04 November 2022
Jim Gibson, author of The Bygones, on how experimenting with the short story form enabled him to express a rich, layered identity
When you hear the phrase ‘working-class’ used to describe a work of fiction, the work is instantly, whether intentionally or not, pigeonholed into a certain genre within your mind. And, I suppose, this is where the problems begin as a genre brings with it certain implications. The idea that if a piece of fiction is set in a certain location or is written by a writer with a lower level of income then it means it must fall into any category is bizarre.
The ‘working-class fiction’ label and therefore the stereotypes that come with it mean that you’re either re-writing A Kestrel for a Knave or Football Factory. It’s either the gritty yet heart-warming reality or the gritty and brutal reality. It’s always ‘reality’, and ‘gritty’ is always the adjective. Or ‘stark’. Very rarely do you hear ‘poetic’, ‘artistic’, ‘magical’ or ‘complex’.
Working-class writers seem to be pushed out of the literary fiction canon with the odd straggler allowed in so that whoever holds the torch can say that they are doing their bit, yet only if the work in question lines up with the ideals that they insist this fiction should encompass.
The setting is meaningless in reality. Lanark by Alistair Grey is an example of a novel that is deeply experimental and sci-fi whilst also being set in the tenement buildings of Glasgow for much of its duration. Although its focus is on working-class characters, you would never label it as a working-class novel. I once interviewed James Kelman for Low Light Magazine and he explained how the Scottish seem to have supported their writers in a way that England has neglected as they have a wealth of artistic fiction pushed to the forefront. Fiction that an English perspective would categorise as being ‘working-class’. Another great example is Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing, a really introspective work of fiction that delves into the mind of a woman struggling with her mental state. A poetic masterpiece regardless of any class divisions.
The Bygones, as a collection, was written over many years with no end collection in mind. The short story form is very handy for writing whilst working full time jobs, and the amount of time it was written over proved to be very important for the book. As I developed as a writer, so did my attitude towards both reality and literature. The chronologically earlier stories from the collection were a lot more straightforward; playing with a subtlety and sense of calmness and as I progressed, I started developing a more overt esotericism and surreal element that would enter the stories in a way that wasn’t identified as being out of place within the very realistic setting of the stories. This then moves the reader away from classic working-class stereotypes, but it also ironically adds to the realism in more an atmospheric way than a literal one.
Truths come in many forms and sometimes when we look in the mirror it can be hard to accept what is looking back. This development of writing style taught me that, if you accept the freedoms that the short story form brings then you can display far more realities by toying with metafiction and the more surreal and poetic elements that language can conjure than portraying a plot-based narrative alone.
The issue of art in literature is one that’s interesting to question here as well. The working-class have historically been story tellers, however, they have always been discouraged away from ‘art’. It can be argued that most great art is born from oppression yet, regardless of opinions on this subject, this has never been encouraged and it has always had to force its way into the mainstream attentions. The short story, when seen as an art-form, is in fact very freeing and full of possibilities. Far more possibilities than a novel has as more obscure narratives can be tedious if played out for too long, yet in the short story, brief playfulness is a joy; be it the story as a still painting, a show of personality through actions, a delving into the mind, a fable or anything else that pure creativity can conjure.
The short story has some very unique possibilities, so much so that it would almost be a shame to write a straightforward tale that has been written a million times, let alone a story with the idea of being pigeonholed and read as an under-class of writing and a novelty. I produce written art whilst being a full-time gardener, as pretentious as that sounds, and although my writing is set in the communities that I know and love, I do not accept the working-class label. They are just stories; as unique as valuable as anyone else’s.
The Bygones – Small Stories by Jim Gibson is published by Tangerine Press
Check out acclaimed author Kit de Waal's views on reading, writing, ageism, sexism, working class writers and more in this fascinating Q&A.