Raymond Williams and Working-Class Writing

On the Raymond Williams Society blog for August we have an extract from the Introduction to this year’s Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism. It’s a special issue on ‘Working-Class Writing’ and features essays by Katie Beswick, Susie Panesar, Matti Ron, Raymond Williams, and Jack Windle as well as interviews with John Goodridge and Lynsey Hanley. In the preview below, co-editors Phil O’Brien and Nicola Wilson set up the issue’s focus by examining Williams’s writing on class and the novel. The full essay-length Introduction also discusses Wales and Welsh industrial fiction, Marxism, Buchi Emecheta, Isabel Waidner, and the contemporary debates around working-class writing and publishing. To make sure you receive your copy of Key Words, published in the autumn, join the society here.

Phil and Nicola write…

Raymond Williams wrote extensively on working-class writing, both from a theoretical position and as an author from a working-class background. His body of work poses important questions around ‘uneven and privileged access to writing and to print’ and how ‘the economics of commercial publishing’ could work against the writer [1]. One of the central challenges he consistently identified was of a ‘creative’ kind, a task described as ‘finding forms for a working-class fiction of fully developed class relations’ [2]. Across Williams’s engagement with what is hesitatingly labelled the ‘working-class novel’ in his work, there is a complex process of both documenting and questioning, of seeking to capture the currents of working-class writing while simultaneously pushing to extend and overcome limiting definitions. This is one of his invaluable contributions, not only to theoretical discussions of class but also to that defining feature of his work: the relationship between culture and society. Williams consistently makes a double move then, in order to expand and push forward our understanding, finding useful resources while posing formal and, ultimately, cultural and political questions. This special issue of Key Words on ‘Working-Class Writing’ aims to do the same, in part through its range and breadth of material. Such variety is captured in two interviews (with writer Lynsey Hanley and publisher and academic John Goodridge), by four essays mapping key developments across the twentieth and into the twenty-first century (on 1930s proletarian fiction, post-1945 and mid-century writing, and contemporary drama), a Recoveries piece on the short stories and autobiography of Malachi Whitaker, a keywords entry on class, and an extensive reviews section which encompasses recent scholarship on working-class literature.

KW 16 Cover

We are delighted that one of the contributions to the issue is by Williams himself; it is the first time one of his essays has been published in full in Key Words. ‘British Working-Class Literature after 1945’ was originally given as a talk in Aarhus, Denmark on 25 September 1979. Williams was 58 at the time, nearing a retirement taken four years later, and gave ten lectures on a two-week tour of Danish universities. It was a fortnight of public speaking which captured the immense variety of his writing and thinking, work that New Left Review described in the same year as ‘crossing academic boundaries and confounding disciplinary expectations’ [3]. He spoke on Marxist literary theory, cultural studies, the development of women’s studies programmes, critical approaches to television, socialism, and on Welsh literature and the industrial novel. The lecture on the working-class novel was recorded and is published here for the first time. It will be included in a new collection of previously unpublished and uncollected Williams essays, titled Culture and Politics, released by Verso next year (2021 being the centenary of Williams’s birth). As an essay it represents a period of sustained reflection on questions of class, form, working-class writing, and the problems of categorisation. These were themes Williams returned to repeatedly in his writing, but there was an urgency and directness about the way he addressed them at the end of the 1970s and into the early 1980s.

‘British Working-Class Literature after 1945’ should be considered alongside, and in some ways read as an earlier version of, his work of the same period: ‘Region and Class in the Novel’ and ‘Working-Class, Proletarian, Socialist: Problems in some Welsh Novels’ first published in 1982 and, from the same year, ‘The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists’. Some of the central, overlapping strands of these writings can also be traced back to ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’, published in 1979 from a lecture a year earlier, and to ‘The Welsh Trilogy; The Volunteers’ chapter in Politics and Letters (1979). They are a loose collection of essays and reflections which include discussions of the presence and absence of work in fiction, inheritance plots, literary form and entry points for working-class writers (including autobiography), escape narratives, and discussions of, amongst others, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Robert Tressell, D. H. Lawrence, Jack Jones, Gwyn Jones, Lewis Jones, and Gwyn Thomas. Emerging across such interventions are the structural contours of working-class writing in the twentieth century, what Williams describes as the necessity of ‘showing whole, determining social relationships’ and the ‘continuing tension, with very complicated emotions and relationships running through it, between two different worlds that needed to be rejoined’ [4]. He talks of this ‘showing’ as a problem facing those authors who first attempted to write working-class experience into the novel form. According to Williams, D. H. Lawrence, for instance, is an example of a writer from a working-class background who struggled to maintain a robust engagement with class as a whole social process and set of relations – particularly in his later fiction – because of a reliance on working-class life as an experience of childhood. This is one of the recurring problems that Williams theorises within the working-class novel founded on a personal back story and, additionally, an ‘escape’ from one class to another. As Williams warns, ‘both the working class and the general complex of class relationships are displaced: the former to childhood and adolescent experience, without significant attention to the continuing conditions of adult working-class life; the latter, almost wholly, to generalities of an ideological kind’ [5]. Here you get that double move by Williams referred to earlier: a recognition of the value of a method but also, more pointedly, an articulation of the limitations of what valuable resources are available.


If class is ‘a formation of social relationships within a whole social order’ [6], then, according to Williams, ‘a working class, at its most general, and in any socialist perspective, is really a formation within a much wider system: not only the much wider national and international economy; but also the relations between classes’ [7]. In his body of thinking on working-class writing, Williams attempts to map the different types of working-class novel before gesturing forward to how the form could and should be developed if it is to fully articulate class as a structural condition. He notes a number of different yet similar forms of writing about the working class: ‘the family novel, the family novel partly extended to a class, and the novel written from a conscious class perspective’ [8]. Elsewhere, he defines four specific features within the general category of working-class writing: the novel of 1) ‘working-class childhood, and of the move away from it’; 2) ‘a past period of working-class life, typically just at the edge of living memory; unconnected to the present’; 3) ‘contemporary working-class life, naturalised, depoliticised, reproductive’; and 4) ‘working class–middle class encounters, within newly mobile and mixed communities’ [9].

Crucially, Williams expands on these ways of writing about class experience in ‘British Working-Class Literature after 1945’, partly by drawing on the difficulties of writing about his working-class family in the semi-autobiographical Border Country (1960). There is a danger of enclosure, he warns, a risk of shutting working-class experience off from both the wider dynamic formations of class and the historical processes embedded within contemporary social relationships. Williams wrote Border Country seven times he admits, albeit with different titles, as he struggled to articulate the experience of the working-class family who stay and the child who leaves and returns, what he calls ‘the move back as well as the move away’ [10]. Williams adds, ‘that life had to be experienced not just as family background, which is the way the form pushes it, but as something where it is not known what is going to happen’ [11]. There was ‘no form’, he felt while he was grappling with Border Country, for the ‘sense of the continuity of working-class life, which does not cease just because one individual moves out of it, but which also itself changes internally’ [12]. So Williams’s debut novel is partly an attempt to break free from the demands of the form, demands often shaped by the plots of middle-class lives familiar from the longer history of the English novel [13].


What is different about the Aarhus lecture is that Williams compares Border Country explicitly to the work of his contemporaries David Storey and Alan Sillitoe. Here are two writers whose novels defined a new form of writing about working-class life but whose works are rarely placed alongside Williams’s novels of the same period (his 1960 debut Border Country and its 1964 follow-up Second Generation). Nor do these writers appear amongst Williams’s line-up of authors-to-think-with as in his other published essays on working-class writing (he gives both a brief single mention in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence and they are no doubt in mind when he discusses the ‘new forms of the fifties’ in his interview with New Left Review) [14]. Williams takes up a unique position here, as one of the most significant literary critics of the twentieth century as well as a postwar novelist with a working-class upbringing. He does not suggest that the solutions of the problems faced by the working-class writer can be found in his own novels; he does, however, suggest ways beyond the important but (what he identifies as) limited forms of working-class writing of the mid-twentieth century.

According to Williams, the postwar working-class novel was defined and, in the final instance, hindered, by two ways of writing: 1) the working-class novel without work as a significant lived experience; rather, the move away being the central experience; or, 2) ‘the working-class weekend novel’, one which briefly depicts work as monotonous and to be endured while the real action takes place outside of work. The first form – ‘versions of the novel of escape’, like John Braine’s Room at the Top (1957) – had a long trajectory, from Lawrence through to Storey, while the second, typified in Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), was associated with youth and sexual vigour and ‘became one of the dominant motifs of the sixties’ [15]. In both cases, and despite locating significant value in each, Williams argues that the inability to conjoin productive tensions between individual change with the postwar ‘movement of people’, plus the absence of working-class work as a lived and enduring social process (including a lack of writerly engagement with the ‘marked changes’ to manual occupations by the end of the ’70s) limits the reach of both forms as a contemporary structure for working-class writing [16].

Phil O’Brien is the author of The Working Class and Twenty-First-Century British Fiction (Routledge 2020). He is currently editing Culture and Politics (Verso 2021), a new collection of essays by Raymond Williams.

Nicola Wilson is Associate Professor of Book and Publishing Studies at the University of Reading and co-director of the Centre for Book Cultures and Publishing. She is author of Home in British Working-Class Fiction (Routledge 2015), co-author of Scholarly Adventures in Digital Humanities (Palgrave 2017), and general editor of the Ethel Carnie Holdsworth series with Kennedy & Boyd.


[1] Raymond Williams, ‘Writing’, Writing in Society (Verso, 1983), p. 6; Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review (1979; Verso, 2015), p. 274.
[2] Raymond Williams, ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, Writing in Society, p. 237.
[3] Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 7.
[4] Williams, ‘The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists’, Writing in Society, p. 243; Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 272.
[5] Williams, ‘Region and Class’, p. 235.
[6] Williams, ‘Region and Class’, p. 234.
[7] Raymond Williams, ‘Working-Class, Proletarian, Socialist: Problems in Some Welsh Novels’, The Socialist Novel in Britain, ed. H. Gustav Klaus (Harvester Press, 1982), p. 116.
[8] Williams, ‘The Ragged-Arsed Philanthropists’, pp. 242-43.
[9] Williams, ‘Working-Class, Proletarian, Socialist’, p. 119.
[10] See Raymond Williams, ‘British Working-Class Literature after 1945’, Key Words 18, 2020.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 272.
[13] See Raymond Williams, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (Chatto & Windus, 1970).
[14] Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 272; Williams, The English Novel, p. 152.
[15] Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 272. See Williams, ‘British Working-Class Literature after 1945’, Key Words 18, 2020.
[16] Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 272.