Back in 1975, the New Fiction Society – a highbrow book club underwritten at calamitous expense by the Arts Council – took out a full-page advertisement in The Observer to promote its inaugural list. The ad took the form of a series of portraits, each attached to a starkly interrogative caption. One of these demanded of its subject, ‘Is this a working-class novelist?’ It was a good question, as working-class novelists nearly always turn out to be a heterogeneous bunch, keen to resist the broad categorisations wished upon them by textbooks or the smash-and-grab raids of social historians anxious to fillet their novels for supporting detail.
This differentiation is particularly acute in the decades after the Second World War, a period in which the ‘new wave’ of working-class literature quickly divides into at least half a dozen contending streams. There is the anarchic underclass fiction of Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow’s ‘lace-curtain’ novels (whose characters tend to