Picture this: I’m sitting in the Writers and Artists office in 2018, typing on my computer, proud to have helped launch the premier prize especially for working-class writers like me. It’s the stuff that anyone new to publishing dreams of – to get your ideas not just heard, but actively supported.
But then the phone rings.
I answer by imagining that it will be a typical call we receive: a writer looking for advice on taking the next step in his career. We can meet on the phone for hours, talk to a writer through the submission process, or compile a long list of resources. It’s all part of an incredibly varied and rewarding job.
But this call is different.
We are not all equal. We never have been and we never will be, especially in the creative industries where, according to a recent study by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, “only 16% of people in creative jobs are from the working class “.
“I’m calling to ask about this new prize you’ve set aside for working-class writers,” the voice spits. “It’s discriminatory and divisive and you should be ashamed of yourself.”
This person was not interested in listening to my response, but if you ask me why I decided to create this award, this phone call sums it all up.
We are not all equal. We never have been and we never will be, especially in the creative industries where, according to a recent study by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, “only 16% of people in creative jobs are from the working class “, compared to almost a third of all workers in the entire British workforce. This figure drops to 10% for those working as authors, writers and translators, and 12% for those working in publishing. For those who succeed, “going up” can be as difficult as “going back”: nearly 80% of working-class people surveyed by The bookstore in 2019 felt that their background had hurt their careers.
I grew up in Chadwell Heath, a place on the border between East London and Essex. Stories were an integral part of my life, but a career in the arts seemed unachievable. My comprehensive school was placed in special measures and teachers came and went, while budget cuts meant the elimination of career development programs and other extracurricular opportunities. It was not just a time of great disruption, but a time when the arts were completely forgotten. Creativity has become an afterthought, a luxury for other luckier children.
It’s not a single story. I’m not the only book-loving kid who grew up without any knowledge of the publishing industry, but when I finally found my way to an entry-level job at Bloomsbury Publishing, I felt compelled to create opportunities for working-class creatives. .
The criteria for entering the Working Class Writers’ Award for Writers and Artists are simple. All we ask is that you are over 18 and live in the UK or the Republic of Ireland; submit unpublished writing; not have a publishing or agent contract; and consider yourself from a working class background. The winner receives a cash prize, mentorship from our judge, a set of W&A Guide To… books, access to a number of our events, and a free one-year membership in the Society of Authors. Our shortlisted writers also receive a bundle of books and membership in the Society of Authors.
Some people bristle at the mention of self-identification. The semantics of class definition is something scholars have debated for centuries. We know that class is difficult to define and that we cannot talk about it without acknowledging the intersectionality of race, gender, disability and other factors. So why not let the individual decide if this price speaks to him? We do not force or obstruct. There are enough obstacles for working class people as it is.
Our inaugural winner, Lucy Kissick, then secured literary representation and a two-book contract with Gollancz. Her first novel, Plutochina, was released this year. The prize continues to grow and this year we are sending feedback to every writer who participates. It’s not an easy task for a small team, but it’s something we plan to offer for each subsequent year. The prize should be more than a flash in the pan: it aims to provide concrete and useful advice and next steps.
Former judges of the Writers’ and Artists’ Working Class Award include Natasha Carthew, Cornish writer and poet; Paul Mendez, whose first novel rainbow milk told the coming-of-age story of a young gay black man fleeing his upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness; and Lisa McInerney, an award-winning Irish author who gives voice to the people of Cork.
The lives of working-class writers are incredibly varied, which is reflected in the enormous diversity of stories we receive. Entries range from historical to fantasy, contemporary fiction to memoir, and everything in between.
The imagination has no limits. And I won’t stop until the same goes for the careers of working-class writers.