The forms of publishing pursued by workshops were built upon intense local interest in the histories and experiences of ordinary people, which were also well received among radical and labour movement networks. This gave rise to an evangelism to encourage more people to take up writing. However, this model of a responsive readership was to be challenged in the 1980s with the weeding out of alternatives and the imposition of a limited idea of the market, which served to marginalise one version of working-class writing in the face of new demands for ‘quality’ writing. Yet, this was a two-way street in which there was an exchange of ideas between formal and informal approaches. This highlights the varied nature of markets and the way that, in certain circumstances, they could be moulded to democratic needs as well as representing an alien force to writers.
The writing produced by adult literacy students emerged out of a distinct educational and cultural setting. Student writing represented a significant type of learning. The writing itself tended to comprise simple and clear representations of working-class life and voices. The experience of ‘failure’ in education was a powerful one that formed the basis for personal expression. Experience was seen to put the student in control. Political issues and writing beyond the third person were also encouraged, with mixed results. In the changed context of the 1990s, new stories based on humorous episodes helped to portray students as normal rather than oppressed. Yet concern for social justice continued to inflect the writing and there were attempts to move students into the wider network of writing groups.
The internal workings of working-class writing and publishing groups provide important insights about the nature of democracy. The attempt to form collective and co-operative groups that supported everyone led to an active remaking of educational relationships along democratic lines. The insistence upon equality between writers, irrespective of individual ability, was a cardinal principle. However, in a changing funding climate, workshops came under pressure to formalise relationships, to professionalise and to introduce management structures. This had mixed results as groups attempted to negotiate these tensions. The example of the Fed brings into question some key aspects of critical pedagogy which privileges the role of tutors and education as a whole and, in some cases, assumes that learners have internalised dominant ideas.
The history of working-class writing workshops provides a fascinating example of how changes in class and the emergence of new identities were handled in cultural terms. It challenges the view that a straightforward dichotomy arose between class and other forms of identity based upon race, gender, sexuality and disability. Workshops defended their devotion to working-class writers and organisation and were wary about the involvement of middle-class people. But multiple versions of class were in play and this would be complemented by the development of women’s, black and lesbian and gay writing groups. Intense and, at times, acrimonious debates over the nature of class and identity took place. Some writers redefined class in terms of a specific identity group. As a whole, the movement held together diverse streams of activity which challenged simplistic ideas that class no longer played a role in cultural life.
A significant body of written work was produced by older people in the 1970s and 1980s reflecting back on the early twentieth century. Through the individual voice, wider social contexts were explored. Writers focused upon some key themes in order to achieve this, including childhood, work, family, the individual and politics. The insistent belief in care and community in times of hardship is understood as a contradictory structure of feeling that spread widely during this time. Contrary to ideal-type definitions of community, a close reading of texts reveals actual meanings and practices that have often been ignored in the historical record. Silences and tensions are also explored.
Working-class writing workshops were infused with a sectarian spirit of being alternative and they actively challenged elitism in favour of a participatory ethic. A national debate flared up over the decision by the Arts Council not to award a grant to these workshops on the grounds that their work was of ‘no literary merit’. From the 1990s, relations thawed and a widening acceptance of worker writers came into being across many cultural and educational institutions. The movement of workshops changed into a broader inclusive network while attempting to retain an element of distinctiveness. Survival itself proved extremely difficult in these circumstances.
The learning trajectories of working-class writers reveal the importance of informal opportunities to write in workshops within a spirit of solidarity and equality. Many aspects of working-class life supported writing. Workshops provided a vital means of stimulating and supporting the aspiring writer, including domestic life, sympathetic individuals as well as participation in labour movement struggles. Writers started to read critically and share their work, with a view to making significant improvements. Some writers received structured support from cultural organisations and went on to achieve considerable success. Personal changes could be both gradual and climactic although the obstacles, both internal and external, were ever present.
Working-class writing and publishing workshops had their origins in the counter-cultural trends of the late 1960s. By the 1970s they were engaging with urban communities where there was a strong class consciousness. This chapter charts the way in which working-class culture became a significant source of new ideas and practices. In particular, the cultural role of schools, adult education, community organising, adult literacy, popular history and the labour movement are examined in relation to the emergence of a movement of working-class writing and publishing workshops. In each of these areas, ideas about culture, technology and tradition were being reworked in order to foster popular cultural participation.
This is a unique study of working-class writing and community publishing. It evaluates the largely unexamined history of the emergence and development of working-class writing and publishing workshops since the 1970s. The nature of working-class writing is assessed in relation to the work of young people, older people, adult literacy students as well as writing workshops. Key themes and tensions in working-class writing are explored in relation to historical and literary frameworks. This is the first in-depth study of this body of writing. In addition, a number of crucial debates are examined, for example, over class and identity, critical pedagogy and learning, relationships with audiences and the role of mainstream cultural institutions in comparison with alternatives. The contradictions and tensions in all these areas are surveyed in coming to a historical understanding of this topic.
The writing produced in workshops explored varied forms of expression including autobiography, short stories, dialect, drama, poetry and novels. There were significant debates about the nature and meaning of working-class writing and whether it had any distinctive features. Divisions between forms of writing were actively challenged and new forms of subjectivity and ways of representing experience were developed. However, there were also pressures to write within existing forms. New modes of expression could become tiring after a time when different approaches were required. Overall, writing in the Fed was marked by the creative interpretation of experience and vernacular voice. It reveals tensions between bearing witness and creative interpretation and between representing a collective social experience and the individual life story.