Writing in yesterday's Guardian, Robert McCrum reflected on Ian Rankin's use of class terms in defining the position of crime writing and suggested a class structure for writers in Britain, like this:
The author of the Inspector Rebus series was being interviewed in advance of the Cologne literary festival. Rankin is a literature PhD fully versed in English-language literary tradition, who chose crime writing as a "good way of looking at society, and of exploring a city". But in his interview, he characterised crime novelists as "kids from the wrong side of the tracks, the non-literary brigade".
This isn't exactly an original perception, but Rankin's use of class vocabulary is unusual; no American would ever speak in such a way. And it got me thinking about the class structure of the British book world. No question there is one, though people will probably disagree about who's at the top and bottom of the heap.
At the top, to my way of thinking anyway, there are those impoverished aristos, the poets. To be a poet, however reduced and/or neglected, is to be a member of an elite; heir to a tradition that includes Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Auden and Larkin.
Poets, for me, are closely followed by playwrights, for rather the same reason. Playwrights aren't aristocrats, but oddly vagrant. They're part of a tradition that is, arguably, the richest and most original thread in the English-literature tapestry. Write a successful play and you join Shakespeare (again), Jonson, Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, Pinter (there's no need, here, to get into an argument about the Irish contribution). I think it's undeniable that plays and players embody something uniquely demotic and uniquely English about our literature.
Then, oh dear yes, we come to the literary novelists. These are not (usually) aristocrats, but are rather middle-class types who spring from bourgeois society in all its complexity. Popular historians, biographers and memoirists share a similar position.
As Rankin noted in his DW interview, crime novelists in the 19th century were very much of this class. As crime fiction grew as a genre, however, it became associated with clerks and lower middle-class readers: people who commuted to work on trains and buses. Slowly, it became decoupled from literature and ended up "the wrong side of the tracks".
There, eventually, the crime authors were joined by thriller writers and spy novelists, all of whom have had to endure being patronised from a great height by the self-appointed priesthood of the "literary novelist". Part of this is inspired, as Rankin rightly notes, by sheer jealousy. Crime writers enjoy the kind of sales literary novelists can only dream about.
Finally, there is the literary underclass: the writers of celebrity biographies for whom very few have a good word to say.
My bold type, of course. Or should I say one's? One should, in any case, one imagines, live up to that. One should exercise one's elite privileges, which are... erm, occasionally being noticed by people like Robert McCrum. One notes the endless deference offered one generally, and while one, of course, deprecates deference, one hopes to bank it somewhere in the Bank of Esteem. One finds one's local branch of such a bank on the right side of the tracks, which is, one inevitably finds, one's domain. One is glad to be regarded as an aristocract, however impoverished. One supposes the ancient practice of flyting might still be open to one. Meanwhile one hopes one has a bit of spare change. For the dog, mister.