Avoidance of Class

Novelist Philip Hensher has posted an essay on the website UnHerd.com that discusses the disappearance of social class distinctions as a topic in contemporary novels. He begins by noting that his students show reluctance to use class as a character marker in their written fiction assignments and then sees this as a more wide spread phenomenon:

…Social class — how people may be trapped in their circumstances, and struggle to escape them — has been at the core of the novel since the beginning. The form thrives on the differences between people, and the place people take in the world. They can be as vast as between Dickens’s Lady Dedlock and Jo the crossing sweeper, or as minute, but real, as those between Austen’s Emma and her vulgar enemy Mrs Elton. But we have to be able to tell characters apart for the novel to make sense; a story set in a society where social differences had been genuinely erased might be quite hard to follow.[…]

But now, through a combination of nervousness, embarrassment, and an apparent concern by novelists that their observations on difference shouldn’t be mistaken for snobbishness, the subject is being cast aside. In part, I think, this is because social class seems much more complex and puzzling than it used to be. What to make of a Russian oligarch with his house in Belgrave Square? Or the Syrian professor and refugee, now driving an Uber to get by?

In part, too, it must be affected by a general squeamishness about making personal observations of a specific sort. Some readers have started to object when a novelist makes a factual note about a character’s physical nature, or their race. This style of objection might be making novelists nervous about plain statements of class. You can talk about a character’s wealth or poverty, but it is quite hard to imagine a serious novelist writing about a character’s relationship to money and status in the direct and contemptuous way Evelyn Waugh writes about John Beaver, or Rex Mottram. […]

What is taking the place of this traditionally central concern? The main interests of the novel now are such things as race, particularly racial injustice, sex and sexual preference, and (a surprisingly common interest) the world as seen by individuals who are somehow hindered by an external factor, such as a mental illness. …

Hensher cites one current novelist who seems to be an exception to this rule. This is Douglas Stuart whose second novel was recently published. Its title is Young Mungo and, like his first (2020 Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain), it takes place in working-class Glasgow. Hensher’s essay continues:

…perhaps Stuart gets away with his analysis of class because both his novels are also concerned with one of these external factors, gay male sexuality. These factors will successfully distinguish characters; they will do a good job of showing how an individual is treated by society. They are all important and interesting subjects. But as motors of fiction they have one marked limitation — they are all unchangeable characteristics.

Social class was a central theme in the novels of Evelyn Waugh and his contemporaries such as Anthony Powell, Nancy Mitford and Scott Fitzgerald. It is difficult to imagine how they could have been written without referring to it.



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