Have you heard about Karen Woods? I hadn’t until last year. She was born in Manchester and has written 12 books and had 2 plays performed at local theatres including the Lowry in Salford. Her books are about the community she comes from; north Manchester and working class. Her subjects are working class women’s lives, poverty, drugs and relationships. It is a side of Manchester that the people who run the city do not want to promote. It is not the Manchester of the Royal Exchange or the Manchester International Drama Festival. It is the Manchester that will send the well heeled scurrying out of the city.
Karen has worked hard to get her novels promoted and sold to the people and the community that want to read about their lives.
At one time in Manchester there was Commonword, a workers writers co-op that targetted working class people and would publish and promote their work. Today it has now rebranded itself as: ” a writing development organisation based in Manchester, providing opportunities for new and aspiring writers to develop their talent and potential”. and “We are part of the UK’s vibrant cultural sector. The cultural sector bring communities together and make lives richer. It also creates economic growth and jobs: it is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy.”
Not sure what they mean about bringing communities together nor where the jobs are. In fact it seems to me that it is more difficult for writers from working class backgrounds to get their work published and promoted.
However if you have the money it is now even easier to get your book on the mainstream literature scene. Whilst the adult education sector and creative writing courses have hit the dust there is an new boom in academia of Masters degree courses. You can do one of these for only £6,500! For that you get access to “attend weekly workshops and masterclasses taught by Professor Jeanette Winterson”.
Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester and her most famous book; Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and her biography detail her less than happy upbringing. She did get to Oxford and that is an important advantage in getting an acceptance into the British literary scene. In 2006 she got an OBE which is a formal recognition of her acceptance into the establishment. Not something you would boast about in this city! As a Professor in Manchester, (although I am not sure she spends much time here), she also gets to write articles and radio documentaries about the city. Again promoting a view of the city that is at odds with the reality of the widening gap between rich and poor.
In the early 1900s working class writer and socialist Ethel Carnie commented “What I feel is that literature up till now has been lopsided, dealing with life only from the standpoint of one class”.
Ethel went onto write 10 novels, poetry and articles. But maybe most importantly she worked as a teacher at the Bebel House Women’s College and it was there she set up the Rebel Pen Club for working class women: The idea occurred to me of binding such women together in a club whose members would not only help and encourage one another, but might do an immense service to the international socialist movement.
I am not saying Karen Woods is the new Ethel Carnie but I do think she represents a more realistic view of Manchester than we normally see in most novels. I do think there is a political agenda that wants to promote a literature that ignores the real lives of people in cities like Manchester and across the country. It wants to sell us our past like a disney theme park of cardboard cut outs of political activists such as the suffragettes who in reality shook up the establishment through their political organisations.
If you want to find out more about Karen Woods and the alternative view of Manchester vote for my proposal at https://www.contributoria.com/issue/2015-03/54b2459443fb89c5640000a3/proposal