It’s easy to confuse “what is” with “what ought to be”. Especially when “what is” has worked in your favor – Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones
What am I writing about?
Blogs today often have an “about” section. For now, for various reasons, I am not going to have an “about” page. Instead, I will use my early articles to give a sense of what you might expect from this blog. This article is about what I will write about – you will obviously get a sense of who I am from it too. To that end, it seemed appropriate for me to tell you about my some of my own influences, as I will incorporate, to an extent, a derivative of their styles (albeit, probably a poor one!). I thought it would also be fun and indulgent.
Writers who have inspired me were concerned with more than action-packed narrative and building tension – the kinds of things that one is taught of in school. Some of them did not use exciting first lines which would “hook the reader in“; some of them did. Many of my favourite influences did not pander to the reader but instead demand the reader to commit to them, and you could estimate from the first line or paragraph (and the width of the book) just what kind of experience lay ahead of you either way.
All of those writers wanted to convey a message about the world in which we live. Their message, whether literal or underlying, had a purpose they were propagating. This is an inherently political act. The theme that many of my influences incorporated was based on the complexities of simple everyday living. Their subject was the ordinary anonymous life. Simply put, they were concerned with how the majority of people who live and work within a given society are affected by that society; by its mores, laws, politics, and economics. In our epoch, this theme is inseparable from the issue of class.
what i am probably not
There is nothing wrong with escapism; secret agents desperate to avoid the next World War, superheroes with supernatural powers, or witty detectives solving crimes at bourgeois soirées. Such larger-than-life entertainment is essential in its own way. Nor are escapism and socio-political stories mutually exclusive categories, as Game of Thrones exemplifies, it being both an action-packed fantasy and, at times, quite an insightful social commentary, as is the brilliant V For Vendetta. But I doubt I’ll be falling under the same categories as Agatha Christie, Frederick Forsyth or Ian Fleming, and I certainly do not have the illustrative skills of a graphic novelist.
what i might be
I am more concerned with the theme of class – the issues that face the “99%”, the proletariat. I don’t know if that subject invokes the same sense of escapism, excitement and sheer entertainment as the other authors I have already mentioned, but it carries a strong message, and people evidently relate to it. I believe it has proven timeless.
If not as dramatic as other forms of fiction, discussing class issues has historically been a controversial subject, and I believe – given contemporary events around the world – it is as controversial as ever. Many great writers have been exiled, imprisoned, assassinated, or have had publishers decline their work. Class division is the most imposing obstacle to true equality, freedom and progress in the world today, and that makes it dangerous.
Perhaps for those reasons, stories which raise the issue of class-divisions are not necessarily ones that are propagated by the “mainstream” or encouraged by teachers in schools or writing classes. Marx may be the world’s most referenced author, but his works are not usually stocked on the shelves of Eason. For various reasons, discussion of such a topic is implicitly, if not openly, repressed by society. Thus, the issue of class is not always present. Either, we are not class-conscious, or because, in our pursuit of social advancement we are reluctant to write or say anything which might compromise our progress as individuals.
Despite all this, “class” is not a new theme, or an under-discussed theme; nor is it considered a strictly “mainstream” theme, although writers who have explored this subject are renowned. Some of these writers and books are listed below. They have literally changed my outlook on life and have educated me profoundly.
a fun list of some of my favourites (who you should read if you haven’t done so already)
George Orwell is one of the most famous writers within this genre. Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), spent much of his career writing on (and fighting for) issues concerning ordinary people; his non-fiction Down and Out in Paris and London is a relevant example, as is his fictional 1984, whose protagonist, Winston Smith, is virtually anonymous in a totalitarian society; even more anonymous than Smith are the ‘proles’ whom the state hardly considers worth monitoring. (Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is an educational read for any writer who is concerned with communicating effectively and conveying an important message, as is his essay Why I Write – both of them discuss the inherently political nature of writing). Anyway, Orwell is an influence.
Robert Tressell’s classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists portrays the everyday challenges of working class people from their own perspective (an achievement I have not seen any novel do as effectively since). Tressell’s novel was published by his daughter posthumously, and it became very popular. It has been called the socialist’s bible and is credited with “winning the 1945 general election for the Labour Party“. Today, it is rarely discussed in the media or mentioned along other classics, but many, including myself, consider it a life changing book. Notably, Orwell considered it a ‘book that everyone should read’, and declared that ‘a considerable novelist was lost in this young working-man whom society could not bother to keep alive’.
Not so proletarian, but relevant, is John William’s novel Stoner, which chronicles the lonely and anonymous life and death of struggling writer William Stoner – it illustrates the quiet unnoticed life many of us live, and describes the intricacies of one’s existence which can hinder fulfilment, contribution, and acknowledgement in the world.
Steinbeck’s simple folk-story The Pearl, powerfully describe the dramatic events in the lives of poor working people, as does Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Both of these stories tell of humble people struggling to obtain the unobtainable in a cruel and unfair world. In The Pearl, the chimera Kino and Juana struggled to reach for, turned out to be very monstrous indeed. For me, these stories touched on the concept that “everyone can achieve whatever they want, if they only work hard enough”, and expose it as a delusion.
James Joyce’s novels and short-stories, such as Dubliners, were based on the intrigue, beauty and obscenity of everyday life and unknown people. Another Dubliner, James Plunkett, wrote one of Dublin’s greatest novels Strumpet City, based on the build-up and events around the 1913 Lockout. Plunkett’s story explores the lives of a cross-section of society; privileged middle-class landlords, clergy, struggling working class, and the completely destitute; the tramp Rashers Tierney, who is almost invisible to the world around him, is one of the most striking characters of the novel.
The list of related books, stories, authors related to such a topic goes on and on – Dostoevsky, Trotsky, Plato, Marx, Chomsky… – but I could not omit just one more of my significant influences, Victor Hugo. Hugo had a more romantic and dramatic view on the life of the ordinary person, as he painted vividly throughout his epic Les Miserables. That tremendous novel was written from a bourgeois point-of-view, but nevertheless, from the point-of-view of a writer who knew the value and importance of discussing topics that are a reality for the majority of people. Hugo himself evolved over the course of his life from being a conservative royalist to a more radical republican. He wrote Les Miserables while in exile in Guernsey.
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless – Victor Hugo
I believe that the world can be a place where love, understanding and collaboration – not profit – are the driving forces of human progress, and I would like my writing to be indicative of that sentiment. From what I have experienced, the proletarian life – that unacknowledged entity – is the fundamental force for creating an egalitarian and productive world, through a powerful movement of solidarity and democracy. The working class is potentially the strongest force for change. Class-consciousness is key to achieving that change. What more exciting subject, or worthy subject, is there to write about? And what more accurate and relevant perspective is there to write from? As a writer, or as a reader, why be oblivious of that great, limitless content?