Founded in 2011 by Nathan Connolly, Liverpool-based publisher DEAD INK started making a name publishing literary fiction, initially digital only, soon progressing to print. Helped by Arts Council support, the kindness and trust of strangers and friends alike via crowdfunding, in addition to linking up with other northern indie publishers such as Comma Press to form The Northern Fiction Alliance, Dead Ink bobbed along nicely, confidence increasing with each book. They earned nods from The Saboteur Awards, The Guardian’s First Book Award and Not The Booker Prize.
Then along came Brexit, in June 2016.
The 52 per cent vote to leave was accompanied by an alarming discourse around how the working class had voted, Connolly observed. Blame was duly attached to working class people across the board, without question, as if an entire social class from one end of the UK to the other had a single iron clad set of values and attitudes.
An off-the-cuff comment by The Good Immigrant editor Nikesh Shukla sparked an idea for Dead Ink to publish a collection by writers from a working-class background, to help counteract that mindset. The resulting Know Your Place – Essays On The Working Class anthology, published in autumn 2017, carries a range of essays about working-class life and culture. Writings span from women and work, sexuality, to the death of the pub, offering up a wide-ranging mix of attitudes and opinions.
It’s a most curious thing when a book kicks off a range of discussion and shifts in attitude over an issue, but Know Your Place did exactly that. There’s an increased awareness of class inequality, for example, not only in publishing, but across the creative industries.
As someone who answered the initial Know Your Place submissions call, what jumped out to me, I mention to Connolly early on in our chat, was a number of well-intentioned people within publishing kindly shared the opportunity on their socials with the advice ‘if you’re a wannabe/aspiring writer then pitch to this’. No one wants to be seen as beginner, or amateur. It’s the notion that being working class is not a writer’s true or appropriate state, but instead something you need to leave behind. Like a shame.
“It ties in a lot with… a wider social attitude that if a working-class person wants to be a writer, they do it in an amateur fashion, they can’t be serious about it,” he agrees. “The phrase ‘wannabe’ is particularly insidious… It puts down a challenge to anyone who is working class right from the start that they have to prove something. They have a barrier to cross in order to be taken seriously.”
The self-defining nature of potential contributors – there was no form to fill in, nor a working-class authenticity checklist – was controversial in some quarters, but important, Connolly says, because “when we discuss the working class there is a section of society which wants to define that as a very particular variety of white working class. We absolutely wanted to stay away from that idea that there was a single, homogenous [culture]. We wanted the book to have contradictions in it.”
“[Know Your Place] wasn’t a mission statement or a manifesto, [but] what it did was start quite a lot of debate and discussion. It made people talk about the issue, which is the best thing it could have done. We never heard about the class issue in publishing and literature, and now it’s front and centre,” he adds, citing the recent edition of the industry’s trade magazine The Bookseller dedicated to class.
I was at a writing festival about six or seven years ago, I tell him, and it had a panel concerned with writing fiction. But conversation quickly turned to the subject of writing sheds, and wood burners within. Explored at some length, the end conclusion was ‘every writer needs a shed’. Delivered all very good-naturedly, but I wondered how many people were sat in that room thinking, ‘This is not my world’.
“There’s more of an awareness that there are privileges in terms of social and economic backgrounds now,” says Connolly. “I don’t think that’s just down to Know Your Place or the class issue, it comes down to other elements of the diversity issue, which is what I wanted Know Your Place to tie into. To be very intersectional, class is just one aspect. There are many other things they should be considering in terms of how the industry is composed.”
Does he think every writer needs a shed?
“I think every writer needs their space. Whether that can be a period of time, a quiet ten minutes, a quiet hour, I don’t think they need a shed. Maybe a mental shed.”
What about a wood burner. You need one of those, surely.
“It would be nice, I guess! No, I don’t think you do. Maybe for burning old drafts?”
Even now, 18 months after publication, both the concept of Know Your Place, the book’s reputation and the bold red, black and white cover designed in the style of a craft beer bottle label, ensures it’s still a hip read. It rocks up in all kinds of places. There’s a copy in the offices of a large independent record label in London, on prominent display, like a vase or ornament. Did he ever think that the book would be a virtue-signaling device, or a coffee table book?
“I’m a bit flattered,” he laughs. “It’s strange… perhaps if someone who is working class enters that space it could put them at ease, maybe that’s something good it could do. People in publishing have said it’s made their own background something to be proud of rather than cover up, which is really heartwarming.”
“I never considered that it could be considered a value signifier,” he continues. “I don’t know how we could prevent that. In a way, you could think of it as infiltrating a space – if it gets in somewhere and someone reads it that’s a benefit. I wanted it to be a book for discussion – we’ve got the Working Class Book Club [at Homebaked in Anfield] coming up – and that’s what I wanted it to be. Not just speaking to people who aren’t working class, but for discussion amongst working class [people] as well.”
The book was initially published in hardback, but Dead Ink brought out a paperback version as soon as possible to ensure a wider demographic could have access. “I think it’s incredibly important for the working class to read these texts, for the simple matter of validation. Sadly, I think too many working-class people think literature isn’t for them, because they never see their lives represented in books,” says Lewis Johnson, from the Book Club. “By discussing texts like Know Your Place, it helps working-class readers situate themselves in the narrative – negating impostor syndrome, and catalysing creative confidence. Hopefully, with working-class people seeing themselves represented in literature, more working-class people will be inspired to start writing themselves.”
Know Your Place was enthusiastically received by media outlets attached conventionally to the chattering classes. BBC Radio 4 ran a documentary by KYP contributor and editor of the forthcoming Common People – An Anthology of Working-Class Writers by Kit de Waal, on the lack of working class novelists. R4 Woman’s Hour featured myself and fellow contributor Sian Norris talking about how feminism and class intersect, and the book was reviewed and championed from the New Statesman to the Times Literary Supplement.
Late last year, author Kerry Hudson wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper asking, ‘Where are all the working-class writers?’ Best-selling crime novelist, Rebus creator Ian Rankin, mischievously tweeted in reply, “They’re hiding on the bestseller lists, writing popular fiction”. The response to his tweet was mixed, but it did make one wonder if debate around publishing and class omits a fair chunk of working-class writers; those who write commercial fiction.
“I think there is that feeling, and a resentment that the majority of literary publishing is funded by commercial and genre fiction,” concedes Connolly. “The majority of literary fiction makes a loss. I’m sure someone could write an essay about how it’s working-class people funding middle-class pursuits!”
“A lot of genre writers are demographically more from a working class. Again, you can bring it down to finances; the advances for literary fiction are smaller, the ability to make a living off it is much more difficult, so how does a writer afford to pursue it? So the genre writers are the ones laughing a bit, because they’re the ones making more money. But then again, are more working-class writers pushed to genre writing because they can make a living from it?”
Discussion and debate seems to be having an effect in breaking down barriers preventing or hindering talent from entering the world of publishing, whether it be as a writer or working in the industry itself. It’s been pleasing to see a change from inside the industry, offering people on low incomes free mentoring, entry to writing competitions, and even bursaries to attend writing festivals. Because it did need to happen. For those with limited resources and without those all-important contacts, it’s a tough world to elbow into.
“We’re in an industry where there’s so many [costly] writing scheme opportunities,” he says. “It’s an industry where people need to have money to pursue [a career]. We shouldn’t forget that, for a lot of people, it feels like it’s pay to win.”
Common People – Class In The Margins is a conversation event featuring writers who have contributed to Know Your Place. The event takes place on 2nd May at Toxteth Library at part of Writing On The Wall Festival. Tickets are available now from ticketquarter.co.uk.