Posted on 13th May 2015

Posted by Sophie

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Reading Ourselves

Midnight. Well, almost, we’re too excited to wait. We talk in hushed whispers as we unpack our lovingly prepared tuck boxes. Biscuits, sweets and cake are passed around. Teachers, the other girls and our plans for this term are discussed. But not home, we miss home already.

Before I left for school, I’d been stranded at a witch’s house, slept in a castle for a hundred years until I was woken by a handsome prince, and discovered a wolf disguised as my grandmother. When I was older, I’d become a blonde twin in California and an American teen detective before joining an upper-middle class group of rich, fast-living horse riders and their enemies and friends in the Cotswolds.

I loved reading. I loved being all of those characters. But they were fantasies; I was under no illusion that my life was or would ever be like any of theirs. Where were the contemporary working class characters? The ones who spoke like me? The ones who lived in a suburban house with a mother who cooked in a school kitchen and a father who worked in the local foundry?

It was music that helped me discover working class books. I was music obsessed as a teen. I listened to it; I played it; I discussed favourite bands; I read the NME and Melody Maker and Select. Through these magazines, I discovered what my favourite bands were reading, and I began to read the same things. Eventually this led me to Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, which my dad bought me for Christmas when I was seventeen. I loved the book, but the biggest thing it did for me was open up a whole new world of reading.

Via a late night Channel 4 series about contemporary Scottish writers, I discovered Janice Galloway and James Kelman. The Saturday after the episode about Kelman was broadcast, I went to Barnsley library. They had a choice of two of his books: Greyhound for Breakfast or The Bus Conductor Hines. I chose the bus conductor and changed my life. Here was a book where not only did the characters speak in a non-standard accent, they lived like people I knew, and had the type of jobs people around me had. It was the first time I realised you could speak without Received Pronunciation and still be a writer. That the stories I told could be about people like me.

Things seem slightly better now; I know there are contemporary children’s and Young Adult titles with working class protagonists because, during my time as a secondary school teacher, I taught them and recommended them to my students. However, Kevin Duffy, publisher at Bluemoose Books, writing in The Guardian last June, argued that mainstream literary fiction publishers still don’t want to publish stories about working class characters because they know little about working class lives. There are exceptions, of course, but there are still fewer working class protagonists than there are working class readers. And we’re not the only group significantly underrepresented.

Last month, Spread the Word published a report called Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place. In the introduction, Danuta Kean makes comparisons to the report she carried out ten years previously and concludes that, ‘…traditional publishers have retrenched and become more conservative in their editorial and employment choices’. This is despite the 2011 Census showing that eight million people in the UK are people of colour, and that the fastest growing ethnic group is those who identify as mixed heritage.

‘In a market dominated by mass-market fiction, it appears that the best chance of publication for a BAME novelist is to write literary fiction that conforms to a stereotypical view of Black or Asian communities,’ writes Kean. She quotes several BAME writers on rejections they’ve faced due to their books not being seeing as ‘authentic’ cultural stories or the idea that ‘…white readers would have problems reading books with “foreign” settings or all-Black casts’.

There are two interlinked ideas here. The first Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in her TED talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. She comments on people being reduced to one-dimension through only a single aspect of their story being told, whether that’s poverty or race or class (or disability or gender or sexuality, we could add). ‘Show people as one thing and one thing only and that’s what they’ll become.’

The problem with reducing people to a single aspect is that it dehumanises them. It allows a reader to think that someone from a different race or class or ‘other’ grouping can’t be the same as them; can’t have similar experiences, feelings, hopes; can’t have a talent or be intelligent. Ultimately it suggests that only white, middle-class people can be fully human: the many multi-dimensional stories about them have told us so.

The second idea is that of readers being unable to relate to characters who are ‘different’ to them. There’s a fantastic vlog from Nancy’s Reads where she discusses not being able to relate to the white American narratives she read as a child. ‘But I never questioned the validity of them. I knew that this was how some people lived.’

I think this aspect comes down to a question of why we read. I read because I want to be entertained; I want to discover new places and people, be taken to parts of the world (or indeed worlds) I might never visit; I want to learn, whether that’s learning about others or learning about myself. I never hear people discussing a novel about a serial killer and complaining they couldn’t relate to them. Did the eight million people who bought a copy of Gone Girl identify with Amy? If they did, society’s in serious trouble.

I don’t need to see a version of myself reflected back at me; what I do want to see is people from my part of the country, who speak with non-standard accents and have the variety of jobs and interests that the people around me do. It’s what I needed to see when I was a child too. How can stories help us make sense of who we are and of the world around us if they don’t reflect the diversity of human experience?

Stories, regardless of their genre or theme, need to represent the world we live in. They should reflect the make-up of the world’s population, not the make-up of the publishing industry. They should tell multiple stories about and including working class people, people of colour, disabled people, people who identify as LGBTQIA and those at the intersections of two or more of these categories. Stories help us empathise, to understand others and ourselves better. We need stories that reflect all of us.

NaomiFrisbyNaomi Frisby is working towards a PhD in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University.   Her thesis is in gender and diversity in circus and sideshow literature. She blogs at The Writes of Woman, a one-woman attempt to address the gender disparity in mainstream book reviewing. She can be found on Twitter @Frizbot.

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