Philip Hensher: A different class of literature

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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 thanks to grammar schools, a temporary vogue for his subjects, and a loose circle of similar, gifted writers. Would it happen today? I doubt it.

When Barstow's first novel, A Kind of Loving was published to great acclaim and success 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, often Northern 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 Stan Barstow found fashion passing them by somewhat.

Not all of these were working class in the same sense, but all of them benefited from a universal, high quality of education. That high quality of 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 that 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.

You might think of Pat Barker; more doubtfully, of Nicola Barker's wonderful novels of Essex fantasy, or David Peace's elaborate conspiracy novels. Ross Raisin wrote an excellent novel this year, Waterline, addressing the descent of a working man into homelessness, which stood out for its rare combination of literary ambition and working-class subject. Beyond that, it is surprising how much traditional working-class subject matter has migrated into the grim shelves in WHSmith labelled "misery memoirs".

There is an elevated Marxist argument which claims that the novel itself is a middle-class form. It came about with the rise of capitalism; its first subjects were social rise, purchasing power and property. (Robinson Crusoe finds it quite natural to think about his plight in the form of double-entry book keeping). It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that the English novel really began to take an interest in working-class life. But, since then, the tradition of novels about the working classes, often in the provinces has been one of English fiction's richest, and has produced three or four of the greatest English novelists in H G Wells, D H Lawrence and Arnold Bennett. Where is the contemporary Wells?

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. Even if literary agents are, in practice, not much concerned about whether a prospective client has any qualifications or not, it is easy for beginning novelists to assume that an MA will be needed to get any kind of professional hearing.

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. Although there are few university courses in the humanities so directly targeted towards a vocational end, it is also true that there is rather a low hit rate in terms of career. You can't blame the funding authorities for regarding creative writing as a useful optional extra, and relying on prospective students largely funding it themselves.

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.

Uncharted terrain in European landscape art

There are other ways in which your bad luck can hamper your chances in life as a creative artist, and a spellbinding new exhibition at the National Gallery of Swiss and Norwegian landscape painting explores one of them. Richard Dorment in The Daily Telegraph openly said that he couldn't think of more than two Swiss painters, Fuseli and Klee. I can do a little better than that – the national painter Hodler is still highly popular, and the 18th-century portraitist Liotard is a genius – but they certainly haven't made a large international impact over the centuries.Visiting the exhibition, this seems very odd. Why should a hugely gifted landscape painter such as Alexandre Calame have remained in obscurity when his neighbours just over the border were avidly collected and highly praised? Oslo (Christiania as was) and Geneva were perfectly respectable places, but not perceived as major artistic centres. If people bought art there, it was generally by way of souvenirs rather than contributions to a serious collection. I guess this is much the way that the rest of Europe sees English painting. For most of history, it was not much collected, not much admired, and now not much thought about. Few European art-admirers know much, if anything, about Stubbs. But this is one of the charms of European art. You simply never know what an overlooked corner will turn up, what the most provincial of galleries will hold, and when an exhibition of Bulgarian impressionists will prove a delight.

Stick with the original voices

You have a choice, when going to see the wonderful new Studio Ghibli film, Arietty, based on Mary Norton's much-loved children's book The Borrowers. You may either see the original, with Japanese voices and English subtitles, or you may go and see the dubbed version with (in this country) Saoirse Ronan, Phyllida Law and Mark Strong, among other distinguished actors. With such fine English actors, it may seem affected or perverse to recommend that you give the Japanese original a go. But one of the underrated aspects of the marvellous Ghibli films is their responsiveness to the music of individual voices. Even if, like me, you don't speak Japanese, there is a wonderful unity between the sound of an actor's voice and the appearance of the character. I wasn't truly bowled over by Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away until I saw the Japanese original, and heard, for the first time, the absolutely astonishing sound of the witch's voice as performed by Mari Natsuki. The music of an actor's voice is often intrinsic to a film's appeal. And the loss of these magical Japanese voices is quite a high one, when the subtitles are helping you out. I must say I would never go to see a dubbed live-action film; too much is lost. I'm sure the dubbed Arietty is fine, but you will get more of a glimpse of the Ghibli conception with the original voices.