At my grammar school, we read Dickens and Shakespeare – and whilst they didn’t exactly put me off reading, they didn’t make me fall in love with it either. My father came from a small island in the Caribbean, my mother is Irish and at home there were two publications to choose from: The News of the World or the Bible. We lived, seven of us, in a small terraced house with not enough to eat. If I identified with anyone in literature in those days it was Oliver Twist: “I want some more.”
I came to reading proper when I was about 23. I asked my boss to recommend ten of the best books he’d ever read. The list reflected his military background: The Seige of Krishnapur, The Red Badge of Courage, The Riddle of the Sands. He also threw in a few odd balls: Madame Bovary, Therese Raquin and The Old Wives’ Tale. After those ten books I ate my way through the British classics – literally hundreds, with diversions off to France and America – and emerged several years later with a head full of stories and a deep respect for the craft of writing.
I also found writers that seemed to speak to me or about me – Mark Twain, Mary Keane, Patrick Hamilton, Somerset Maugham – who knew what it was not to fit in, to be forever skulking around the edges of a room.
I began to think about seriously about writing, but knew the odds were against me. Most of the authors I had read were male, white and middle class with a university education. I left school at sixteen. If you’re a writer of any shade or background, the chances of success – that is to say a publishing deal that might yield a bit of money – are slim, right down there underneath gambling and acting. Factor in any kind of disadvantage, say disability, poverty, race or unemployment, and you begin to think it’s impossible.
So much of what helps you survive as a writer costs money. Ideas are free and the notepad and biro you can get from Tesco for about three quid. It’s the other things that bite: competitions and networking events, writing groups and workshops (room hire and fees), manuscript assessment (often heavy fees). Even free events still require money to get you there, and maybe a cup of coffee with your friends afterwards.
People often point at writers who have made it through poverty and out the other side with a six-figure deal. JK Rowling’s writing all day in coffee shops is often quoted as someone who made it against the odds. (The smallest cappuchino in Costa costs £2.05 incidentally and I doubt you could get away with only one). Real poverty is adding up all those costs and finding that not only can you not afford the Costa coffee, but you owe six weeks on the rent.
Even freebies from friends cost money. “Come and see me,” I said to a writer from Birmingham. “We can look at your manuscript together. Get the train and I’ll meet you at the other end.” She made an excuse and I thought nothing of it. A few months later she told me she was too embarrassed to say that she couldn’t afford £2.00 for the bus into town and the £6.80 train fare.
When my persistence paid off, and I was lucky enough to get a good contract with Penguin, the memory of the journey I’d had gave me the idea of setting up a scholarship to study a Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck University for a disadvantaged writer: fees paid, travel paid. The response was overwhelming, not only in that over a hundred people applied, but because as soon as I began talking about it, people piled in and added their own loveliness and generosity. The staff at Waterstone’s Birmingham are paying for the books from the reading list, a friend is paying for a laptop and stationery, Arvon are donating a week at a writer’s retreat. Penguin, Spread the Word, The Literacy Consultancy, The Word Factory and my agent, Jo Unwin are all donating time, meetings, advice and support to another five runners up. And there’s more: Birkbeck are running Masterclasses for a further fifteen with many well-known writers lecturing for free.
What I realized is that there is a tremendous amount of goodwill towards new and disadvantaged writers, and concern about the cuts to funding and the impact this has on the arts. I opened the door an inch, and all of a sudden there was a rush to push it open and get involved. It’s an indication, I think, that within the literary community there is the lack of mechanism or process by which established writers, publishers and agents are able to give someone else a leg up or offer their services. Perhaps that’s where our efforts need to be directed: not only reforming, but in enabling the industry to be more inclusive.
It’s been a humbling experience. Each applicant submitted 5,000 words and a personal statement. Those stories, the fiction and the facts, demonstrate the enormous pool of talent out there in the world amongst people like me – who don’t quite fit in contemporary literature, who struggle to find stories, protagonists and settings that speak of their concerns and desires.;
There seems to be a lot of goodwill at the moment in publishing to do something about the perception of the industry being populated by white middle-class girls with literature degrees from Cambridge looking for stories that reflect their interests, often written by people like them. And it’s not just anecdotal stuff. In a study exposing race, class, gender and pay inequalities, published in the journal Cultural Trends, researchers found that some 43% of people working in publishing, 28% in music and 26% in design come from a privileged background, compared with 14% of the population as a whole.
My own experience is that literature helped me understand the world, even if the setting was mostly the drawing rooms of Paris and the country houses of England. There is literature waiting to be written, there are modern classics in the making from new voices, telling tales from council estates in Doncaster, tower blocks in Bristol, farm cottages in Northumberland. And the stories they want to tell might be about a Berlin salon in the eighteenth century, or the French resistance or a colony on Mars. This is not about discarding the classics but putting these new works up there on the same shelf. There’s room for all of us.
Kit de Waal is the author of debut novel My Name Is Leon.
This post is part of the New Statesman’s Literacy Week.