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Class Is Permanent

Susanna Rustin - Guardian 16 July 2011

William Nicholson was in his 50s by the time he got around to writing his first novel in 2004. Before then he worked in TV drama, and on Hollywood screenplays including Gladiator. He also wrote books for children. But adult fiction turned out to be harder than expected.

"I wanted to write about my own world and I felt that I couldn't," he says. "And I puzzled about this. Why did I feel that my world, which is comfortable, middle-class, well-educated people living in the countryside, was illegitimate subject-matter for serious fiction?"

Nicholson spoke about his experiences, including his rejection by a publisher who said he wasn't interested in women who drive 4x4s, at a festival in Devon earlier this week.

Meanwhile, Scottish writer Alan Warner was making the opposite argument. Writing for the Guardian in praise of Ross Raisin's second novel, Waterline, which describes the descent into homelessness of a widowed former Glasgow shipyard worker, Warner wrote of a "sly, unspoken literary prejudice" against working-class lives and characters.

While the upper-classes remain perennially interesting to publishers and readers alike, is it affluent middle-class or working-class characters who are being squeezed out of literary fiction? Or can both Nicholson and Warner be right?

When I phone him, Nicholson is quick to qualify his remarks. "I'm not daft, I know the middle classes dominate our culture," he says from his home in Sussex. But when he began reading Jonathan Franzen's hugely acclaimed novels about American family life, he decided Franzen's compassion for his characters was missing from British fiction. It is true that there is no obvious equivalent to Franzen's success with The Corrections and Freedom in Britain. The tragic grandeur with which he invests the lives of his middle-class Americans does not have an obvious counterpart in a modern-day Middlemarch set in Harrogate or Morningside. But British fiction has become so diverse it is difficult to usefully generalise about it.

Every publisher's list includes American writers, novels from former colonies, Scottish and Irish authors. The UK-administered Orange prize just went to the Serbian-American first-timer Tea Obreht, while hits of the summer so far range from Alan Hollinghurst's country house intrigue The Stranger's Child to Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, the Cambridge-educated daughter of Nigerian immigrants who now lives in Berlin.

In contrast, while crime and thrillers are international, with writers like Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown becoming global bestsellers, there is a strong domestic market for home-grown romantic and women's fiction that is very much concerned with love and marriage in the shires. Nicholson's frustration is partly that his work is corralled for marketing purposes into this bracket. Subject-matter, rather than form or style, have caused his books to be classified as more commercial than literary.

He has some supporters. Last year Viv Groskop called him "one of our most underrated novelists", while fellow novelist Jojo Moyes wrote an article this week admitting that she, too, suffers pangs of self-consciousness about her privileged characters, and suggesting that perhaps the "drama played out over the scrubbed pine table" has had its day.

But looking at the most recent crop of fiction, it seems clear that middle-class lives of various kinds still dominate. This week David Nicholls's hugely successful comic novel One Day, about young professionals growing into older ones, sold its millionth copy, and next month opens as a Hollywood film. As Alan Warner suggests, it is Raisin's new novel that is the more unusual work than Nicholson's, in dealing with a downwardly mobile unemployed man on the brink of disaster. Raisin, who is 31 and trained to be a restaurant manager before studying creative writing, says the characters that interest him "do tend to be ones who are involved in some kind of struggle, and I'm certainly interested in what happens to communities when the fulcrum of that community is taken away like an industry dying."

He suggests the lack of representations of working-class life is an English thing, and that Scottish and Irish fiction are broader. There has been no equivalent south of the border of James Kelman's powerfully influential use of Glasgow vernacular, while Scottish writers including Irvine Welsh and Warner, and Irish ones, including Roddy Doyle and William Trevor, have all written novels about what it means, and how it feels, to live nearer the bottom than the top of society.

There are exceptions. David Peace, who grew up two streets away from the 60s writer Stan Barstow in Ossett in the West Riding, has carved out a successful niche melding hardboiled American crime fiction with the northern working-class tradition with which he grew up. His trilogy about the Yorkshire ripper was recently adapted for TV. Nicola Barker won the Impac prize for her weirdly wonderful Wide Open, a tale of misfits and missed connections set in Essex.

Those who write about working-class life tend to be working class themselves. But as academic Ian Haywood points out, "the term working-class writer has always been something of an oxymoron because at the point at which this writer gets published, they must have moved away from their original circumstances." By the time Alan Sillitoe published his 1960 classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he was hanging out in Mallorca with Robert Graves.

Inevitably, as the writer's economic position changes because of their education, their life experience changes, too. Livi Michael, who wrote three novels based on her experiences growing up on a council estate in Ashton-under-Lyne near Manchester, says that once you become an author, "your class position is rather peculiar. I don't feel that I could write now with any authority about people living on big council estates, so I was looking for something a bit different." She gave up adult fiction and began writing for children. Similarly, Pat Barker wrote three novels about the gritty northern neighbourhood she grew up in, then moved on to write about the first world war.

Just because a writer has a comfortably middle-class life, and writes stories set in big, posh houses, does not make them uncritical observers of English society. Far from it. But the experience of writers such as Livi Michael, who was sent by her publisher on tours with Scottish writers for lack of English contemporaries with anything in common, does suggest that the intense draw of literary London is not conducive to attracting voices and talents from different backgrounds, who might offer alternative perspectives. Michael's first novel took years because she didn't want to write it in standard English. Catherine O'Flynn, whose 2007 Birmingham shopping centre debut What Was Lost became a bestseller, almost didn't find a publisher at all.

London novelist Tim Lott points out that the huge cultural and ethnic opening out of English literature over recent decades with writers such as Andrea Levy documenting the struggles of first-generation West Indian immigrants is in contrast to the lack of fresh entrants from white working-class backgrounds. "It's not a closed culture but it's a very close-knit culture, and people are very highly educated." He suggests a book prize for writers from poor backgrounds the criteria could be that no one in the writer's family has ever been to university and says it is a disgrace that there are so few books about ordinary people's lives. Owen Jones, who struggled to find a publisher for his recent book, Chavs, points out that as many people now work in call centres and supermarkets as once worked in the mines. "Ten million people in this country live in social housing and I can't think of one sympathetic representation. On TV you get grotesque caricatures. I think we need a revolution in literature, a new generation of angry young men and women." Jones believes that novels remain important, that what is represented in them matters, even though only a tiny fraction will ever have the reach and impact, achieved in part via Hollywood, of Nicholls's One Day or Ian McEwan's Atonement.

Whether the novel can become the vehicle for a whole or more rounded view of life in Britain seems doubtful. Fewer people than ever can afford to work as full-time writers, and many of those who do choose to work in film and television.

But perhaps the form of the novel itself is part of the problem? Haywood points out that one of the last writers to break through to the Booker prize shortlist with working-class credentials, Magnus Mills, did so in 1998 with a novel, The Restraint of Beasts, that was "not realistic, but Kafkaesque and dystopian maybe if we're going to rejuvenate the genre, we need to be a bit more imaginative about how we define it."

The Golden Hour by William Nicholson is published by Quercus in September. Waterline by Ross Raisin is published by Viking