VIEWPOINT: Class and Culture in Elitist Britain

VIEWPOINT: Class and Culture in Elitist Britain

Gary Hall

Elitist Britain, a June 2019 report from the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission, found that two fifths (39%) of Britain’s ‘leading people’ were educated privately, more than five times as many as in the population as a whole, with almost one quarter (24%) graduating from Oxbridge.  In what follows I explore some of the consequences of such inequality of opportunity for English literary culture. In doing so I explain why writing in England is so liberal, humanist and anti-intellectual. I also address the question of what can be done about this culture’s long-term addiction to the world-view of prosperous, middle-class white men.

Over the summer of 2018 I attended an event organised by the London Review Bookshop to mark the publication in English of two celebrated French volumes: Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon and History of Violence by Édouard Louis. In Eribon’s powerful memoir the Parisian sociologist travels home for the first time in thirty years following the death of his father. There he tries to account for the shift in politics of his working class family while he has been away: from supporting the Communist Party to voting for the National Front.

Returning to Reims was a significant influence on Louis, inspiring him to write his bestselling first novel, The End of Eddy, which he dedicated to Eribon. Like the latter’s memoir, History of Violence and The End of Eddy both in their different ways tell the story of how the author, having grown up gay and poor in post-industrial northern France, was eventually able to escape his working class environment through education.

As is customary on these occasions, the two writers read from their books and discussed their work and lives, followed by a Q&A session with the audience. During this latter part of the evening they spoke about the transition they had made from the social realm of the working class to that of the middle class, with its very different gestures, knowledges and manners of speech. Recognising they now had a foot in both camps, each said the process of reinventing themselves had nonetheless left them feeling they truly belonged to neither.

Both authors also described how, as a consequence, they were unsure for whom they were actually writing. They may be addressing the question of what it means to grow up in a working class environment in Returning to Reims and History of Violence, including the lack of possibilities that are imaginable, let alone actually achievable. However they were aware few people from that social class were ever likely to read their books, so can hardly say they were writing for them.

What really captured my attention, though, was the moment Eribon and Louis stressed that what they were trying to do with their writing was ‘reinvent theory’: to produce a theory in which ‘something is at stake’. Eribon is of course the author of a well-known biography of Michel Foucault. Nevertheless this statement struck me, as it’s difficult to imagine many English literary writers of a similar stature engaging with the kind of radical thought Foucault and his contemporaries are associated with, let alone expressing a desire to reinvent it. Since it undermines the idea of the self-identical human subject, that theoretical tradition is often positioned as antihumanist – or as posthumanist in some of its recent manifestations. English literary culture, by contrast (and I’m saying English rather than British deliberately), is predominantly humanist and liberal, seeing the reading and writing of literature as a means of freeing the mind of a rational human individual whose identity is more or less fixed and unchanging.

One explanation for this difference is that, historically, writers in England have been more closely associated with the ruling elite: with public schools, Oxbridge colleges and the tradition of the gentleman as amateur scholar. It’s an association that contrasts sharply with the cafes, streets and factory shop floors of the more political French intellectual. Suspicious as much of English culture is of radical and abstract ideas, ‘the intellectual’ is often regarded negatively: as someone who is conceited, egotistical and superior. To be treated positively as an intellectual in England it’s best not to be extremely intellectual. So authors such as Mary Beard (Cambridge) and Timothy Garton Ash (Sherborne & Oxford) are considered acceptable and taken seriously, as they can write clearly in ‘plain English’ and communicate with a wider public. Theorists such as Bruno Latour and Catherine Malabou are not as, ironically enough, England’s elitist culture regards their philosophy and use of language as too complex for ‘real’ people to understand.

This constant policing of the parameters of acceptability explains why the literary novel in England today is so unashamedly humanist. Scottish journalist Stuart Kelly (Oxford) even goes so far as to compare it unfavourably to the ‘posthuman novel’ that is the TV series Westworld. (I’m drawing on newspaper commentary here to show that mainstream culture in Britain is not entirely dominated by uncritical liberal humanist thought.) For Kelly, the modern literary novel and its understanding of life is ‘outdated’, still constrained by its 18th century origins. Nowhere is this more evident than with its ‘unquestioned foundations’, based as they are on the idea of the autonomous human subject as protagonist, someone who has an ‘intact self’, ‘cogent agency’, ‘memories they trust … and desires they understand’. As Kelly points out, ‘philosophers, psychoanalysts and neuroscientists have all called into question these notions that we cherish … but the novel has failed to keep up with these insights.’ Still, a few novelists ‘have tried, and sometimes succeeded in creating novels where the self is not fixed but fluid.’ Kelly name checks ‘Will Self [University College School, Hampstead & Oxford] … Tom McCarthy [Dulwich College & Oxford], Nicola Barker [Cambridge], Lydia Millet, and the much-underrated Nigel Dennis.’

It’s certainly possible to read the work of Tom McCarthy – to take just one of Kelly’s examples – as ‘a kind of grand anti-humanist manifesto’, as the English novelist himself readily concedes. Culture here is not about providing ‘a vanity mirror for liberal society to see itself reflected back in the way it wants to see itself’. Culture, for McCarthy, should rather ‘disrupt’ and create trouble. Consequently, ‘in order to do what needs to be done you need to reject a certain set of assumptions, certain models of subjectivity’, he claims – ‘for example, the contemporary cult of the individual’. Yet if McCarthy strives to bring the concept of the discrete, sovereign human subject into question in the content of novels such as Remainder and C, it’s a different matter when it comes to how he himself actually functions as an author. There, for all his interest in antihumanist theory and avant-garde modernist writing, McCarthy serves to sustain the liberal humanist model of subjectivity and its preconceptions. This is perhaps most apparent from the manner in which McCarthy, as with his 18th century predecessors – Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett (all of them ‘affluent, middle-class white men’, Kelly notes) – continues to act as if his novels were, in the last instance, the original creative expression of his own personality as an absolutely singular and unique individual.

In Whatever Happened To Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici (Cheltenham College & Oxford) characterises the novel of the Julian Barnes (City of London School & Oxford)/Martin Amis (Oxford) generation as the product of a non-modernistic literary culture that is determinedly realist, preferring sentimental humanism and readability to the kind of ground-breaking experimentation he associates with previous eras of the European novel. And this may indeed be the case. It may also be the case that to disdain the legacy of modernism – not just ‘radical writers’ such as Kafka and Beckett, but also Bataille and Derrida in philosophy, Freud and Lacan in psychoanalysis, Godard and Lynch in film – ‘as if it was just some irritation that got in the way of an ongoing rational enlightenment’ is, as McCarthy says, ‘ethically wrong and aesthetically rubbish’. Still, the cure for English culture’s addiction to the world-view of prosperous, middle-class white men is not simply more modernism. As Isabel Waidner emphasizes in their anthology of innovative writing, even experimental literature in England is predominantly white, bourgeois and patriarchal, very much to the exclusion of (non-Oxbridge) BAME, LGBTQIAP+, working class and other nonconforming identities. Nor is this particularly surprising. After all, 7% of the U.K. population attend private school, and approximately 1% graduate from Oxford or Cambridge. Yet it was reported in 2018 that ‘of the poets and novelists included in Who’s Who … half went to private schools; and 44% went to Oxbridge.’ One further result of this systematic bias is that non-white British authors published fewer than 100 titles in 2016.

It’s not only literary culture that’s affected by what Eribon describes as the ‘terrible injustice’ of the ‘unequal distribution of prospects and possibilities’. Comparable statistics can be provided for the arts, drama, music, business, politics, the law, medicine, the military, the civil service, the media and journalism. 54% of the U.K.’s ‘top’ news journalists were educated in private schools, for example. Moreover, 94% of all journalists in the U.K. are white and as few as 0.2% black. Even when it comes to that most stereotypical of working-class sports, football – which in Louis’ first memoir Eddy’s father suggests he play to toughen him up – the figures are barely any different. Over half of the England players at the 2018 World Cup in Russia were from BAME backgrounds. Yet there were reportedly only two BAME journalists from English newspapers and press agencies there out of approximately one hundred.

In a modest bid to counter such inequality of opportunity, the BBC Radio 6 presenter Cerys Matthews has said she wants to program less music on her show by artists who’ve been given a leg up by virtue of attending public school, and more music by people from all walks of life, including women and those with a working-class upbringing. Which makes me wonder: if we want to foster culture in England that’s not so liberal, humanist and anti-intellectual, if we want to develop an understanding of life, agency and subjectivity that is more complex – or at least not quite so outdated and elitist – should we adopt a similar stance? Instead of setting up prizes like the Goldsmiths in order to reward literature that is daring and inventive, should we publish (and perhaps read and cite) fewer texts by people who went to public school or Oxbridge, and more by writers from other backgrounds? In keeping with the ‘Abolish Eton’ motion passed at September’s Labour party conference, which demands the introduction of legislation to ensure limits are placed on the number of private school pupils entering Oxbridge, should we even have quotas?


Gary Hall is Professor of Media in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at Coventry University, and co-director of its Centre for Postdigital Cultures.

Image Credit: Joanna Zylinska