It started with a question – as the most bold and significant ideas do. In a recent documentary, novelist Kit de Waal asked ‘Where are the working class writers?’ This inspired a conversation between herself, Unbound and regional writing development organisations across the country to do something about it.
Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers (currently being crowdfunded – donate here), will be a collection of essays, poems and memoirs from both well-known and new working class writers across the UK. As London’s leading writer development charity, Spread the Word will be managing entries from London-based writers, from which, three new writers will be selected to be featured in the anthology.
We spoke to Kit to find out more about this brilliant initiative…
Your essay ‘What Happened to Working Class Writers?’ was recently published in ‘Know Your Place’ – a brilliant collection of essays on the working class, by the working class, on Dead Ink Books. How much of this experience inspired Common People?
There was definitely a feeling that ‘Know Your Place’ was part of something bigger and I wanted to continue the conversation in any way I could. I’d had various conversations with other published working class writers and there was something in the air about it being the right time. There is a tremendous amount of good will, enthusiasm and energy for change in publishing and tackling class is one of the ways we can drive that change forward.
Publishing is certainly going through an interesting time at the moment – Nathan Connolly, Sabrina Mahfouz, Nikesh Shukla have been behind some really successful books that have emphasised the importance of diversity in publishing. What other writers or books have inspired you?
Strangely enough I was inspired by two books I read recently which were very different. The first was Cathy Rentzenbrink’s book, ‘A Manual for Heartache’. I mention this because at its heart this book recognises that we are all pretty insecure and frightened and struggling with something or other and Cathy prescribes compassion and kindness as the antidote along with hope and resilience. I think when we think about improving people’s attitudes to diversity we should bear in mind that it’s not always hate, racism, snobbery and misogyny that denies us change although certainly those things exist. Very often it’s ignorance, fear and not knowing what to do, not appreciating the problem, not being able to walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s important when we are eager for change not to alienate others but bring them along with you, to appeal rather than repel and to invite people over and over to get on board. Not everyone will take it but always try to hold your hand out.
The other book that inspired me is something that’s not published yet although I hope it will be. It’s called ’25 Jobs’ and it’s written by Chris Walsh who has indeed had 25 Jobs and who writes about being a working class boy, then man trying to stay in employment, trying to make his way in the world. It details the hardship of his life with wit and humour and it’s just a joy to read.
Since it’s very recent launch, Common People is having a tremendous response, why do you think this is?
It’s because there are so many people who want to see change. Not just working class people either. I’ve had emails, letters and tweets of support from people all over the UK (and America) who just see the expansion of who gets published as a great thing for publishing, new voices, new experiences, new writers in the arena. It’s great for everyone. We are over two thirds there and really looking forward to getting to goal. There’s still lots of time to pledge!!
How important was it for you that the anthology contains voices from writers across the country as opposed to focusing on a particular geographical area?
Massively important. I’m from Birmingham. 75% of the country live beyond the M25 yet publishing is decidedly London-centric. It’s important that we dispel the idea that everything published beyond Bloomsbury is a ‘grim up north’ novel about a single parent on benefits. I wanted to include stuff from the rural areas, small towns, east and west of England as well as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Ireland. I hope there is someone from Wales in there as well! This is about the collective working class experience although there is obviously not just one. There are things we have in common though and certain attitudinal similarities and by including people from the whole of the UK I hope we will be able to celebrate that.
The book will be a collection of essays, poems and personal memoir – why did you decide on this cross-genre approach?
Defining what or who is working class is almost impossible. In the past it meant someone in manual labour or someone who worked in a factory or mill or mine. So many of those jobs have disappeared and the title ‘working class’ means something different to different people. By asking for memoir we have decided to let the writer decide. You can’t write about being working class if you’ve never been there. There are two academic essays that contextualise working class writing and writers and the issues that they face in publishing and there is I think only one poem by Tony Walsh. I’m writing flash fiction and I think Malorie Blackman is also writing a short piece.
We’ve put a call out to London writers to apply for this great opportunity. What words of encouragement do you have for anybody thinking of applying?
Your voice matters. Every writer deserves to have the opportunity of being taken seriously, deserves to have the same chance as anyone else of being published. In the end it should be the quality of the work that matters not the background of the writer. So do your best work, edit your stuff until it shines and send it in.
More than an opportunity for writers, this collection will also definitely inspire readers from working-class backgrounds – what is the ultimate aim that you wish to achieve from this book going out into world?
That one day we won’t need to have books like this. That one day, the issue of class (or any other issue of equality) won’t matter because we will all have our work judged on its merits, on whether it is good writing and only on that because all the other things that get in our way like geography, gatekeepers, industry contacts, money for courses, prejudice and stereotyping will have been done away with. Of course, that’s massively ambitious and a long way off. For now, I’ll settle for it being the first in a long line of books that celebrate working class writers and their unstoppable talent.
London writers – the deadline for you to apply for ‘Common People’ is 12 noon on Friday 2 March 2018. More details here.