'proper' in the sense of 'true' or 'real' rather than up-tight rule-making etc.

Hayley N. Jones said...

I think the diversity of 'middle class' makes it difficult to define in any meaningful way and exposes it to various, and often contradictory, prejudices.

I've become more aware of class since doing a BA at a university which has a (deserved) reputation for attracting posh kids from private schools. Almost everyone I met throughout my degree would describe themselves as middle class, yet their backgrounds and experiences were diverse.

My parents came from unambiguously working class families. They grew up in council houses and their parents all had unskilled manual jobs (actually, my nan still works as a cleaner in her mid 70s!). Both left school at 16, my mum to work in the local post office and my dad to do an engineering apprenticeship. They managed to buy a house, back in the days of 100% mortgages, and although they sometimes struggled to pay the mortgage (my mum recalls weeks of eating eggs, chips and beans to save money), they were never in poverty.

Fast forward 30 years: my parents, brother and I live in the same house. It was originally 2 bedrooms, but the front one has been divided into two. My parents have never been able to afford to move to a larger house and both work in a local factory, along with my brother (who is doing an engineering apprenticeship). My dad earns £18000 a year, my mum around £13000.

After college, I worked in shops and an office before becoming unable to work through mental illness. Over the past 3 years, I managed to get a degree, pass my driving test and am about to start an MA. It's been a financial and emotional struggle; I would never have been able to afford it if I didn't live at home, paying board instead of commercial rent, and nor would I have been able to do it without the support of my mum and close friends.

Most people consider me middle class, yet my life is a world away from my fellow undergrad students who went to private schools and have at least one holiday abroad a year. The majority have had their parents pay for them to learn to drive, even buying them cars, and keep them supplied with the latest technological equipment from Apple. Some even have parents who can afford second homes. They are also considered middle class and most insist that they are not particularly privileged and certainly not posh!

Class does contribute greatly to people/characters, but it is not homogenous. Within every class, there are divisions and contradictions. I think these are most apparent in the middle classes, but they definitely exist in the working class (I wouldn't know about upper class folk!). For this reason, I find it bizarre when critics make sweeping generalisations about characters and/or pieces of literature based on class - and that includes the class of the author.

Too often, people over-simplify class and over-simplifying any issue brings prejudice into play. I don't find it easier or harder to empathise with a character if they are middle class: class is a part of their identity, but doesn't obliterate the individual. I read with an open mind and if I love or hate a character, this is based on what the author has written - not on how I perceive their class. I wish all reviewers would follow suit.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hayley, thank you so much for sharing your insights and for such an eloquent and generous expression of the complexities.