By Tom Perrett
The regional, social, cultural and economic disparities in the publishing world are overwhelming, as the publishing industry remains dominated by a white, middle class, privately educated cross section of British society. According to ONS figures, 47% of British authors, writers and translators had professional middle class parents, in contrast to just 10% whose parents had worked in routine, manual professions. The Big 5 Publishing houses (Macmillan, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins and Hachette) are all based in London, with only the latter two having revealed plans to relocate staff outside the Capital. Given the astronomically high costs of living and renting there, and the necessity to work to supplement any internships or placements, it is unsurprising that the publishing industry remains such a nepotistic, exclusionary environment. Only the Northern Fiction Alliance, a network of publishers headed by Manchester’s Comma Press, has come close to challenging the dominance of the London-based publishers.
Sociologist Mike Savage conducted a study into how social, cultural and economic capital can be analysed together as a means of engendering class divisions, arguing that inherited networks of privilege and prestige have enabled white, middle class writers to monopolise the most prominent positions. The surveys carried out by the Common People anthology found a widespread belief among the writers that creative or literary pursuits were not looked upon as viable in many working class communities. The perception of working class identity as exclusively Northern and focussed around manual, practical work is rapidly becoming less accurate; automation and deindustrialisation have stripped communities of these professions, and tertiary, service-sector occupations are becoming more entrenched.
The importance of recognising the plurality of voices that make up British society through the medium of publishing cannot be understated; the recognition of a broad range of identities and experiences is a means of self-assertion for otherwise marginalised groups. In a world increasingly dominated by the interests of monopolistic multinational corporations that have stymied the opportunities for working class or BAME communities to have their voices heard (5 billionaires own 80% of the British media), it is crucial that other platforms can be utilised to foster a diverse, pluralistic portrayal of what the working class is really like.
Moreover, the 2019 election result and the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ represented, in part, a frustration with not just a political establishment, but a perceived metropolitan, London-centric cultural elite. The decentralisation of publishing, and the ability for more working class writers from provincial towns and otherwise left behind areas, could not only provide a means of self-assertion and job creation, but a counter to the narrative of a bigoted, parochial and insular working class. A common refrain among right-leaning commentators was that winning back the ‘Northern heartlands’, required the adoption of a socially conservative, nationalistic worldview, reflecting an older section of the population. This indicates that the multiplicity of perspectives that constitutes the diverse working class areas across Britain is not being represented in its entirety.
Kit de Waal cites the work of Scottish writers such as James Kelman and Irvine Welsh and its role in capturing the experiences of unemployment and urban decay in Scotland when Thatcher closed down the mines, and the work of Thomas Morris, who chronicled unemployment and the precarity of work in Caerphilly. The recognition of the multitude of voices that constitute working class identity allows these stories to become commonplace, rather than playing into the expectations of a voyeuristic middle class audience, writing fiction which is tailor-made to focus on the exceptional stories. Dr. Anamik Saha, currently a lecturer at Goldsmiths, has noted that these problems also affect British Asian writers, as they too are often compelled to write constricting and one-dimensional narratives for the consumption of white audiences, that portray a limited vision of their experiences. The broadening of the publishing industry to include more such voices could potentially allow a greater authenticity and depth of writing to come to the fore.
The subject of the underrepresentation of working class voices in the publishing world is not a stand-alone problem; other industries such as retail, printing and marketing are affected by publishing, which is why the decentralisation of the publishing trade and its expansion into areas outside of London and the South East could create jobs and stimulate investment. The impact that publishing has on creative sectors such as film and theatre is also considerable; the dominance of the middle class and privately educated in the creative sectors is more entrenched now than ever before. But for as long as publishing continues to represent such a minute cross-section of British society, a multiplicity of perspectives, experiences and outlooks will continue to be neglected.