Literature and Class Consciousness



Who controls literature?

This question has been humming in my mind lately. It relates to power structures and class in Ireland. I can only speak of the Irish experience as that is what I’m familiar with but what I’m thinking of probably applies to most modern capitalist cultures.

In Ireland we rarely speak about class, it seems a very British idea, but there are different classes.
There is an upper class of the ultra rich. They control wealth and land. This is a relatively small class but very powerful.
There is a large middle class of educated professionals, doctors, solicitors, teachers, academics, politicians, journalists, etc.
There is a large working class of farmers, tradesmen, shop and industrial workers.
There is a small underclass of people who exist in a liminal space, they have almost no voice in our society.

In my experience it is the middle class who control literature and therefore literature reflects their interests. Most editors are from this class. Most publishers are run by people from the middle class. The news and media are run by people from the middle class. Politics is run by the middle class. Are most writers from this class too?

Now, I’m not calling this a conspiracy or saying that there is any ulterior motive behind it by people working in literature, however there is a downside to this. That is groupthink.

If all of the people who decide on what is ‘good’ literature come from the same class then we get a very narrow view of what literature is. Their interests and needs will dominate what’s published. If they write about the life experience of another class they do so from the outside and there will always be a judgement made about the lives of the other class.

For example, in literary magazines in Ireland at the moment there seems to be a strong interest in stories about the underclass; criminals, outlaws, and scumbags. They are ‘characters’ to feel sorry for or to laugh at. Rarely are their lives seen from the inside, without judgment. I suppose they are of interest because they live in the moment, acting out emotions in violent and sudden bursts. A sort of grotesque spectacle, a deformed human drama.

But where are the stories from the working class perspective? The upperclass? The underclass? What if a working class story came to an editor that did not fit with their view of ‘good’ literature? Would it be rejected?

This domination of literature by the middle class has a dangerous downside that I often see. When I’m not writing I teach in a secondary school and I see students who feel alienated from books and literature. They (mostly boys) tell me that they don’t read. I would argue that this is because they don’t see their own lives reflected in literature in a positive way. They see literature as something ‘posh’ that middle/upper class types are into but isn’t for them. So they prefer film, football and TV, places where their lives are reflected without as much judgement. They ignore literature altogether.

In conclusion…

If this were an essay I would have to reach a conclusion, prove my thesis, but I’m not interested in proving a point. I’m more interested in raising a question. If a literary scene is controlled by a particular class then their interests will surely dominate and every other class will be seen from the outside. This can only be bad for literature in the long run.

2 thoughts on “Literature and Class Consciousness

  1. you make a very good point. american lit is dominated by novels, from what I can tell, about families, marriages, ‘communication issues’ and the details of the upper middle class consumer culture. including brand names to show how good their taste is. what a bore!

    1. Thanks, it’s sad really. It’s like as if there’s only one flavour of food. It’s dull. Where’s the space for fresh and new voices? Is the counter-culture dead now?

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