All the wonderful astronauts: an afternoon at London Book Fair with Michael Sheen

A Writing Chance panel at London Book Fair 2024: (L-R Sunjeev Sahota, Tracey Markham, Farrah Storr, Michael Sheen, Prof. Katy Shaw, c. Edward Hill Photography)

“In every room I go into, every office, every institution, people tell me, this is what we’re doing to encourage more working-class writers.  They reel off all the things they’re doing, and it sounds impressive, it sounds amazing. And you think: if all these people are doing all this, WHY ARE THINGS NOT CHANGING FASTER? WHAT IS GETTING IN THE WAY?”

Under the hot, bright lights of a packed-out auditorium at the 2024 London Book Fair, Michael Sheen is getting angry. His is an unthreatening, crowd-rousing kind of angry, but still, in an appropriate way – he’s mad.

The actor and philanthropist is speaking on a panel convened to discuss A Writing Chance, the programme co-founded by the actor with New Writing North and Northumbria University that helps working-class writers enter the writing industries. So far, the programme has been successful. The theme emerging on the panel is, if changes have been made in some areas, what’s holding things back in others? And what cultural changes might have to come before we solve the problem?

“You have to admit there’s a fundamental conflict between the system that’s set up, and what we’re trying to achieve,” says Michael. “I don’t know what the whole answer to that is, other than revolution.”

It says a lot about the mood in the room – and, we suspect, the rest of the country – that the laughs prompted by this conclusion feel rather approving. We firmly believe that elites have been hogging and hoarding opportunity for too long now. The support for A Writing Chance confirms that many, many people agree.

The initiative was launched in 2021, with 11 unpublished writers awarded places on a programme of support and mentoring. One, Tom Newlands, publishes his first novel this summer; another, Maya Jordan, signed a deal at the book fair. A new cohort will be selected soon, with the programme now supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Michael Sheen, the Charlotte Aitken Trust, Faber & Faber, The Daily Mirror, Substack, Audible, with research supported by AHRC, Northumbria University, Bath Spa University and York St John University.

For the London Book Fair panel, Michael is joined by Professor Katy Shaw from Northumbria University, plus Tracey Markham, head of UK at Audible, Farrah Storr, head of writer partnerships at Substack, and the Huddersfield-based novelist Sunjeev Sahota. Katy and Michael begin by reflecting on the successes of the first completed programme: writers emboldened and published, policymakers in the Houses of Parliament briefed and, most importantly, great writing exemplifying the talent out there waiting to be discovered. “What came in was just way beyond anything we had hoped for really,” says Michael. “And there was a sense of revelation, the feeling you were seeing into worlds that have just been closed off, into experiences I had never thought about.”

Ideas about how to give working-class writers more confidence and access to publishing are peppered through the hour-long conversation: a creative curriculum in schools; intervening with gifted people at younger ages, like sports coaches; encouraging more people to take advantage of digital platforms, even if printed-book authorship remains the ultimate goal. Around halfway through, Sunjeev makes a brilliantly clear-eyed analysis of what being working class really means, and how it relates to identity politics. At the same time, he provides a devastatingly simple explanation of why working-class writers need support.

“Publishing is an elite space, but it’s quite a diverse space in terms of people’s racialised or sexualised identities. However, it’s not at all diverse it comes to people’s economic backgrounds, or family income. Indeed, many of the non-white people I encounter in publishing are often from just as comfortably-off backgrounds as their white counterparts.

The creative industries, he says, have tended to treat class as being another cultural identity, as if class should be considered in the same way that we might talk about race, gender, or sexuality. “But I think a more universal, class-first politics will do more for the weakest members across all identities than any identity-first kind of politics. I find that taking an identity-first approach just tends to benefit the elites within the identities.”

Lest anyone doubt the existence of a market for work originating outside the elites, the extremely upbeat Tracey is on hand to reassure them. Audible attracts a notably diverse audience, with large black and Asian listenerships, and a high proportion of young men. To satisfy this audience, the old-style audiobook, with its middle- and highbrow titles and Received Pronunciation narration, has been overhauled in favour of books more suited to audience tastes, and accents.

“Our customers really want accents! We spend a lot of time working with voice agents to widen access to the audio-narration industry. I think what’s super-important now is that your accent is not prohibitive – if you have a Welsh accent, say, that doesn’t mean you can only read stories set in Wales.”

Tracey stresses there is “so much more to be done” to widen socio-economic diversity in the whole publishing industry. But although it might still be a case of taking “baby steps”, a wonderful thing about books is their power to drive change elsewhere. “You know, it’s hard to explain to someone that’s not from the UK how much your accent kind of signifies to people when they first meet you. And with voice, we can kind of break down a lot of those barriers, and actually encourage it and welcome [diversity].”

There’s a similar note of flexibility and responsiveness to audience needs in Farrah’s account of what Substack offers. The relationship between digital and print is always evolving, and in her vision, it’s a question of the one complementing the other. Printed books still have more prestige than publication on digital platforms, but the latter can help offset the material challenges associated with the former, she argues. Echoing Sunjeev, she points that “the problem for people from a working-class background is that your advance gets paid in separate lump sums. People feel, I don’t have a regular income, I can’t make this work, I might end up falling out of the writer ecosystem.

“So, on Substack, we say, well, okay, you’re writing the book, but you’re probably going to have thousands of words leftover. So just put them on Substack and talk about the novel at the same time.”

Lots of people she works with end up making liveable incomes and building readerships for their work, which ultimately is what keeps them in the game. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t necessarily define “writing” as the production of traditional forms such as novels and plays.

No one at this event – the queue for which was so long that dozens were unable to squeeze inside – believed all the barriers facing working-class writers would be dismantled any time soon.  Few, though, can have left without believing that A Writing Chance has begun the job – and that that job is worthwhile.

Wrapping up, Michael recalls someone from the inaugural group who told him that in their community, becoming a writer seemed about as likely as becoming an astronaut.

“They said that there was no chance of it. They said, ‘I didn’t know anybody else who lived where I live who was a writer, so I didn’t know how to begin, or where to start. It was like saying I want to go into space.’ But that changed for them.

“And of course, now, there are all these wonderful spacemen.”


Richard Benson is the author of The Farm (2006) and The Valley (2015), and is currently working on a new book, The Meadow, for publication in 2025. A former editor of The Face and contributing editor to Esquire, he lives in York.

Some photos from London Book Fair

  • Partners and panelists at London Book Fair

    Sunjeev Sahota, Michael Sheen, Claire Malcolm, Farrah Storr, Katy Shaw and Tracey Markham

  • A packed audience at London Book Fair (c. Edward Hill Photography)

  • Michael Sheen and Prof Katy Shaw (c. Edward Hill Photography)