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.
Obviously I’m pleased, not to mention surprised, to see my book reviewed in a national newspaper that isn’t the Morning Star. Without wishing to sound ungracious, though, it is mildly exasperating to see the review uncritically reflect the idea that using Big Words makes the writing ‘over-done’ and ‘in thrall to the strangulated cult-studs vernacular’. I do know what John Harris means by the latter term, of course, and I will write at a later point about the regrettable tension that seems to occur in a lot of contemporary writers, invariably ones on the left, between the wish to make one’s writing easily understood and the fear of sounding overly simplistic. The latter, incidentally, often seems to be fuelled by a feeling that, in order to be taken seriously by a small potential readership whom one has been conditioned to regard as cultural and academic gatekeepers, one needs to somehow ‘prove oneself’ by larding one’s prose with gobbets of Žižekian sophistry, lest one stand accused of being low-brow or naïve or Owen Jones or something.
The thing is that these words don’t strike me as ‘big words’ when I’m thinking or writing them, they simply strike me as the most appropriate words to use. I also dislike repeating words, and so I use a lot of words which mean similar things but which I guess might grow progressively more outlandish until the book ends up describing 90s popular culture as ‘atavistic’ rather than simply ‘backwards-looking’. Sorry about that, I guess? Ironically enough though, the review goes on to cite ‘those great pop-cultural intellectuals’ the Manic Street Preachers, whose lyrics were nothing if not a strangulated vernacular of their own. For good or ill, the Manics, in their encouragement of reading and general cultural immersion as a cure for small-town boredom and alienation, were far more of an influence on my subsequent vocabulary than some nebulous villain called Cult-Studs.
So here’s a question. Is vocabulary now considered a class signifier? Does understanding, and using, ‘big words’, mark you out as someone who cannot belong to ‘the ordinary’, ‘the normal’, the demographic conveniently delineated by external commentators as ‘working class’? Or is it the case that one’s socio-economic background does not preclude one having an expansive vocabulary? Might one have gained a knowledge of ‘big words’ from, uh god I don’t know, reading books and reading broadsheets, despite where one was brought up? And does knowing ‘big words’ mean you can never be categorised as ‘working class’? Continue reading
This is a now outdated post written for Bad Reputation.
I wrote a quick and exasperated piece recently on what I perceived to be a reductive, stereotyping and patronising use of the term ‘working-class’ cropping up in a lot of otherwise well-meaning writing. I was initially set off by the editors of Vagenda Magazine’s defence of Caitlin Moran, but the surrounding debate and its systemic problems are bigger than both of these. Despite retaining their article as a jumping-off point, therefore, I’m less interested in the specifics of Vagenda themselves than in giving a more considered explanation of some of the reasons behind my annoyance with the idea that intersectional feminism and ‘comprehensible’, ‘accessible’ feminism are somehow incompatible. Continue reading
There’s a lot being said and, I’m sure, a lot more that will be said on intersectionality within feminism (good); its misunderstanding and mispresentation (bad); and the fact that while intersectionality may be an off-putting term to use, it’s not that hard to understand because for many women (hell, and men) it constitutes lived experience. I write for Bad Reputation in part because we strive to “do” intersectionality all the time, although I don’t think we overuse the word. Intersectionality in part, for me, is about recognising that people have it tough even if they aren’t you. I’m just going to add this.
This post was mostly inspired by the complaint of my fellow Bad Reputation member Sarah J that, when the subject of Elastica comes up, the band are frequently dismissed outright as flagrant copyists led by Britpop’s version of Lady Macbeth. In fairness, I spent most of the 90s thinking the same thing. God, I used to hate Elastica. Willfully amateur slack-jawed rip-off merchants whose frontwoman seemed to exist only as a drawly amalgam of her indie boyfriends (hair by Brett, boots by Damon), whose competency in snagging the catchiest bits of post-punk couldn’t disguise how irritatingly thick and bland they were in all other respects. Right? Right. Now that I’m no longer a chippy thirteen-year-old convinced that people with trust-funds can’t make good music, I’ve been reassessing Elastica. Continue reading