Inside culture: Philip Hensher

We've lost the factors that created Stan Barstow

With the death of Stan Barstow, a distinctive and important part of English fiction comes to an end. Barstow was a working-class writer who emerged from what has been called an "unlettered" background. Would it happen today? I doubt it.

When Barstow's first novel, A Kind of Loving, was published to great acclaim in 1960, it took its place in a tradition going back to D H Lawrence and beyond. Walter Greenwood's 1933 Love on the Dole inspired a whole generation of postwar novelists of working-class life. The most gifted, Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse, maintained long successful careers; others, such as John Braine, John Wain and indeed Barstow found fashion passing them by.

Not all of these were working-class in the same sense, but all of them benefited from a universal, high quality of education. That education also created readers for their work, and an interest in subjects such as respectable, aspirational working-class life which the novel had traditionally neglected.

And seems to be neglecting again. A couple of weeks ago, the Scottish novelist Alan Warner suggested there was currently a prejudice against novels of working-class life. Certainly, it is difficult to think of recent English novels which take it as a normal, rich setting.

I wonder whether the rise of the discipline of creative writing has anything to do with it. Until 20 years ago, an ordinary sort of education and degree of application would have been enough to get a novelist to the starting blocks. Nowadays, an MA in creative writing is increasingly viewed as indispensable.

It is not impossible to get public funding to do an MA in creative writing, but I would guess that the vast majority of creative-writing students are self-funded. The result is, inevitably, a predominantly middle-class flavour to creative-writing classes in universities; a predominantly middle-class flavour to the students who make it out into publication; a predominantly middle-class flavour to the books they choose to publish.

Stan Barstow was introduced to education by grammar schools; he got a good job among ambitious people, and, no doubt, access to a terrific public library. He was also helped by the example of other working-class writers around him attaining success. With all that, he still had a difficult career and was relatively slow to start. How much more difficult will it be for working-class writers in the future, now that almost every one of those steps has been removed?

Of course, some people will, through determination, make their way against circumstances. But the decline of working-class subjects as a topic for fiction is down to much more than a change in fashion. The likelihood of a new Stan Barstow emerging is, I think, fairly small.