We like to pretend that there are no rigid class distinctions in Australia. It’s part of our national identity: non-Indigenous Australians are the descendants of swagmen and convicts, migrants and squatters. We think of ourselves as battlers, even if our particular battle is to pay the mortgage on our third investment property. And unless there’s a royal wedding or a royal baby on the way, we tend to share a distaste for aristocracy and inherited wealth.
But take the train from Sydney up to the Blue Mountains. Look out the window at the half-way mark. Or drive forty minutes north of Adelaide. Imagine how hard it might be to rise up from a start in these places, these suburbs on the periphery. Their residents too often deemed peripheral. The rough sorting of people by location is an obvious manifestation of class in Australia, but it’s by no means the only one. For Indigenous Australians, the existence of class has always been apparent: denied the vote in Commonwealth elections until 1962, not recognised as full citizens until 1967, there are still systemic barriers that deny equality of opportunity, let alone outcome.
Class is the entrenchment of inequality, persisting across generations. As inequality becomes more pronounced, socio-economic groups form their own culture. Their own survival strategies. This, in turn, makes it harder to move between groups. As Tim Winton has observed, this is what is happening in Australia right now. It’s why the knowledge class talk sneeringly about ‘cashed-up bogans’, and why older people facetiously (and sometimes solemnly!) cite too much smashed avocado as the reason Gen Ys can’t afford to buy a first home.
Our tendency to deny the existence of class has a way of limiting our compassion. After all, if our society is egalitarian, as we want to believe—if anyone can make it if only they’d try—then poverty suggests a kind of moral failure, a lack of industriousness. Tragically, our belief in the ‘fair go’ in principle sometimes blinds us to its absence in practice.
When I write fiction, I want to leave the reader with something that’s external to the viewpoint character’s own emotional journey. In my story Pigface, I wanted to explore how service industry workers are treated as a resource, to be consumed and eventually replaced.
This might seem cynical, but as a writer, class differences can make for really good material. Put a character with a working-class background in a room with a one-percenter. Think about the different tensions you may have imported:
- Ignorance – each character may have little idea about the difficulties faced by the other. This could lead to unintentional hurt or, conversely, realisations and insights.
- Power imbalance – when rich and poor interact, often it’s in the context of a service relationship. Is such a relationship assumed? How does the server feel? What about the person being served? Both may be uncomfortable.
- Dislike/distaste – class may lead to contrasts in personal styles. The way a character presents themselves might provoke hostility. Deeper conflicts over values might lurk beneath the surface.
- Jealousy – consciously or unconsciously, envy may drive the encounter.
- Indignation and guilt – one or both characters may feel, with justification, that differences in status and power are not fair.
These are just a few of the ways that class differences can be useful to a storyteller, if handled respectfully and without resort to stereotype. And most readers will instantly pick up on all this. There’s little exposition necessary—that’s already taken care of by the lessons we’ve all learned as we’ve navigated class differences in our own lives.
When class is combined with other forms of privilege, arising from differences of gender, race, sexuality and cultural background among others, all sorts of interesting permutations develop. Two middle-class white dudes having a conversation is just one narrow subset in the vast field of potential human interaction.
If we recognise that more diverse writing is a good thing, then it follows that we should encourage writers from outside the knowledge class—as well as non-male, culturally and linguistically diverse, and other marginalised writers. Book prizes like the Stella are good and necessary—but to foster writers from economically constrained backgrounds, I think that what’s required is financial support before they publish their first major work, so that they can afford to live while they create.
And for those of us raised in the comfortable middle (as I was), we need to stay conscious of class and diversity; to try and reflect it genuinely in our work; and to read, engage with and amplify the voices of writers from different backgrounds.
Andrew Roff is a writer based in Adelaide. His work has appeared in Overland and Antithesis Journal, among others, and his first novel was shortlisted for the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award at the 2016 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. In March 2018 he undertook a residential fellowship at Varuna House to work on a short story collection. He tweets at @roffwrites and you can read more of his work at www.roffwrites.com.