If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that a vast majority of people who do the essential work of keeping things ticking along are largely invisible—save for national emergencies, when all of a sudden cleaners and supermarket workers are wheeled out in front of us to ‘tell us what it’s like’. The idea that these same people have larger lives and stories though, is still something that Australia’s literary world struggles to grasp.
Long ago, when the world was different and you could go to events in person, I attended a Sydney Writer’s Festival panel entitled The Larrikin Lie.
The discussion was a mixed bag, and while the panelists made so many good points—around the exclusionary nature of the term larrikin, or the way it can be used to excuse racism and bigotry, or even how it has come to be co-opted, particularly by politicians—there were also some noteworthy missteps. At one point, social researcher Rebecca Huntley shared with the audience what she clearly thought was a valuable insight: namely, that when she questioned a (presumably working-class) focus group in rural Queensland, they told her they didn’t appreciate being questioned as if they were ‘dumb bogans’. They think! And feel! It seemed Huntley—the highly educated daughter of a lawyer, and board member of Bell Shakespeare—was telling us.
I’m not the first to point out how the decidedly middle-class Australian literary scene can take on a particular tone when it comes to the working class and demonstrate an inability to appreciate its complexity. When it comes to fiction, if a lack of complexity also collides with narrow depictions of class, it makes for difficult reading, as I found out recently when I picked up Jacqueline Maley’s novel The Truth About Her, released this year.
The book revolves around an inner-city journalist who has an affair with her boss and writes an exposé that has damning consequences. It’s all very middle class, which in and of itself might be fine, but also does the very middle-class thing of including narrow and hackneyed depictions of the working class.
One of the key characters in the book is an older woman that Maley never directly identifies as being from a class different to that of her narrator’s. Instead, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, she describes the woman as being:
heavily blonded, wearing a bedazzled top with cut outs across the shoulders, which allows pink-fleshed shoulders to peak through, and sitting at the bar clutching a diamanté purse.
We also learn the woman has Gel Nails, the kind the narrator’s friend likes to joke about by saying they are the type ‘women from his home town wear’. (Meaning, of course, two-bit rural or working-class types who wouldn’t know good taste if it sailed into town on a schnitzel.) The woman has come to the inner-city bar where the main character works, and is drinking Barcardi and Coke, saying words like ‘darl’ and ‘love’ and talking about her holidays to Bali.
An endorsement quote on the back of the book calls it ‘precisely observed’, which may be true, if what we are trying to observe is middle-class snobbery, because at this point, it feels that the only thing that could possibly be more cliché and stereotypical is a middle-class person criticising a working-class person’s dress sense.
Not long after this scene, we learn about the main character’s mother, who of course is nothing like bedazzled woman. She is described as ‘clever enough to have won a scholarship to Sydney University’ and—despite the family having lost a lot of money through bad investments—lives in the ‘Californian bungalow in Vaucluse’ that they managed to save.
When we next meet the older woman from the bar we learn her name is Jan, prompting the narrator to say this:
Of course it was Jan … There were a million other Jans’, doing (amongst other similarly coded working class) things such as, ‘manning tuck shops … having husbands who never spoke … working in receptions … shopping at K-Mart, and maybe, on special occasions, Sussan … and doing Weight Watches.
I am guessing this set up was probably intentional. Perhaps the main character goes on a journey leading to a more nuanced understanding of Jan. The two might even forge some kind of connection, or earn each other’s grudging respect, from behind those opposing class lines. This is hinted at when the main character riffs about how, ‘nobody ever noticed the Jans … I had never really paid attention, until one walked to the bar and demanded to be looked at.’
But I’ll never know, because to get there you have to be willing to get past the set up, and soon after those Jan passages, I stopped reading.
My mother is a working class Jan, which perhaps explains part of my sensitivity.
I have a particular distaste for middle class snobbery at the best of times, but when it comes with some patronising pats on the head, I can’t stand it. Because, really, no one ever noticed the Jans? What, beyond their bad dress sense? Of course we notice the Jans—it’s just that too often a take like Maley’s is the one that gets published about them.
This can make it feel as though we are still grappling with the idea expressed by Enza Gandolfo (author of the amazing working class novel The Bridge) that ‘being middle class—like being white and male—is read as the universal human experience.’ After a recent event at the Adelaide Writer’s Festival, Jeff Sparrow noted that ‘you wouldn’t know from contemporary literary culture that the great bulk of the population belongs to the working class.’
This is slowly changing, and more and more working class fiction is finding its way to us. I will forever remember first picking up Luke Carmen’s book, An Elegant Young Man, and marveling, not just over his skill as a writer, but also at the book’s setting. Seeing Mt Pritchard and Granville come to life on the page, having grown up just down the road from one of these areas, gave me license to believe you could create fiction about people and places that were previously invisible. There is also the wonderful work of Emily Maguire, Peter Polities, Melissa Lucashenko, Felicity Castanga, Shirley Le, and of course Enza Gandolfo.
In fact, in the same year that Jacqueline Maley book was released, Maguire’s latest novel, Love Objects, served as a great counterpart—both books are written by intelligent women and set in contemporary Sydney, but it was Maguire’s that kept it real and relatable. It also did the important work of making visible a class of people that are in fact the majority, as Sparrow reminds us.
There are three main characters in Maguire’s book and two work in low-paid jobs (at a supermarket and retail/department store) while the other is trying to find his feet after being released from prison. When Lena—who works in the supermarket—rushes to catch hot and overcrowded buses in order to make her shifts even though her personal world is falling apart, we know that if she loses her job she won’t be able to keep studying or pay the rent.
The working lives of Maguire’s characters, and the disruptions to them, underpin so much of the story and help drive the narrative. This, in itself, is a kind of revelation: visible and minute details of ordinary but necessary jobs, something else too often absent in our stories.
But the real wonder are the characters themselves. In Nick, for example, there is the excellent portrayal of what a health crisis can mean when you don’t have money – the running backdrop to his story is a howling, debilitating toothache that he can’t afford to fix, so constant and visceral you want to pull the thing out yourself.
In all of the book’s characters what we see the kinds of hardships that feel far more familiar to those of us who have also come from struggling families or difficult backgrounds than that of losing excess property in the family portfolio due to bad investments.
The essential difference in work like Maguire’s, as with Carmen, Lucashenko, Le, Gandolfo and Polities, is that the authors themselves hail from working class communities. This is why we see not only a challenge to dominant, old narratives, but also—because the writers are able to draw on their own experiences of class, sexuality, migration and race—that the working class is not comprised solely of white, blue-collar male workers, but is in fact incredibly diverse and complex. Looking at most Australian fiction, you wouldn’t necessarily know this.
I saw some performance artists once and they perform an entire physical theatre piece as Bogans. They had mullet wigs, wore singlet tops, drank VB cans and spoke in exaggerated tones. I knew the performers, and I knew they were not working class, which was mildly irritating at the time, but what stayed with me most was how tired it was, this ongoing narrow depiction that utterly lacks imagination, for want of anything else.
When we forever position the working class this way is it any wonder that depictions of them—that is when there are any – are based on ridicule or mockery? Or simplified to the point of stupidity. Almost as if people from poorer or less educated backgrounds couldn’t possibly live the width and depth of the human experience because they do ‘tasteless’ things, like drink Barcardi and Coke and holiday in Bali.
Something that motivated me in writing my own first book, which is far more bogan than the work of the writers mentioned above, is that I never saw myself or my family in the dominant working-class caricatures or tropes, and I found it baffling that my people were shown as either ridiculous or offensive, but were never afforded narratives that considered things like structural inequalities or inherited traumas.
Too many of these types of stories come from people without any basic understanding of the lives of working class people, and without more working class people telling their stories themselves these realities will remain either invisible or unfairly portrayed.
What we are seeing anew in this pandemic is that the working class is a large, diverse and complex community that rarely gets heard or understood. It is the beating heart behind the scenes of the nation, doing some of the hardest and most essential work and not only getting disproportionally rewarded for it—but paying the biggest price when things go wrong. The least we can do is listen to its stories, and do this up close and personal.
By people, for example, who are the Jans, or who know and love the Jans—not the ones who seem surprised that they exist, or who look down their noses at them for shopping at Sussan’s. In other words, not through the distant and middle-class lens of others.