Monday, April 13, 2009

Writing class, across the pond

Or should I say acknowledging class. Because that's all it is, really. The difference, not all the time but enough to be noticeable, between reading British fiction and U.S. fiction is that British fiction, or at least more of it, is class conscious. Whereas here, well, not so much. This same phenomenon is much commented on when it comes to movies. Mike Leigh and that lot, don't you know. It's a bit less remarked on, as far as I can tell, with fiction, but it seems to me to be just as much the case. We all know why. The class system is not only more in-your-face obvious in Britain for all the inescapably obvious reasons, but also there, and throughout Europe, the revolutions and imperialist wars of the 20th century had a more direct impact, not the least of the effects including much stronger labor movements than here. Most of all, as far as I can tell, it isn't, or wasn't until the recent counterrevolutionary period, a horrid unmentionable to identify yourself as a member of the working class in Britain. In the U.S., in contrast, everybody and her sister fervently believes she belongs to that great amorphous ubiquity, the "middle class." It's as if there are no workers. As if no one labors for a wage. This national lie is reflected in an awful lot of fiction, the fiction that gets published and reviewed and publicized, anyway.

It's so refreshing, then, to come across a novel that incorporates the class divide as central to its story. And it's no surprise that such a book comes from Britain. It is Peripheral Vision by Patricia Ferguson. I'm about three-quarters of the way through it and couldn't wait to post this note about it because of the way Ferguson so beautifully incorporates class issues as the necessary context, the scenery in a way, that colors the plot. Ferguson herself is, or was, a worker. A nurse-midwife. She initially found it very difficult to get this very fine book published, as related here in the Independent. So there's a similarity that spans the ocean. Working-class writers writing class-conscious stories have a hard time getting published.

By the way, in a quick round of googling before work this morning I didn't find much factual information about Patricia Ferguson other than her work history, so I'm not sure of her nationality. She may not be British at all; she may be Scottish. If so, she joins James Kelman and Ali Smith on the list of contemporary Scottish writers whose work I greatly admire.

Speaking of Kelman, earlier this month the London Times had an interesting piece about him. Two points of particular note: (1) Kelman is up for this year's Man Booker International Prize along with a list of fellow nominees that ranges from the brilliant, progressive and class-conscious (Ngugi, Oates, Doctorow) to the counterrevolutionary (Vargas Llosa) to several writers with whom I'm not familiar, including one, Mahasweta Devi of Bangladesh, whom Kelman calls "a great writer and a great fighter," which makes me keen to read Devi's work. And (2) Kelman is writing a screenplay for what's described as a "musical road movie" about zydeco, a musical form I absolutely love, so I look forward to this film.