Do you have to be middle-class to be a writer?

I've decided to raise the thorny question of class and writing, partly because I recently saw a facebook post by another writer, who said that when she went to University, it was full of 'posh kids from private school.' Author James Kelman has been very vocal about the issue of class, and has often raised the point that you pretty much need a private income to be a writer these days (if you don't have a different day job, or aren't a best seller).

I suspect there are some who would like to think class has nothing to do with being a writer any more - in Tony Blair 's words, 'hey, we're all middle class now'. Except, of course, that that's rubbish.

I should 'fess up about what bothered me about that writer's observation about her Uni days - I was one of those 'posh kids from a private school'. Except that what's behind that statement is a little more: my Dad grew up in  a tenement in Springburn before his family emigrated to Canada, my Mum in a council house in Knightswood, both areas in Glasgow (for those who don't know, Springburn once had the accolade of being the worst housing area in the whole of Europe). I was first-generation University educated - like many working-class parents, they held fast to the notion that 'nobody can take it away from you', in reference to a degree. That's important when you grow up in families where the main jobs are in industry the threat of redundancy is always hanging over you. That job could be taken off you in a second.

So my parents worked hard and made sacrifices to send me and my brother to a private school with an academic reputation. And yes, there were lots of 'posh kids' there - I remember still having the glottal stop when I got there (when you don't pronounce all your 't's) and being really aware that I spoke differently. I consciously changed the way I spoke to fit in - right or wrong? Well, I was 12. And at 12, you just want to be like everyone else.

Now - by way of two University degrees and a brief career as an academic - I write full-time as a critic and author. I have no sick pay, no maternity leave, no holiday pay, no occupational pension, no incremental pay rise. But thanks to my parents' efforts, I had the courage to make a leap and go for the thing I really wanted to spend my life doing - writing.

And what of 'class' in my writing life now? Well, two things. When I was researching for my non-fiction book, Between the Sheets, I read a ton of biographies. I've always been keen on history and biography anyway, but this time, because I was trying to pay the bills and take time out to research as well (I got a five-figure advance for that book but hardly enough to live on - £10,000, slightly less after agents' fees and half was paid first, leaving about £4500 to support me for the year I was writing it), I was very aware of the jobs held by biographers, especially women.

Academics aside, and there weren't many of them, they didn't seem to have 'day jobs'. The business of biography research is a slow and time-consuming one. How did they pay the bills, I kept wondering. Did they all have wealthy husbands? Were they all from rich backgrounds themselves?

Many of them probably had, and were. Biographies tend to be written by the middle-classes, because only the middle-classes can afford the time out needed to research.

Second point: I was once castigated by a literary editor for beginning an article with a gerund. I waited till he was finished berating me in front of everyone in the office then calmly said, it's not a gerund. that's a verbal noun. This is a verbal adjective. It's a gerundive.' Because I had a classical education,too, I wanted to add. I'm not saying a private education is best if you need to score points off other people. But at that moment I was grateful for it.

What about fiction, though? How we love the story of single mum J K Rowling scribbling her multi-million pound first Harry Potter in a cafe, where she sat all day because she couldn't afford heating at home. In the twenty-first century, we're still sentimentalising the working-class effort, because the truth is, it shouldn't be happening.

If you're working-class, you shouldn't be writing - and definitely not anything 'literary'! That's the message, anyway. Government grants are meant to help with this, but they're occasional and when you don't have much money, an occasional grant just delays the problem, it doesn't solve it.

I'd like to see the state pay wages to writers - I know people like Janice Galloway have called for this in the past. Would I be ineligible for being a 'posh kid from a private school' though, even though I earn less than many 'working-class' jobs pay? I hope not. But we do need to make a greater effort to ensure that class doesn't have a place in whether you think you can be a writer or not. I attend book festivals every year, either to review or chair. And they're predominantly middle-class (at one, I overheard an author say to the rest of her panel, 'Oh my goodness, three of us are called Charlotte! we're so middle-class!')

I've suggested before that book festivals have tickets that are free for the unemployed. Not just discounted, but free. I've been unemployed plenty of times in my life and book festival tickets, funnily enough, aren't a top priority. The middle-classes still have a monopoly on the production and, if festival attendance is anything to go by, the consumption of literature. We need to do something about that monopoly. But not by stereotyping, or making assumptions, even though I bet I've made a few in this post. It's hard to avoid, but we can try.      


  1. This is a topic which fires me up! I've written bits and bobs about this subject in my own blog (I may well write another in response to your excellent piece but here's a starter for ten... ) as it's central to who I am as a writer and a key theme in my debut novel. I grew up in a council scheme and everyone I knew apart from the teachers at school and the priest was working class. I was the first person in my immediate and very large extended family to get a degree. To be a writer wasn't something that ever seemed like an option and I'd no role models to aspire to. Fast forward a good few years and I find myself keen to write and took inspiration from writers like Janice Galloway, voices I felt I could understand and relate to. It's taken me ten years of writing to find my own 'voice' and realise that rather than copy formats that sell, I want to write about subjects and settings that aren't necessarily commercial but are authentic. I've taken the gamble of using Scots dialect in my writing which might be a barrier to some readers but not to the ones I want to reach. My novel is a coming of age story which reflects the issues you've raised when the main character wants to go to art school but has to fight against the expectations of her circle of influence and find her own identity. I know how hard that can be, even although I lived in the same type of council house as my classmates because I was seen to be clever and wore glasses, laughably I was called posh! I'm also very aware of the financial side of pursuing a love of writing. There are lots of books, workshops etc. but at a cost. Yes, there are many free opportunities but if travel expenses, childcare etc. are an issue then these can be inaccessible too. I've been a single parent at one point so can fully appreciate how hard it is to justify writing time and money that's required to develop your writing skills. I was very lucky that when I gave up my permanent job to do an MLitt, I had the financial support of my husband or it wouldn't have been possible. Only this week I attended a 'For All' event at the GFT to encourage a more diverse audience. Best of luck with shaking off the arty farty subtitled films image that the cinema has but at least they're trying. I go to many book festivals and as you say,I doubt there are many folk who've traveled into a city or stately home to swan in and out of marquees with their organic cloth bag full of the signed copied of latest literary, with a capital 'L' titles. What's the answer? More promotion in target areas with as you suggested free tickets? I hope there is a shift and I'd love to read at venues that aren't on the usual circuit.

  2. Thanks so much for that, Helen. It's a complex issue with no easy answers, and writing has always been a risky profession, it's just that for some it's a bigger risk than others and financial support has to come from somewhere, of course. I do think free tickets would really help re book festivals, and recently I was at a state primary school career day, where I was one of several examples of possible careers. That's great for kids from all classes to see, that being a writer isn't a rarefied option. More of that is needed too.

  3. Reading this reminded me of a New York Times piece I read a couple weeks ago on the creative writing MFA. Obviously class is perceived differently in the U.S. and the U.K., but it comes up here too, as it did in that piece.

    I come from a working-class family. My stepdad spent a good portion of my youth maintaining the tracks for the BNSF Railway. When I was in college (I went for two years), I paid for it by working as a janitor on campus, and was often embarrassed to see people I took classes with while in my work shirt, sweeping the hallway or cleaning a bathroom.

    When I lost my job, I could no longer afford tuition and dropped out. That was the end of it.

    So I was reading the New York Times piece, and it came to a section on whether aspiring writers should go for a creative writing MFA, and saw this:

    “It is a deadly question,” says the literary critic Anis Shivani, author of the 2011 book “Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies.” “Everyone who wants to be a writer in this country has to confront it, even if you rebel against the M.F.A.,” he says. “If you do the degree, opportunities open up.” Without it, he warns, you may be able to publish in small presses but are more likely to be “condemned to obscurity."

    My first thought was a two word phrase that rhymes with "duck shoe." Because the assumption in such a statement is that everyone who wants to be a writer has the opportunity to not only attend university but pursue a post-graduate education. The only reason they wouldn't do so is because they're rebelling. Yes, more opportunities open up if you get the MFA, but your ability to do so is assumed. That in itself isn't viewed as an oppotunity, just something to consider.

    A lot of us didn't have to decide fifteen years ago when I was working my way through school, and a lot of people don't now.

    In the end, the book world is richer for having writers from all economic and ethnic backgrounds producing work, and this should be encouraged. The obliviousness of some to anything outside their experience is disheartening (Junot Diaz's comments in that same NYT piece only confirm this blindness).

    As for me, my first novel came out in November 2009 and my sixth is coming out in early July. I'm doing fine without the degree, but I'd still have gone for it had I been able.

  4. Sorry if that came across as ranty. Also, link to the NYT piece:

  5. Thanks for this - yes, the issue of postgrad education is tricky, especially if the advice is you'll never get anywhere as a writer without a creative writing degree. The Carnegie Trust paid my fees when I studied for a PhD and I worked part-time in a bookshop. But I do know several writers who found that they could get grants for the postgrad creative writing course which basically funded the writing of their books, and whether you think that's a good way to go or not, it does show how desperate the situation is for many.

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  7. I managed to delete my comment accidentally. It went something like this - I think this is a balanced. thoughtful comment on a complex issue that I'd like to see discussed more often. Thanks for writing this.


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