Working class? Here’s Lisa McInerney’s escape manual
Pick a skill and work on it, and mortgage providers will soon be courting you
Lisa McInerney: when we assume that writers are middle class by default, we can so easily absolve ourselves of any responsibility to counteract. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty
Of the various social classes, working class is the most slippery. If, like me, you were born into a working-class family or community, do not be concerned about being labelled in perpetuity. The world is lousy with people who will happily erase your identity, and you don’t even have to pay them.
This is a big statement to make; after all, is it not that social class exists in all of its impermeability for a reason? If social class was an unsettled state, then surely it wouldn’t be social class at all; it would be called “current circumstances” and we’d all be flinging it on and off like modish headwear. But, alarmed by alarmist reports that membership numbers are shrinking, the middle classes seem to have taken the drastic measure of attempting to induct as many wretches as possible. And, wearing otherness as though it’s a suit of armour, the working classes seem to have adopted adoption as a viable method of dealing with the successful.
Whatever about median income and the evolution of Marxist theory, if you’ve got a pair of chinos or a third-level education, prepare for assimilation.
I write about working-class characters. I do so not because I want to redress the balance in English-language literature, where characters seem to be comfortably middle class by default, but because it’s my default.
No car, no holidays, no opinion on Joyce; a council house, a cynic’s caution, an army of cousins.
I have highfalutin ideas about storytellers’ responsibility; there are certain stories that are yours to tell (“This task was appointed to you, Frodo of the Squalor, and if you do not find a way, no one will”).
Still, it surprises me when I am asked questions about my supposedly noble motives, or referenced as a writer who writes about lives that are not often featured front and centre in literature. It shouldn’t surprise me, because we’re all very worried about the homogenisation of literary fiction, but it does, because if I’m working class why wouldn’t I write about working-class lives? It’s not as if I’m doing it as court-ordered community service.
A potential explanation is that writers, like characters, are assumed to be comfortably middle class by default, and because no one likes cognitive dissonance, the working-class writer will be encouraged towards redefinition. It’s quite rude to say to a working-class writer, “I am experiencing cognitive dissonance, so if you wouldn’t mind warping into something more manageable?” so attempted erasures tend to be a little more subtle. But don’t worry. I’m doggy-wide, and I’ve identified a few and outlined them for you.
Bonus points if your assimilation discredits the working class as a whole!
Competence is a foot out the door
There exists this canard that aptitude is something you pay for, that talent, hard work and tenacity are part of a success story only when they’re moulded into a useful whole by an expensive education, one-on-one tuition, mentorships agreed on golf courses or good old pre-Reformation-style nepotism.
Being first-rate at something that isn’t drinking tins, childbearing or bare-knuckle boxing is a sure-fire tell that the subject was only tentatively working-class in the first place. So handy that a person’s entire background, upbringing and personal philosophy can be peeled off like a purifying face mask if they make good, for the past is something to be overcome and not celebrated.
I spoke not so long ago to a broadcaster who asked whether published writers could still be working class, as if aesthetics is all that separate the social classes. We got a little further into the conversation and it came out that his partner had suggested he wasn’t working class any more because he had become a broadcaster. Farewell to all that built your character, bucko, you’re a bourgeois boy now. In this scenario, accomplishment mutates not only your present circumstances, but all of your past experiences. In this scenario, class is simplified so as to be about money, and, occasionally, moral fortitude; its parameters don’t really exist unless you’re inept, in which case adversity is just deserts.
All a working-class person needs to do to become middle class is be good at something. Those who benefit from a class system – they are few but they are powerful – will ensure the class system is maintained. Ergo, we cannot have the idea that working-class people are just as talented, hard-working or tenacious as anyone else, otherwise “class” could revert to its Marxist definitions and all and sundry will be wondering how, exactly, one seizes the means of production. So the lesson is: pick a skill and work on it, and you’ll be courted by mortgage providers before you know it.
Working for the man means being his emissary
For a time I worked for a company that manufactured and fitted windows and doors. I was hired to answer the phone and emails, and in order to be all right at both I developed a clear phone voice and took care with my grammar and punctuation. Also I ironed my clothes before I came to work.
One day I answered the phone to a local councillor who proceeded to eat the head off me over a delayed repair for a constituent’s windows. We had not repaired the windows because the required part had not yet come in, but the client lived in a council estate and had assumed we were dragging our heels because the company was staffed with moonlighting nobs who hated the poor. She had contacted the local councillor, who hoped one day very soon to be a local TD, so he got on his high horse (stoned donkey, if he’d been committed to his theme) and charged into battle. I explained the problem was a lack of casement hinges and not snobbery, but he was still muttering darkly as he hung up. The main thing was that he assumed the building company I worked for represented Opulent Ireland, despite the fact that we were a motley bunch of white van men and incompetent typists. “Working for the man” had become “endorsing the nefarious plotting of the ruling class”. The only problem was that my wages didn’t match the job title.
The other thing was that now that I had a full-time job it was assumed that I would be sending my daughter to a private school. I felt utterly transformed when a colleague expressed confusion at my plans – if you could call them plans and not lackadaisical assumptions – to send my daughter to the local community school. “Not into town?” she said, “town” meaning the city 13km up the road. “You haven’t put her name down anywhere?” This colleague was a job-sharer. She worked one week on, one week off, and though she had a large and beautiful home it seemed she worked to keep her considerable brain active rather than out of financial necessity.
“No,” I said, calmly, but that evening I went out and bought a Lexus NX and Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners.
Long words make magic spells
“Moratorium” is a common enough word in Ireland, because it refers to that blessed practice not every country can take for granted – the cessation of all election coverage in the media from 2pm the day before voting. Ostensibly this gives the electorate a chance to reflect before heading to the polls; in Ireland we usually reflect on how aggravating and wrong the politicians are. So perhaps the word moratorium is not so commonly used in other English-speaking countries, but it gets fair use in Ireland, and my character Ryan Cusack, who appears in my novels The Glorious Heresies and The Blood Miracles, is Irish, and on one occasion he uses it. Thereafter were raised little red flags. How would Ryan, being working class, know a word like “moratorium”? Was the question not how would his author, being working class, know the word “moratorium”? She learned it from the telly, as it happens.
Another reader said that for the sake of realism she had wished that even one of the Miracles characters had been a moron. If this was simply because she prized intellectual variety in a novel’s cast, that would have been fine, but I suspect there was a little more to it, because it’s rare that readers cry out for more simpletons in books about horny academics or the disorders of the gentry. Working-class people, know your place! But do not know your “vicinity” or “domicile”, because they’re big words for use by middle-class people.
I’ve gone on about this before because I am loquacious and pugnacious and a bunch of other things working-class people are but can’t spell.
About a year before I wrote this essay, I wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper about how one’s use of language is not a class signifier, because language is not a catapult to take you from plebeian to toff. However, no one ever listens to me, so the upwardly mobile should make use of this language scepticism.
Club Middle Class? A thesaurus and a lozenge and you’re in, mate.
Feminism is for ladies of leisure, socialism is for dandies
One thing I’ve learned from watching those of us on the left tear each other to shreds on social media is that there’s no such thing as a working-class feminist. This was news to me, and news I’m sure to a lot of engaged, enraged and activist women. Surely the desire to see gender parity across all strata of society is not particular to the moneyed intelligentsia? Surely, my arse. Idealism and empathy, once traits associated with revolutionaries or mothers with an awful lot of sons, are in contemporary terms but fleeting fits of bourgeoisie conscience.
Feminism is a sewing circle for the upper crust and socialism has something to do with champagne.
This is particularly confusing when you consider that the people most likely to benefit from feminist or socialist policies are the disadvantaged; and for feminism or socialism to triumph there would have to be a dismantling of the class system. It seems a pernicious trick to insist that asking for social change is an activity for the people who are least likely to want social change, but there you go.
Out yourself as a feminist or a socialist and you will immediately be awarded your middle-class citizenship and expelled from the terraces, which, for some reason in this scenario, are peopled by Conservative voters and men’s rights activists.
If you think champagne’s a signifier, wait till you eat this avocado
Avocados are for wankers. Yes, they are delicious and good for you, and are reasonably priced in Aldi, but they are symbols of affluence, and mashing one to go on a slice of wholegrain toast will immediately raise the market value of every house in a half-mile radius, which no millennial will ever be able to buy because they’re too busy wasting their wages on avocados.
The salt of the earth don’t eat avocados! They’re for privileged types who have nothing better to do than worship shiny-toothed food writers and Fitstagram celebs.
I really like avocados and until I became a published writer, and therefore indubitably middle class, I used to only eat them under cover of darkness. Working-class people are not supposed to like avocados. In order to extricate yourself from the working classes, you do not even need to enjoy the eating of avocados. Just public mention of a nice ripe Hass should do the trick.
Writing? Well, lah-de-dah!
And so where is the working-class writer? In my experience she’s found on social media, complaining that all of the other writers are blue-bloods whose work is of dubious quality and who’d topple from their pedestals in a true meritocracy, the rules for which she’s drafted a dozen times in her head. All a working-class writer needs to do to become middle class is be published and pff! Ascended!
Tongues extracted from cheeks, now let’s take a crabbier look. What’s irritating about this last one is that when we assume that writers are middle class by default, we can so easily absolve ourselves of any responsibility to counteract.
It is true that writers are more likely to come from comfortably middle-class backgrounds for a number of reasons, not least that it’s prudent to have a safety net because there’s balls-all money in writing. But when we assume that the working-class writers aren’t there – that they’re neither in situ nor emerging – how can we support them? How do we go along to their readings, choose their works for our curricula, or, for the love of God, buy their bloody books?
The contemporary class system is a capitalist conceit and, as we are still a long way from being able to dismantle it, we must use its tools. Why aren’t there more working-class writers? Why aren’t there more working-class stories? Because not enough people clamour for them, and too many have accepted alternatives as replacements.
Middle classes inducting former wretches, working classes adopting out their successful. This moving of the goalposts may seem a fine thing, if its conclusion is a newly mutable class divide. I am not convinced. Inducting former wretches and wearing otherness has the same result: downplaying structural inequality in favour of the pretty hoax that social class involves no limitations that can’t be overcome with integrity, hard work and humility.
In particular, the self-othering performed by working-class people, either by those who wish to reject the label and proclaim that they achieved what they achieved independently (meaning if you don’t excel, the only reason is your own moral failures); or those who wish to disown the ambitious (meaning if you do excel, the only reason is your own deviousness), does nothing but sell out its fellows.
The truth is that systems that benefit the rich cannot exist without fevered maintenance carried out by the rest of us: divide et impera, and have each sub-class police the behaviour of the one below it. We’re encouraged to believe there are few working-class artists, few working-class idealists. That creativity is the privilege of the rich because the rich have nothing else to do. So what’s more demeaned? Working-class people, or art itself?
There’s a word for it in Ireland: notions. “Notions” of course is a synonym for “ideas”, but in this context they’re ideas of an unwholesome kind – ideas above your station.
Irish people – particularly Irish working-class people – live in terror of being accused of having notions. What sort of patience would a community need for a member intrigued by shiny things like poetry, fashion, radical politics or avocados? These are whims to be indulged, not enterprises to be implemented; they are not for people at the coalface. Notions is the class divide seen through the lens of working-class experience; notions is the fear of being labelled middle class. It’s a struggle no less clandestine than “keeping up with the Joneses”.
Instead of worrying people will judge your modest means, you worry that people will assume you to be a haughty class traitor, pretentious, a phoney. Or worse, that they will annul the challenges you’ve overcome or invalidate the challenges you face.
What’s more indicative of notions than making art? What, are you too good to work for a living?
Let no mistake be made. Discouraging notions does not defend earthy, wholesome working-class mores. It’s just another way of keeping you in your box.
So what’s the state of the working-class writer? The state of this one is intermittent irascibility, the constant need to feel out role and place and be okay with it, the rejection of capitalist power structures alongside the paradoxical need to be defined by roots.
Class is a construct, but a construct in the same way that our roots are a construct; those aspects of ourselves we feel connect us to our families, our communities or our countries are no less indistinct and no less meaningful. Like the broadcaster deemed “evolved” by his partner, my experiences will not be written over, all of those events and words and challenges and joys that informed my personality whitewashed by my decision to attempt a career in the arts. I reject the idea that culture is defined by the cultured. Of course I do: the idea is profoundly stupid.
Slippery thing, though, working-class identity. Particularly if you want to scribble for a living. Worth keeping an eye on it. I’m only saying.
This is a piece from Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers, edited by Kit de Waal (Unbound, £9.99)