I’ve always been very interested in and aware of social class, and throughout my time in higher education I noticed that the number of people whose economic background was similar to mine grew ever smaller.
When I began writing my Postgraduate dissertation proposal, I knew that class investigation in the arts was going to play a large part in what I researched. In the end, I chose to write about literary awards. Literary prizes can be considered as some of the most commercial parts of book publishing, acting as an agent between ‘financial and political networks, and literary expertise,’ (Auguscik, 2017). While literary prizes play a foundational role in Western book marketing, critics claim that they are ‘aimed too much at the ivory tower of critics’, and that they carry too much power in the literary world.
Of course, I did not set out to diminish the importance of literature prizes. As well as being an exciting date on every publisher and book lover’s calendar, awards for literature keep book reading in the mainstream, and often generate higher numbers in sales than the prize money on offer (in the case of The Booker Prize).
Due to the nature of the publishing industry, publishing businesses invest large amounts of time and financial resources into the creation and promotion of a book, with little indication of whether the book will be a good return on their investment. A ‘crucial part of literary marketing’ (Squires, 2007), literary prizes ameliorate some of the inherent risk in publishing, by acting as an intermediary between the literary and the economic.
However, the influence of current trends and corporate sponsorship allows for a large amount of sway in the awards. That is to say, decisions are not influenced by the author and the novel’s content alone. The conflation of sponsorship and economy with cultural production means literary awards have frequently been accused of making elitist and commercially-driven decisions.
The first theoretical field to investigate prizes was Sociology. Using acclaimed frameworks of class and societal stratification, prizes were claimed to be a ‘site of symbolic violence,’ (Norris, 2006) due to the multiple beneficiaries present in this form of cultural recognition, as well as the homogenous nature of workers in the Cultural and Creative Industries (publishing in particular). Ultimately, the impact of economic interests and lack of diversity on who holds the right to determine what carries cultural value cannot be understated!
The most crucial finding as regards this article: literary prizes act as an aggregate in media and public discourse about culture and literary merit. Instead of rewarding books for their content, awards for literature create an absolutist choice of the “best book” by facilitating conversations necessary for it to become so. By providing a platform for key industry voices to initiate conversations on a book’s literary merit, long-term debate facilitates the shaping of cultural practice, consumer tastes, and literary value.
So what does this have to do with class?
Well, studies have shown that a person’s taste and appreciation of culture is developed from a very young age as a result of their upbringing: particularly when practiced within the household. This is because educational settings often reduce art to a diminished or “scholastic” understanding. On a basic level, this presumes that a person’s appreciation of art and literature is built upon the premise that the creator can communicate to the audience through a shared set of “cultural codes” which are the learned key to perception.
Without these codes, a piece of art does not hold the same interest because it cannot be interpreted in the intended manner. Often, without the relevant cultural codes, supplementary references for fiction, representation and metaphor are made to “real-world” things that can seem like a crude interpretation of the work.
This frustration is most often found in working class households that do not practice these cultural references in the home, and as such are less prone to artistic deviation or experimentation. As a result of this, the development and practice of cultural tastes becomes a marker in social class.
These codes of Western cultural reference, created by an industry with deep-rooted diversity issues, can be seen as removing literary debate from working class peoples’ field of reference as they do not have the shared codes to do so.
Due to the circular nature of hiring practices within the arts, there is little chance for children of working class parents to develop the necessary codes that may allow them to become part of culture-shaping debate, and commercial relevancy (also resulting in a pay-gap issue, which I do not have the work count to dive into here!)
When considering that literary awards have such sway over Western literary culture, it is no wonder there is concern about the lack of class diversity within the cultural and creative industries: there is less opportunity for working class writing to become mainstream because the conversations necessary for it to become so are not being facilitated, in part due to the intervention of economic interests in cultural practices.
Opening up all literature to everyone is vital, with particular regards to generating sales of more “difficult” and experimental titles — this includes allowing people from different social strata to develop and contribute to changing cultural tastes by generating the necessary frameworks, and opening up platforms to more socially diverse debate.
Everyone involved in literary awards; including sponsors, panellists and judges, participating authors, and publishing houses, have a role to play in balancing out the industry's commercial and financial interests with genuine cultural interests and a desire to create a more equal, diverse, and interesting Western literary culture.