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Hop Picking: Forging a Path on the Edgelands of Fiction

By Lee Rourke.

This essay appears in Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class By the Working Class, edited by Nathan Connolly (Dead Ink). Out now in paperback.

Way back in 1937, when writers held a firm foothold in the world — a smaller, slower, less fragmented world that facilitated for them a voice which could command the utmost respect from swathes of readers far and wide (in ways writers of today can only dream of) — George Orwell (a real-life walking-talking contradiction of class and interpretation) wrote in The Road To Wigan Pier, his gritty, heartbreaking paean to the working class:

‘This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that “they” will never allow him to do this, that, and the other. Once when I was hop-picking I asked the sweated pickers (they earn something under sixpence an hour) why they did not form a union. I was told immediately that “they” would never allow it. Who were “they”? I asked. Nobody seemed to know, but evidently “they” were omnipotent.’ (1)

It’s a quote that has haunted me for most of my life.

For a start, let’s think about that looming noun ‘indignity’ in the first sentence, which has its origin in the Latin indignari, to be regarded as unworthy. Quickly followed by the gerund ‘waiting’ with its origins in the Germanic wahhon and the Old North French waitier, to watch with hostile intent, to be awake to something. As working-class individuals (ignoring the varying complexities of this label for a moment) we are aware of our own unworthiness, constantly watching ourselves dwell within it, and we feel hostile towards it. This sense of unworthiness and hostility has stuck with me all my life, I have spoken to other working-class writers and the same ‘it doesn’t feel like I should be doing this’ sentiment always rears its ugly head. The idea that we have risen above our preordained place in society, that we have broken ranks and are loosed upon the world, without reigns, or others’ guidance. What is it to feel unworthy? And what does waiting really mean? To be kept waiting? What are we waiting for? To finally find our own sense of worth? To be free from the shackles of work? These questions are vital and unending — yet, I am sure, there are many, those who haven’t experienced this burden of eternal unworthiness, who have never questioned themselves or their actions in this way, nor have they been forced to become expert watchers of themselves and others like them, outside looking in, hostile outsiders.

Yet, if we are so hostile to ourselves and those around us, why do we just let things trundle along, like this unworthiness is the most natural thing in the world? Why do we seemingly do nothing about it? Why such passivity? First, we have to answer the question of passivity. What does Orwell mean when he says ‘a thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role’? Maurice Blanchot, the French literary theorist, explains passivity as:

‘…measureless: for it exceeds being; it is being when being is worn down past the nub.’ (2)

It is beyond the totality of ourselves, it defines us because it has already worn us away, erased any hope of alternative activity, i.e., another life. This is what Orwell means when he points out the working class’s ‘passive role’ in society, he wants this paradox to stick, with all the intensity of a fish bone in the throat: how can our symbol of collective activity, the working class, be collectively passive?

Blanchot’s great friend and mentor, Emmanuel Levinas, understood this dichotomy, and he found a use in it, too, something quite radical, calling it:

‘…a passivity more passive than all passivity.’ (3)

What Levinas means when he says this (something he repeats throughout his work) is that passivity might not be ‘passive’ at all, it might be its complete opposite, an activity. An argument the philosopher Simon Critchley is keen to iterate:

‘He [Levinas] wants to emphasize passivity but not the kind of passivity that’s opposed to activity. Levinas wants a passivity that’s more passive than all passivity, an ultra-passivity that might itself be a kind of quasi-activity or a passivity that’s beyond the opposition of activity and passivity.’ (4)

This is exactly the type of passivity Herman Melville had in mind when creating his great symbol of the working man: Bartleby, who one day simply says: ‘I would prefer not to’ (5) when asked by his boss to do some task or other in his office. How can any of us forget that phrase as it’s used by the static, impeccably passive Bartleby over and over again, one of the greatest imaginings of radical passivity? But, as always, it comes at a price; we never really get away with it. Susan A. Handelman, in her great work about Levinas, points us towards an important facet, a flaw maybe, in this idea of passivity, describing it thus:

‘The term passivity is used to describe the subject as opened, hollowed out, traumatized, wounded, deposed, and subject to the other.’ (6)

Working-class passivity, then, is our collective wound, our mark left behind from the event of being working class itself — the idea of having this forced upon us through no fault of our own: the existentiality of birth (‘birth was the death of him,’ to quote Samuel Beckett) (7). Like Bartleby, we are always-already wounded, whether we admit it or not. We are outsiders looking in on ourselves looking out at ‘a thousand influences’ that create in us a sense of action through passivity. But don’t be fooled: again like Bartleby, our passivity is our double-edged sword, our form of attack (and, if necessary, something we are quite willing to fall on).

And all of this before we even begin to consider the concept of ‘they’. Because we all know one thing cannot exist without the other, right? But who are ‘they’? This shadowy, mythical presence that keeps the working class in our place? Who are our hard-working hop-pickers talking about? Let’s revisit the point I made above, via the lens of Susan A. Handelman’s scrutiny of Levinas: that the passive ‘hollowed out, traumatised, wounded, deposed’ working class have become ‘subject to the other’ (8). What is meant by this sense of the ‘other’ and why is the supposedly ‘passive role’ subject to it? Is the collective pronoun ‘they’ used in this context just to refer to people in general? Or does this ordinarily vague pronoun serve to single out a certain type, or group? A target group, even? In phenomenological terms we must begin to associate the hop-picker’s sense of ‘they’ with Husserl’s sense of ‘otherness’ (9). For Husserl, ‘the other’ was a form of intersubjectivity where one group of people follows one thought group or mindset and another group follows another collective thought group, in which every individual has their own interpretation. Individual beliefs become the beliefs of the collective group, and vice versa, hence our unfixed definition of who ‘they’ are. In Orwellian terms, ‘they’ is inferred to be those in charge, or more precisely the ‘thousand influences’ who serve to keep the working class in their place (this, of course, can be anyone, from the upper classes, bankers, captains of industry, the superrich, oligarchs, politicians, capitalists, etc). An ever-present, unquantifiable enemy. The term ‘they’ can be used collectively, or however the individual chooses, its very vagueness lends itself to collective/individual malleability. The perfect label.

But what’s all this got to do with writing or, more importantly, being a working-class writer? Well, quite a lot actually.

II.

I think it’s far easier to describe myself as ‘working class’ than as a ‘working-class writer’ even though, on the face of it, I don’t live what can be considered a working class life anymore. But I am ‘working class’. Inescapably so. What I most definitely am not is a ‘working-class writer’ even though, just under the surface, I most definitely am. I don’t want to complicate the issue here, I just want to elucidate this dichotomy in a way that makes sense to me: I am a working-class man who doesn’t live a working-class life who writes working-class books that aren’t working class.

There. I’ve said it. I do hope you understand. I’m not being deliberately awkward or facetious. Honest.

I am from Manchester, the city Jeanette Winterson described as:

‘…in the south of the north of England. Its spirit has a contrariness in it – a south and north bound up together – at once untamed and unmetropolitan; at the same time, connected and wordly.’ (10)

It’s a city of contradictions; world-changing (think of the Industrial Revolution; the birth of socialism, the Co-operative, the Manchester Ship Canal, Marx and Engels, the first atom being split; the first computer being developed; Madchester/Acid House, etc.) yet distrustful of outsiders, proud yet understated. I’ve always preferred Eric Cantona’s description myself:

‘I feel close to the rebelliousness and vigour of the youth here. Perhaps time will separate us, but nobody can deny that here, behind the windows of Manchester, there is an insane love of football, of celebration and of music.’ (11)

Mancunians like to have fun, to disrupt the established order of things in their revelry (the late ’80s ‘Madchester’ scene is a fine example: The Hacienda, The Thunderdome, Acid House, Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses can be viewed as a collective two fingers to the rest of the country and especially London), there are certain things I cannot shake off. Mancunians like to do things their own way, outside of preconceived ideas or established default modes. Anything ‘Manchester’ creates is born out of its awareness/distrust of the other (especially London). Manchester is a wounded city (just type ‘Peterloo Massacre’ into Google to tap into the psyche of the average Mancunian, think about the IRA bomb of 1996, too) (12), its wounds run deep; when they are conquered we want the world to know.

I grew up in a house with no books. My mother and father simply didn’t read them, they preferred the newspapers and completing the crossword puzzles. I was never, to my knowledge, encouraged to read. It was my Auntie Anne who enlightened me to literature, whose house was full of books. This has always stuck, I carry it around with me, I mention it at dinner parties, or among ‘Literary’ friends, like an old man showing off his war wounds, or that scene on the boat in the film Jaws — is this sentiment a product of my class? The displaying of old wounds? The idea that books are for ‘other’ people? Am I wounded by the idea that just because I’m working class I missed out on the simple pleasure of living/growing up with a household full of books and, more importantly, ‘readers’? Hell yeah, I am! I’m put in mind of something the author Len Deighton once said — you can substitute ‘write’ for ‘read’ if you want (rather ironically Len Deighton is an author I’ve never read):

‘I think the reason working-class people don’t write books is because they are encouraged to believe that only certain people are permitted to write books.’ (13)

There’s much truth in this quote, and much to think about. We all know the well-worn Marxist interpretation of the rise of the modern ‘novel’ — but it’s worth repeating. The novel rose to its zenith in popularity during the 19th century, a time which also witnessed the rise of the bourgeoisie in society and the advent of the Industrial Revolution. In short, the bourgeoisie had more leisure time i.e., spending time with family, travelling around Europe, going to the theatre, visiting art galleries, and, more importantly, reading novels, so the novel grew to reflect bourgeois taste — it effectively incorporated all of these components into its make-up. The working class, on the other hand, had no leisure time at all, they were far too busy working. Novels simply weren’t for us. The modern novel has never been able to shake off its bourgeois roots — it has become its default mode system of values. Society isn’t as divided as it once was so these same bourgeois value systems are tolerant of working-class culture, so it has developed a need for working-class writers to penetrate and reflect working-class issues and life (just like the bourgeoisie novel) through a mode of aesthetic, dialectic realist fiction. Rather ironically, this is a materialist need in the original Marxist sense, whether ‘they’ like it or not (it’s also bourgeois taste that demands the modern ‘lyrical, psychological humanist’ flourishes in this equation). It is also where I sadly part company with Marx and Engels. What was once Marx and Engel’s revolutionary demand for all writers and artists to achieve class ‘truthfulness’ and ‘pure art’ through materialist, aesthetic realism is now a mere expectation of bourgeois taste.

How ironic, or, should I simply say, predictable?

III.

If, like Len Deighton states, the working class aren’t meant to write novels, per se, what do working-class novelists do? Sadly, by and large, working-class novelists do one of two things (or both!): a) write the same type of bourgeois novel pre-existing writers do, thereby fitting into the already established bourgeois literary default mode, or b) write the gritty, clichéd accounts of working-class, inner-city misery they are expected to write for ‘their’ entertainment.

These two paths are anathema to me. I have chosen my own. It’s been hard, some people have understood, most haven’t. And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

‘I am a working class man who doesn’t live a working class life who writes working class books that aren’t working class’? What do I mean by this? First it’s best to ask: what are we expected to write as ‘working-class’ writers by established bourgeois value systems? The clichés that follow this question are endless: we are told to hold up a huge psychological mirror to ourselves and reflect back to the world our gritty realism, our miseries, poverty, petty dramas, etc. The stuff, detritus, offscourings, whatever ‘the other’ uses as symbols for us. It’s repetitive, boring, useless; it keeps us in our place as supposedly working-class writers. We are categorised this way, ‘they’ like it like that. It’s easier for them to deal with us, to understand us this way. Nothing makes me more angry, and it is why I have never attempted to replicate the ‘real’ in my own writing.

I’ll never forget something the artist and (anti-)novelist Stewart Home said to me many years ago:

‘In order for a novelist to be truly revolutionary a novelist has to write bad novels.’ (14)

I remember nodding and not really saying much in response — I thought he was being flippant for a start — but the more I thought about it, the more it made complete and utter sense. If the revolutionary working-class novel is now a mere bourgeois expectation then Home’s words are more than timely. We have to disrupt bourgeois taste and reading pleasure by writing what ‘they’ consider to be ‘bad’ novels. So what, in fact, is a ‘bad’ novel? Stewart was talking about a common enemy: the default mode of established literature (what critic Mark Thwaite labelled Establishment Literary Fiction). He wasn’t saying that the answer to writing novels that broke convention was to write them badly, in terms of badly composed sentences and structure, he meant bad for the established bourgeois reader to read. He wants to write novels that destroy, take apart and disrupt the bourgeois notion of what a novel should be.

This idea of disrupting reading pleasure has always stuck with me. I have never wanted to entertain, I have always wanted to disrupt. It’s why my debut novel was never going to be about family, art, theatre, historical dalliances, or finding authenticity in far-flung corners of the globe, but about a man who does nothing, just sits on a bench, doing nothing; no plot, no personal narrative arc, no redemption, no psychological pain, no reality, nothing. Simply a novel about boredom. The very thing novels aren’t supposed to be. For me, the best literature is the stuff that assaults the mind, which throws any preconceived ideas out of the window, that does away with the lousy, bourgeois psychology of the novel and (to use a phrase from the novelist Tom McCarthy) ‘tune[s]’ into the ‘rich trash of literature’ (15), to use and reuse it in ways to tip the balance, to upset the status quo, and never to cement it in canonical position. It is literature that is written for no one — writing for no one, in fact — but always against ‘them’, ‘the other’, our sense of ‘they’, whatever you want to call it. It does things its own way, nothing is fixed.

It is ultimately selfish.

I approach all of my writing this way: I write for no one, yet always with my idea of who ‘they’ are without seeing them. My own idea of them. I think of them as nobodies. I do not care for readers’ tastes, whims, loves, hates; readers are nothing to me even though I care about disrupting these pleasures within them. I write for me, and me alone. I am a selfish bastard. I am a contradiction. If anyone does read my writing, I want to disrupt the pleasure of reading within them. I want to leave my mark. I want to create a wound.

The saddest thing for me is: I am on the edgelands of fiction here, I feel like a stranger, there aren’t many of us who want to disrupt anything, and certainly not the pleasure of those who buy our books. I walk this path mostly alone, I bump into like-minded souls from time to time, but it’s rare, and getting rarer. But, for me, this path is everything. I have invested so much of my life clearing a path for myself, forging ahead, navigating my own route that I now know it’s too late to turn back — there are too many twists and turns, dead ends to remember, for a start.

I feel like a stranger.

Yet, I keep on talking.

IV.

Let’s return to Orwell’s Hop-Pickers, our hard-working ‘sweated pickers’. I liken myself as a writer to them: I work tirelessly, repetitively, mind-numbingly, painstakingly towards creating something, which, if I’m lucky, is abruptly taken away from me, made into something else by others, for others to supposedly enjoy, despite there not being much in return for me. The working-class writer is the Hop-Picker: the resolute worker, picking away, working alone, with that omnipotent, mysterious, ever-threatening sense of something that might never exist: our sense of ‘they’ (whoever ‘they’ are), the continual spectre that forces us, whether we like it or not, to keep on working, to keep on producing for them — this is what sets us apart, builds our character, forges our art — and whatever our art is, depends on our own idea of who ‘they’ are. The working-class writer feels forced to work within a world we feel we don’t belong. It puts me in mind of something the great literary critic Stephen Mitchelmore wrote recently regarding the working class, in which he discusses (among other things) the impact of Paul Celan. It is a quotation he uses to sum up the working-class writer’s place in the world. I think it is fitting to end this rant, this mere utterance here, with the words of others. This can be our beginning: the working-class writer, then, is:

‘…a stranger not only in the social and cultural world: there is a veil between him and nature, between him and everything. He always finds himself face to face with the incomprehensible, inaccessible, the “language of the stone”. And his only recourse is talking. This cannot be “literature”. Literature belongs to those who are at home in the world.’

(1) Orwell, G. (2001). The Road to Wigan Pier. London: Penguin Books in association with Martin Secker & Warburg.

(2) Blanchot, M. (1995). The Writing of the Disaster. University of Nebraska Press, p. 17.

(3) Levinas, E. (2013). Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence. Pittsburgh, Pa: Duquesne University Press, p. 15.

(4) Critchley, S. (2015). The Problem with Levinas (A. Dianda, Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 71.

(5) Melville, H. (2007). Bartleby the Scrivener.

(6) Handelman, S. A. (1991). Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 259.

(7) Beckett, S. (1982). ‘A Piece of Monologue’, Three Occasional Pieces. London: Faber & Faber.

(8) Handelman, S. A. (1991). Fragments of Redemption: Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 259.

(9) Husserl, E. (1982). Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological PhilosophyFirst Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. The Hague: M. Nijhoff.

(10) Winterson, J. (2012). Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? London: Vintage, p. 13.

(11) Eric ‘The King’ Cantona.

(12) And, heartbreakingly, as I edit this text, the attack on the MEN Arena.

(13) Len Deighton Quotes.

(14) I’m sure he said this to me in a bar in Whitechapel at a 3:AM Magazine event.

(15) McCarthy, T. (2017). Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays. New York: New York Review Books.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lee Rourke is the author of the short-story collection Everyday, the novel The Canal (winner of the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize 2010) and the poetry collection Varroa Destructor. His latest novel, Vulgar Things (‘poignant and unsettling’ – Eimear McBride) is published in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the US by 4th Estate, Harper Collins. His third novel Glitch is forthcoming in 2019. He is a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine, and has written regularly for the Guardian, TLS, Bookforum, Independent and New Statesman. A film adaptation of his debut novel The Canal is currently in production with Story House Films.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 14th, 2018.