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literary culture

The Australian publishing industry’s problem with class

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.

 

Image: Flickr

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Michele Freeman is a writer and teacher from Sydney. Her first novel, set in Sydney’s western suburbs, is currently out on submission and more information about her work can be found at michelefreeman.org.

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Comments

  1. Fantastic!
    However, from a working class and hoarder view point, Maguires take on the hoarder felt researched and not part of her immediate world, almost caricature.
    Thank you Michele, we all need more discussions about Jans.

    • An Interesting perspective. I think I recall hearing something similar, in fact. Thanks very much for reading

  2. You make some good points Michele.
    Hypocrisy rules when it comes to class in politics.
    The Liberal- Nationals wouldn’t be caught dead rubbing shoulders with the working class at a caviar and champagne garden party, yet come election time, they pander to their propagandised view/s of the world.
    As for the middle class, most of them sold their souls to avarice a long time ago.

    • They love pandering to the working class come election time, don’t they? And ‘keeping it real’ by having a good ole swig of beer for a photo op…Thanks for reading Johnny

  3. Great article. The working class hold many more complexities and nuances than some writers can give credit for, and it’s great to see this topic explored here in this piece.

    • All anyone wants/deserves is to be afforded the nuance and complexity that resides in all of us, surely. Thanks Mike, for taking the time to read and comment

  4. Good to see someone bringing this perspective to bear on Australian literature. Thanks for publishing this .

    • This line raised an eyebrow in the editing process, so it’s quite funny to see it commented on (and appreciated) here! Thanks Peter

  5. You’ve drawn sone really fantastic distinctions here between literature that is nuanced and complex and work that keeps pumping tired old tropes which you pointed out are not just offensive but really, really boring. More please!

  6. Thank you for writing this. Bobbin Up by Dorothy Hewett is another piece of Australian working class fiction from the 1950s, with the author being middle-class turned working class background.

  7. Would have thought social class structures to be far more diverse than any traditionally naturalised Upper-Middle-Working class model, and more along those divisional lines of race, class, gender and cultural identity, or lack thereof, all determinants of values, beliefs, power structures, economic distributions and social and cultural influence, as well as educational and social opportunities, all out to predetermine and so fix a ‘natural’ class model in the minds of disadvantaged social groupings in order to not have such a perennial class scam challenged.

    • The composition of the working class is, and always has been, diverse. But in essence Class is a material construct. Sometimes too much intersectionality is not a good thing.

  8. Thank you Michele,

    Going off on bit of a tangent here, what about the costs associated with becoming a writer?

    You could go to university to study creative writing and perhaps even make some connections with the publishing industry.
    Here’s a few courses available:
    Graduate Certificate in Creative and Professional Writing – Griffith University
    TOTAL SUBJECTS 4, PRICE $11,250, STUDY METHOD 100% online
    Master of Creative Writing – Macquarie University
    TOTAL SUBJECTS 8, PRICE $20,264, STUDY METHOD 100% online
    Master of Writing – Swinburne University of Technology
    TOTAL SUBJECTS 12, PRICE $38,256, STUDY METHOD 100% online

    Too much? What about doing some short courses or workshops?

    Here’s a course offered by Writing NSW:
    Writing Conflict
    Cate Kennedy
    27 October to 2 November 2021, online
    Full Price: $210
    Member: $155
    Conc Member: $135

    And here’s a three hour workshop offered by Queensland Writers Centre on Nov 13:
    Beyond the Hero’s Journey with Anthony Mullins
    $70 – $115 Face to Face
    $35 – $49 Live streaming

    Still too much? How about doing it on your own and submitting to some Australian Literary Magazines? It is strongly recommended that first you read what these magazines publish, you will be encouraged to subscribe, as subscribers often get preferential consideration, or, you may have to actually be a subscriber to be able to submit.

    One year subscription rates:
    Overland – $60
    Meanjin – $120
    Westerly – $45
    Kill Your Darlings – $49.95
    Island – $33
    Australian Book Review – $90
    Going Down Swinging – $99

    Still a bit hefty? You could buy individual issues? Or, what about entering some competitions?

    The Stringybark Open Short Story Award – $14 for 1 story, $26 for 2 stories, $36 for 3 stories
    Newcastle Short Story Award – $16.50
    Stuart Hadow Prize – $25
    Lane Cove Literary Awards – $15
    Southern Cross Short Story Competition – $20
    ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize – $15 for subscribers, $25 for non-subscribers

    Michele, if as you write above, ‘without more working class people telling their stories themselves these realities will remain either invisible or unfairly portrayed,’ it is a shame that in Australia the standard pathways by which an emerging writer might get their voice out there, are way beyond the means of the working class.

    • *Going Down Swinging subscription is 4 years for $99

      BUT your general point stands, of course. Entry fees (however they appear) are enormous, exhausting and too prevalent to do a full accounting (though I admire your effort here).

      Paid-for fellowships is the one that brings me the most despair.

    • Thanks for taking the time to reply and engage like this, Sean. Yeah, there are so many barriers to navigate, and the cost of education (not just for writing courses) is certainly one. Even though I’ve benefitted from higher ed/class mobility, I still have a massive hecs debt, and its only getting bigger as it’s still unable to be paid and grows with interest…! I don’t have the answers….but I guess I hope working class writer’s do their best to write anyway, despite these barriers, and maybe at the very least (and not to appear flippant) their voice will remain authentic and real, and won’t be about the dictates of some of courses anyway….?! Anyway, thanks for reading

    • Fiction editor of Overland here, Sean. Thanks for your comment but it is incorrect in the case of Overland. I take no notice whatsoever of whether a writer is a subscriber or not when I consider a story for publication. I could not tell you, out of all the stories I’ve edited and published, which ones were by subscribers or not.

      It is true for some publications, however, that you need to subscribe to submit work. This speaks to the truly disgraceful lack of support for the arts in this country which has worsened so sharply under this government.

      Is it important to read the work in Overland to get a sense of the kind of work we publish? Yes it is. However, you can do that without paying a cent. We publish online fiction every third Friday and all the stories in our print editions are put online after the print edition has been out for awhile. So you can access all of Overland’s content for free.

      Having said that, the economics of being a writer are horrendous and time to develop work is increasingly out of reach of anyone but the well-off, which demands its own nuanced class analysis.

    • I suppose lots of literary sites/things have middle class elements and/or cater to middle class peeps…. I think Overland champions heaps of voices, and I’m thankful for that

      • defs has middle class origins. all eds until early nineties with v. middle class backgrounds, then only a few spattered w/ working class backgrounds in the 2000s.

  9. Great article, really enjoyed it. You have got me curious about the Maley novel though, I wonder if it’s deliberately trying to make the character as unlikable or whether the author is just tone deaf. After reading Caroline Kepnes’ You series, I’m a sucker for a judgemental, unlikable protagonist

    • Hi Riley, yeah I think it prop was deliberate, so that the main character could then go on to experience a change/realise more. That’s my guess anyway. I just wonder if a similar thing could have been achieved without the tired/lazy stereotypes though…Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the article, thanks

  10. Yeah I think the determinants of social class are actually are really dynamic and diverse, that’s true

  11. This opens the box on representations of working life and belonging. Here in Moe we wish people could write about our sense of community and remaining elements of the solid organic working class community the Latrobe Valley was in the 1960s and 70s

  12. Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man was the first time I’d seen the suburbs I grew up in represented, in fiction or otherwise. That kind of representation can’t be underestimated. Adding the late, great Dorothy Porter for nuanced rep of the working class in poetry.

    Thanks for this thoughtful take, Michele.

  13. This was a very interesting read, particularly as someone who is still unpacking the impacts of classism (and stigma associated with ‘low-class’ signifiers) on the way I see myself and my upbringing.

    My sister and I recently discussed the casual way in which young(ish) people (including, occasionally, us) throw around the word ‘basic’, which is essentially a not-so-covert way of ridiculing ways of dressing/acting/living that are not upper-middle-class. Even for those of us who love to unpack class on a theoretical level, the prejudice can run deep.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Kelly. I can still remember, acutely, all incidences of when me/my family were shamed, so I think the stigma you mentioned runs as deep as anything else too

  14. “…wouldn’t know taste if it sailed down on a schnitzel…”
    Hilarious! 🙂

    Australia has such a complex class history. Im not sure where I sit on the class sliding scale but it’s always good to read a piece that reminds you to check your inherent biases. Thank you for all the reading recommendations!

  15. I think you are ignoring a very large number of books in the crime genre which often feature or are based around the working class. Ironically this may be because of the literary worlds very middle class and somewhat snobbish habit of being dismissive of crime fiction.

    If you read, for instance, Shane Maloney or Peter Corris you would find working class cultures in Melbourne and Sydney well represented. Similarly of more recent years Alan Carter gives us convincing portrayals of the underclass in Fremantle in his beautifully written crime novels. The current vogue for ‘outback noir’ has also given us some wonderful writing about forgotten and ignored communities.

    I do think that it was more common in past times to write about Australia’s working class, perhaps because they were so much more present. Think of Alan Marshall and his books set in working class Collingwood, an area he knew well. Likewise Christina Stead. Ruth Park’s books are a heartfelt and moving portrayal of the working class in Sydney. Even that old snob, Patrick White, wrote his working class characters with conviction and sympathy. And then of course Frank Hardy, who gave us the wonderful Outcasts of Foolgarah.

    I wonder if today so many novelists are wedded to the inner city, where they will wax lyrical about the working class history of their gentrified and expensive suburb, but will not set foot in the places where actual working class people live. Indeed, I can think of quite a number of writers in Melbourne who will spout any number of left wing platitudes about Indigenous people, refugee rights, workers rights, and then openly deride people living in the outer suburbs as bogans in McMansions. Perhaps if publishers had an incentive to encourage writing competitions in outer suburban and regional and rural areas, we might get some convincing literary works about the modern working class. But while publishers and writers all go to the same cafes and arts events and award nights primarily in inner city Sydney and Melbourne, I wouldn’t hold my breath for anything other than an inner city luvvies fest to continue in the publishing world.

    • Spot on Vanda.
      The same goes for the Australian music scene. Lots of privately schooled ’struggling’ musos.
      Bit of an old boys network.

    • Thanks Vanda, this is so interesting. And yeah, fair enough I see the irony you point out. I didn’t really mean to have a ‘literary’ focus…(I actually wouldn’t even consider JMs work literary)…
      I wanted to comment on the snobbery and the tired, old, narrow tropes etc when it comes to the working class in our stories (its in TV as much as books I reckon)
      But, on the snobbery point in particular, you make a good point, as I know so many people look down their nose at crime fiction. I do read some, and if the ones you have mentioned do away with some of those probs above then I’ll happily check them out, so thanks for the recommendations. Its also interesting to reflect on that kicking down of ‘bogans in McMansions etc’ and I think yr right that some of that comes from being people being so removed from the actual working class…

  16. This was a wonderfully thought- provoking article, and relevant because I had a conversation with a friend today about the class implications in different cultures of nails – as in acrylics, gels, all that. This makes me realise i need to spend more time listening to authentic working-class voices.

    • Thanks Sophie and I love that you found relevance around nail type/culture! Lovely to hear of your reflection

  17. Thanks Michele and Overland, for your article. As someone who grew up in a poor working class family and as a person of colour and mixed race, I found your article and the comments refreshing. For me, it is those books who are written from personal experience, which are honest and heartfelt, are the ones which affect me the most and stay with me long after I’ve read them.
    Are there less working class stories written or published now compared to twenty or more years ago? From my experience, most people who work in the world of publishing are elitist. It will take more brave people to speak out and act, to make change.

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