SOME NOTES ON CLASS & LITERATURE (part 1) – aesthetics and inequality

The cultural value & aesthethic quality of a work of Art has nothing to with the class background of who has produced it.

Nor does the personal morality of the artist have any bearing atall on whether the music they compose will be beautiful, or the book they write unputdownable.

W.B Yeats lived a long & luxurious aristocratic life paid for by the hard labour of irish peasants.  He owed the inspiration of many of his plays and poems on the lore of irish peasants. The music & diction of much of his poetry is simply a refined version of the daily speech rhythms of the Irish peasantry. Nevertheless , he enthusiastically supported the war crimes of extra-judicial torture & execution of socialist & republican POWs from peasant backgrounds during the so-called Irish civil war. 

Nonetheless, he remains the most melodious & memorable irish poet of the early 20th Century.

Margaret Atwood’s practical support for Apartheid Israel in breaking the cultural boycott does nothing to reduce her status as one of the pre-eminent global novelists.

Conversely, some of the worst poetry ever written has emerged from council estates where a local loudmouth has discovered an online rhyming dictionary & decided to inflict their thoughts on world affairs on us in toddleresque rhymes – & received 10million views for it!

So, when we talk about how injustice & inequality manifest themselves in class society in relation to the arts, we are not taking about anything to do with aesthethics.

We must always keep in mind that the work of art is a self-contained object which can only be authentically judged in relation to other self-contained objects of the same kind.

The work of art is supremely indifferent to the name and nature of he/she/they who made it.

I understand if people dont like this lack of connection between personal morality & biography & level of artistic achievement.

I also understand why people don’t like farts.

Reality is not affected by our lack of sympathy with it or by how much it stinks to high heaven.

And yet class is a determining factor in so many other ways unconnected & much much more generally important than personal biography & individual morality.

For example,

1) Working class access to quality arts education. Such is not provided atall in many irish public secondary schools, & only at the most rudimentary, amateur, unenthusiastic levels in most of the rest.

Despite the overwhelming pedagogic evidence of a hugely positive impact on teenage mental health, there is no creative writing curriculum in public secondary schools.

Even more disgracefully in the year 2019, there is no multimedia creativity education (podcast, video etc) whatsoever in Irish secondary schools.

By contrast, private schools have plenty of all of the above. Well-off parents can & do also pay for extra curricular arts education giving their children a huge advantage.

2) The lack of Arts Council support for predominantly working class art-forms. Literary funding in the arts council goes almost exclusively to predominantly middle/upper class forms such as the page poem, opera, & so-called ‘literary’ fiction.

There are no funding streams for performance poetry, rap, storytelling, singer-songwriters or bands, online video, podcast, digital music production – all forms which are far more accessible to & engaged with by working class people as both producers & consumers of art.

This is institutional class prejudice & nothing but class prejudice.

3) The cost of being artists. Many successful writers (it takes 15-25 years to become a successful writer) are boosted by massive financial support from their well-off families.

Most of us dont have such parents & so we are systematically excluded in yet another way.


So to level the playing field, we need not a few legislative tweaks, not just a token couple of panels on ‘being a working Class writer’ at posh literary festivals no working class person has ever heard of, but a complete overhaul of education, art funding, and arts access from the bottom up – a revolution, that is.


(I am writing a much longer piece ‘On Being An Irish Working Class Writer’ – which will be available shortly as audio and e-book).