Launched in 2018, Common People aimed to identify new unpublished working-class writers, to create opportunities for these new writers to have their voices heard and their words profiled in print, and to offer them professional writing and career development.
The Common People project was comprised of two distinct elements: an anthology, edited by Kit de Waal and published by Unbound that profiled work by new and established authors; and an accompanying professional development programme to support the new writers involved as they made their debut into the industry.
The Common People project arose out of an ongoing commitment and programme of work that New Writing North has undertaken in recent years within the publishing industry to highlight issues of regional and class diversity and representation.
The project brought together all seven of England’s regional writing development agencies New Writing North, Writing West Midlands, New Writing South, National Centre for Writing, Writing East Midlands and Literature Works and Spread the Word. The agencies worked collaboratively on the programme supported by a grant from Arts Council England.
Working class voices are missing
The under-representation of British working-class writers in UK publishing has been identified as a major challenge by publishers, Arts Council England and the British and Scottish governments.
The professional development project ran for 12 months from February 2018 into 2019. It aimed to create a strategic model of intervention to address the under-representation of working-class writers in publishing today and to offer bespoke creative mentoring and professional development to the writers to help them maximise the opportunity and to move their careers forward. The new writers that participated in the project were identified by the network of writing development agencies across England who worked together to identify and select new talent.
‘I’ve met a lovely friendly writer who introduced me to his circle, and everybody knows everybody else, he got his publishing deal through a friend of a friend, he got a newspaper column through a friend of a friend, he got on Radio 4 through a friend of a friend… When I spoke with him about his career development it was just like watching somebody on the ski slopes when you’ve never learnt to ski. Off they go with all their friends, wiz wiz wiz and you’re still stood at the edge wondering how to strap on the ski boots.’
Common People Writing Development Programme participant
Listen to the special Common People episode on our podcast
“It’s the last great unspoken prejudice in British life, and that runs through everywhere – particularly some of the areas of the media I work in, like publishing and broadcasting” Stuart Maconie
This episode of the New Writing North podcast brings together several of the established authors who featured in the Common People anthology, including Stuart Maconie, Kit de Waal, Tony Walsh, Lisa McInerney, with writer and academic Dave O’Brien and new writers Jodie Russian-Red and Shaun Wilson. The episode also features Jonathan Paterson, a Finance Director at the Hachette UK Group, and Clara Farmer, Publishing Director of Chatto & Windus.
Together they consider the experience of working-class writers and publishers working in the UK, identify some of the pervasive barriers which mean that the publishing industry fails to represent a huge proportion of the British public, and consider what change could look like.
Produced by Philippa Geering for New Writing North
Common People Research
We worked with Professor Katy Shaw from Northumbria University throughout the project to interview the writers involved and to track the impact of the project on the participants. As the formal part of the project drew to a close this research was drawn together with wider research and reflection on the findings into a published report, Common People: Breaking the Class Ceiling in UK Publishing that was published on May 1 2020. Northumbria University also collaborated with New Writing North to establish a funded PhD opportunity for a researcher to extend the learning from the project and to build a bigger research project around the themes. This opportunity was taken up by Katherine Stanton in autumn 2019.
The research demonstrated that participating in the Common People programme had profound and professional outcomes for the new writers involved in the project:
feel more confident describing themselves as a writer
claim that their networking opportunities and skills are ‘much better or better’
say that their level of industry knowledge is ‘much better or better’
‘For me, the most difficult part of writing is self-doubt. When I was writing my first novel, I learned to constantly push back against the fear that my experiences were trivial and uninteresting or were not ‘poetic’ or ‘literary’ enough, and that is because I had rarely seen a life like mine represented in literary fiction. The Common People initiative is vital in challenging the issue of representation by making space for new voices, so that working-class writers and readers might feel their language and their lives are full of power.’
Jessica Andrews, author of the award-winning novel, Saltwater.
“This is an incredibly timely report that clarifies the barriers writers from working class backgrounds face. When I first started working on ‘The Good Immigrant’, a lot of people said that class was something that really needed to be explored when it came to publishing. I applaud New Writing North and the authors of Common People for this report that lays out the barriers, the realities and the issues faced by working class writers. Following this report, I’m really excited to see what changes. In the last five years, we’ve seen publishing respond to conversations around diversity with some excellent initiatives and programmes that strive to change the industry, and are doing so with success. And while I applaud these initiatives, it’s important to remind ourselves of the work yet to be done. This report shows what work needs to be done”.
Nikesh Shukla, author and editor of The Good Immigrant and co-founder of The Good Agency.
The Common People report identifies the pervasive barriers in the way of working-class writers; makes a clarion call for changes in the publishing industry and strongly recommends more effective and better-funded collaborative working across the commercial and subsidised sectors.
The report suggests that the full diversity of voices active in British society is neither heard nor acknowledged in UK publishing today. It calls for the publishing industry to be more representative; to work collaboratively with regional cross-sector partnerships; and for new forms of investments to level the playing field in the regions.
The report makes the following recommendations:
- New public and private investment to support new publishing ventures outside of London, which will be bring publishing closer to broader audiences and generate more entry points to the industry for talent throughout the UK
- Increased investment in regional writing development agencies, resulting in improved talent pipelines; fairer, more equitable talent development practices; and improved access to professional support and networks.
- Decentralisation of the UK publishing, including more literary agents to be established outside the capital to facilitate change and broaden the base of the industry’s taste makers.
- Improved access to the publishing industry through clearer progression routes into the industry; transparent pay and job opportunities; and accessible recruitment campaigns, in order to enhance diversity among agents, editors and publishers and change the profiles of gatekeepers
- Awareness and acknowledgement of the multiple barriers facing working-class writers through meaningful designed and sustained support programmes across the UK
- An industry-wide recognition that developing and supporting new working-class writers will ultimately benefit us all
- New government policy and policy development – to create new policy options for overcoming barriers and incentivising partnership work through public funding and regional initiatives.
Common People: Breaking the Class Ceiling in UK Publishing
Professor Katy Shaw, Northumbria University
“Prior to the pandemic, for anyone involved in publishing in the UK, in whatever capacity, it would have been essential to read the Common People report and to push to implement its recommendations; now, though, with the worst economic recession since the Great Depression only set to worsen the inequalities and divisions in what is already the most unequal and divided nation in Europe, reading this report and implementing its recommendations should be a matter of the UTMOST URGENCY for everyone involved in publishing, and any failure to do so is simply an abdication of responsibility which perpetuates inequality and division, and censors and silences an entire class of people.”
David Peace, author of novels including Red Riding Quartet, GB84, The Damned Utd and Tokyo Year Zero
“The Common People report is essential reading not just for those working in literature and publishing, but for senior staff and decision-makers across the entire creative industries. It fuels the growing demand for cultural institutions to move from conversation into action, and provides practical, achievable examples of how to address the socio-economic inequality which for decades has prevented access, inclusion and representation across Britain’s cultural industries for the working-class.”
David Loumgair, Creative Director, COMMON
Further initiatives and reading
The Value of Writing: The Impact of the Northern Writers’ Awards to the Northern Creative Economy by Professor Katy Shaw. In this review of 20 years of the Northern Writers’ Awards, Shaw explores the contribution of the programme to the creative economy and explores the benefits for the writers involved.
Panic! It’s an Arts Emergency comprises a public resource by Arts Emergency, a creative careers project for young people, and a new work by artist Ellie Harrison. It is a continuation of a project initiated by Create London in 2015, which included a nationwide survey of artists and creative industries workers (the Panic! dataset) and follow up interviews. Find out more about all of the above at Create London. Their report, Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, from lead authors: Dr Orian Brook, Dr David O’Brien, and Dr Mark Taylor paints a disappointing picture of access to the creative industries for working class people.
The website of theatre company COMMON carries a section on research into class and the creative industries. COMMON is also pioneering the Common Cause network that New Writing North is part of, which seeks to improve working across the arts on this topic.
Jerwood Arts has published a toolkit for employers on how to encourage socio-economic diversity and inclusion in the arts.
Dr Susan Oman worked alongside Arts Council England to understand how best to measure social mobility in a way that works for the cultural sector. The resulting policy briefing Measuring Social Mobility in the Creative and Cultural Industries explores the importance of working in partnership to improve data collection practices across the sector.