Last week, I promised to bring up the issue of class and book awards, and since we didn’t have the time to discuss it last week, as a follow-up to our discussion of the Hugo Awards and the Puppy Invasion, I figured we might as well get to work now, dear readers.
One of the issues that was discussed, as reported by Wired, during the Puppy Horror was the class aspect of the awards. And while most of the points brought up were exclusionary and near-sighted, there is an element to this argument that should be addressed.
In December of 2014, author Adrian McKinty (pictured left, courtesy of The Irish Times), author of the Sean Duffy crime novels, which I adore, and the Michael Forsythe series, which I also adore, among other literary achievements, sat down and wrote a blog post about the Man Booker Prize (fair warning: there is some strong language in the post). In it, he challenged two-time Booker-prize-winning author Peter Carey’s claim that Americans should not be allowed to compete for the prize since it would, essentially, spoil the ‘particular cultural flavour’ of the award.* McKinty used this argument as a jumping-off point to argue that the actual “flavour” of the Booker Prize was classicism, not nationalism. As he noted, the vast, vast majority of the judges for the Booker Prize were attended private schools (which are much more elite than our version), while only 5% of the British population as a whole had attended private schools. The result, he stated, was that:
…the Booker Prize judging panels are almost always made up of posh people and their chairperson is almost always very posh indeed. Posh people naturally would be sympathetic towards books about their own class and resistant to challenges to the status quo, hence Peter Carey’s worry about vulgar Americans entering the fray. (Peter Carey boarded at Geelong Grammar, one of the most expensive and exclusive private schools in Australia.) In consequence the Booker Prize winning novel is often a safe middle class rather dull book.
He also proposed a short set of practices that might help the Booker Prize improve its nominations, which included allowing publishing houses to send in more than one book for consideration (that way they could be riskier in their nominations, rather than nominating books they think will win based on past years), and encouraging genre fiction, because: “The best science fiction, crime fiction and romance writing is often as good as literary fiction but these books seldom make the Booker shortlist because they are considered to be a low form of writing.”
Surprisingly, McKinty’s recommendations may have actually helped. As he noted in a blog post last October (language, again, FYI) the last three winners of the Booker Prize have been working-class, which points to a conscious attempt at diversity among the jury (See Paul Beatty, the most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize, below).
There are two big issues here: class, especially in the United States, is less defined by income, and is much more a social thing, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research examined in a recent survey. That is mostly because the country is so big and diverse that there is no one bracket to determine wealth (look at house prices in Massachusetts vs. Arkansas, for example). Thus, an income that might define you as “middle class” in one area would put you firmly in the “working class”, or even the “working poor” in other places. So there is no one experience of class, or an ideology of class cohesion.
And class is perhaps the only social identifier that is inherently anti-social. Capitalism, by definition, is a competition. In order to win, you have to beat someone else to resources, to funding, to markets, to jobs, etc. It’s why the relationship between classes is always categorized as a “struggle”. McKinty alludes to this in his blog post, but the brutal point is that this “class struggles” makes us instinctively want to punch “downward”, or at those we perceive as “downward”….which is where the intersection of race, gender, nationality, and class all become significant together.
Because one of the positive things about encouraging books from and about “working class people”, especially in the US, is that we would inherently get more books by and about women, people of color, and immigrants, all of whom make up a plurality of the “working class”, and all of whom go under-represented in fiction.
But there is a snag to this. In order to get these stories, we need to encourage these stories. Because the main identifiers of the “working class”, across the board are A) a lack of higher education and B) a lack of access to continuing education and self-development, for reasons of distance, finances, or familial obligations. And that is a huge, huge issue.
Because we are not going to get those stories unless we encourage people to tell those stories. And in order to do that, we need to give people the tools to be storytellers–reading, writing, and practice. But more than that, we need to provide time and space. The first two can be acquire via education. The second two, however, are some of the most difficult to acquire, especially for those without income security. And no book prize in the world is going to improve its “working class” prejudices until we all show that we value everyone’s stories by listening to them, and providing the space for them to be shared.
*I feel the need to state here that Peter Carey is the author of some of the most important books in my life, including Oscar and Lucinda and His Illegal Self, and use this moment to point out that we all, always, have lots of learning and growing to do.