Class and bookishness: a rant on the uses of literacy

Probably the last useful thing that Julie Burchill ever wrote, in respect of her working-class provincial origins, was this:

If you don’t read books, you really have been fucked over in a major way… To read, voluntarily, is the first step to asserting the fact that you know there is somewhere else.

Read, or you’ll get fucked over. Growing up, I read like fuck. I read out of boredom, I read to escape my surroundings and to understand my surroundings, through history and politics and music and literature and whatever there was left over. I also read because I wanted to write. And a thread that ran throughout my reading was, indeed, the sense that not to read was to, somehow, allow yourself to get fucked over.

Furthermore, once I began to read, finding stuff to read wasn’t a struggle. I read at school, on and off the curriculum – ‘comprehensive’ might mean cash-strapped and struggling, but it needn’t mean incapable of giving you a good education in spite of your circumstances, and it needn’t mean not having books. My town had a single bookshop, but it also had a library. I went on expeditions to larger towns further afield and, along with music, I brought back books. A huge amount of secondhand books, old books, books that no one other than me was likely to read in the twentieth century, okay – but new books, too, weren’t beyond my purchasing power. I read books, I read newspapers, I read journals, I read samizdat Riot Grrl and Manicsfan zines. I just read. Reading is, in no small measure, how I got to where and who and what I am today. I read in order to combat alienation, boredom and despair; in order to learn what existed beyond my horizons and what I might be capable of; in order to succeed academically; in order to live and study in places beyond my socioeconomic imaginings; and, ultimately, I read in order to construct an independent life for myself virtually from scratch. I read voraciously, avidly and eclectically, which is why I now know so many big words – a fact not unrelated to my subsequent social mobility, but a cause of it, not an effect.

So you’ll imagine how aggrieved I was to read the following:

“The bookshelfie and shelfie alike are ways not just to geek out with fellow book fiends, but also to send a signal about your cultural, social, and class position. Owning large quantities of books, being familiar with them, frequently referring to them, working in an industry where books are valued, these are all markers of upper middle class status, reflecting education, purchasing power, and social privilege.”

Now the publication ‘xoJane’, as far as I can tell, is what would happen if Nathan Barley edited Jezebel. So I’m sure the writer of that piece is well aware of what they’re doing – ie, churning out deliberately controversial, easily contradicted, falsely absolutist, neat shiny parcels of clickbait bullshit in which, as the esteemed James Ivens remarked, the tone manages to be both superior and anti-intellectual at the same time. I’m sure they don’t actually believe what they write.

Not that it matters. What S E Smith has written in that piece reflects and reinforces a damaging discourse whereby education, intellectual capacity, wit, thought, learning or finer feelings are held to be the preserve of the better-off, while what used to be called the working class are held to be mired in mental ignorance and incapacity. I’m aware of differing ideas and definitions of class in the US and UK, but this idea – certainly not new, in fact yet another neo-Victorian reanimation of old spectres – is cropping up everywhere, in left and right-wing perspectives, like a particularly unedifying game of Whack-a-Mole. At its most egregious and asinine, it fuels Boris Johnson’s pronouncement in which the poor are held accountable for their own misfortune because they aren’t clever enough to be rich.

As actual representatives of the non-elite have vanished from politics, media and the arts, so representations of the non-elite have grown increasingly lurid and grotesque, with observers nevertheless meant to be fawningly grateful for whatever unlikely examples we manage to get. This is why Caitlin Moran’s recent caprice Raised By Wolves could be hailed as ‘a genuine first’ – as though ‘council-estate intellectuals’ were a novelty previously wholly unheard-of. (Oh, Rab C Nesbitt – not to mention Working Mens’ Institutes and Miners’ Libraries and Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams – we hardly knew you!) Like Russell Brand’s Newsnight intervention, Raised By Wolves is a perfectly acceptable and obvious offering that looks more revolutionary than it is because everything surrounding it is so dull and disingenuous and uninspired.

To be boringly political about things: what has taken place over the past decade or so – in the vanishing of the tradition of working-class autodidacticism; in the enforced closure of libraries and adult education classes; in the narrowing of access to the arts, media, politics and journalism to those able to afford internships; in the privatisation and pricing-up of higher education; in the continued neglect of areas economically devastated in the 1980s and the ignoring or denial of the after-effects of this – is the rolling back of social, cultural and political gains made by the post-war working class. This development has been given the dodgy and diverting gloss that we are somehow a post-class society, that working-class status in particular no longer holds currency – and then, with the continued existence of socio-economic division becoming impossible to deny, the idea that there is still no actual working class but only ‘the poor’, a lumpen rump distinguished by their supposed lack of fitness for anything better or greater than their current lot.

Similarly, that xoJane article’s fundamental crime is to crassly conflate ‘education’ – which to me has always indicated general learning, consciousness and enlightenment – with the institutional process of ‘getting an education’. And while tuition fees, loans, and the rising cost of living may be making the latter an increasingly distant prospect for ‘the poor’, it does not automatically follow that the former is also beyond their intellectual reach. (And if students become defined as all middle-class, of course, then their concerns – whether over heavy-handed policing of demos, or the private outsourcing of university facilities, or the closing of ‘non-economically viable’ Humanities departments – can be dismissed as elitist and bourgeois issues, self-indulgent and out of touch with the real world, with the material concerns of ‘ordinary people’. And so can the very idea of pursuing education for its own, horizon-expanding but non-economic sake, as opposed to for the sake of ‘adding value’ to yourself as a future economic unit.)

My more personal response to the xoJane article, in particular the line: ‘… working in an industry where books are valued [is a marker] of upper middle class status’, was to question when the writer last stepped inside a bookshop. If their idea of the model for book retail is Amazon-centric, then I guess I can understand their perception of an industry split between literate cash-frittering shelfie-taking consumers sitting detached behind an ordering screen, and warehouse-bound overworked drones whose preoccupation – presumably – is with shifting the merchandise rather than entertaining any finer feelings towards it. This bizarre kind of Morlock/Eloi conception of society isn’t far from the absolutist idea which paints the modern working class as ignorant and education-hostile ‘chavs’, an underclass unable to be conceptualised as readers or thinkers, whose lot of worsening deprivation can therefore be presented as entirely expected and logical for ones so wretched and with so little capacity for improvement.

Outside Amazon’s fastness – and very probably inside it – things are rather more shades of grey. I have spent most of the past decade working either part-time or full-time in high-street book retail, and in this environment I have never felt my background and my no-man’s-land class identity to be inexplicable or unique to me. I have worked with other similar products of post-industrial small towns and comprehensive schools which nonetheless granted us a good enough education to get us into higher education. (From which point, our paths led us to London and into precarious just-about-bill-paying jobs through which we currently fund our artistic, creative, academic, political and other pursuits – because, in the absence of independent wealth or access to internships, that’s what you do. The same is true, in my experience, of a whole host of low-paid workers – but that’s a whole other, if not unrelated, rant.)

Such escapist, often class-transcending trajectories are almost always fuelled, in part or in whole, by a love of learning, words and language, and by books and the possible worlds contained in them. To disingenuously reduce centuries of self-improvement, aspiration, and just basic comfort, entertainment and enjoyment, to the narrow and solipsistic horizons of the studied and curated ‘shelfie’ is smug and unhelpful enough. To further suggest that the ability to access and appreciate books is automatically beyond the intellectual grasp of an entire socioeconomic sector, and to do this in a way that contributes to pernicious and damaging ideas of class on both sides of the Atlantic? Let me stress, with the full weight of my book-learnt and comprehensive-schooled vocabulary, how much I fucking hate that shit.

6 comments

  1. Andrew Self

    Really nice piece. The liberal left and its poorly disguised distaste for the working class and poor is a huge problem for geniune, engaged social change. Thanks for this.

  2. Deirdre O'Neill

    Great piece-my dad came to England from Ireland to work when he was 16-as a catholic in the north of ireland he could not get a job -his mother had 8 children and her husband had died-my dad could not read or write..he taught himself to do both sitting in digs after spending the day working on a building site-he read Marx and Engels , George Bernard Shaw and W. B Yeats-books about the second world war and the history of colonial rule in ireland….he was one of the most well educated people I have ever known ..and one of the most critically engaged people I have ever known -he questioned everything he read and heard in the mainstream media -he encouraged a love of learning and reading in his council flat raised, secondary modern educated children…even so- I left school at 16 with no qualifications-we were written off by the nuns and told by the careers officer to become hair dressers-I lived on a council estate as a single parent and went to university in my 30s- the first person in my family to have done so-then later on I did a Phd …the more formally ‘educated’ you become the fewer working class people you meet-wotking class people just don’t have the opportunities that the middle and upper classes have-and their relationship with the formal education system is different and the cost -psychologically and financially -is much greater than it is for the middle class kids for whom higher education is part of their expected life trajectory.
    The media like all the professions is dominated by a middle class, educated, mostly Oxbridge elite, whose knowledge of the world is filtered through their own middle class perspective and who keep all the best jobs for themselves and their mates-all the while telling themselves its down to hard work and talent….and not the school they went to or the university they attended or the connections their parents have ….. that is why it has become so easy to demonise the working class -because they are constructed as ‘stupid’ and ‘uneducated’ …therefore no working class people are being given the opportunity to speak.

  3. Ken Clay

    Rhiane,
    Great rant. If you write for the Morning Star, like I used to, you probably know a couple of background books on this topic – Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes and Jonanthan Ree’s Proletarian Philosophers. But I write to ask if I can stick your rant in my proletarian literary mag The Crazy Oik ( website: http://www.crazyoik.co.uk ) No, you won’t find it in WH Smiths or Waterstones but give the site a squint and let me know if it’s OK to pinch your piece.
    regards
    Ken Clay

  4. fiercemother

    This is fucking awesome, and why I struggle everyday to teach my students to love to read and how to love making art. Word. May I add, politely, to the phrase: “which is why I know so many big words” this (for myself) “and why I pronounce them all like I have only read them before.” My daughter has attended a much better school than I and takes great delight in the pronunciation a reader takes from an here-to-fore unheard out-loud word…
    fucking awesome, you are, more power to you, continue on, I’m certainly hungry for more of what you can do : )–

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s