Class Fictions: Shame and Resistance in the British Working-Class Novel, 1890-1945

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Author: Neil Nehring
Date: Spring 1998
From: Studies in the Novel(Vol. 30, Issue 1)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,967 words

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FOX, PAMELA. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994). 241 pp. $45.95 cloth; $15.95 paper.

The cultural shame betrayed by the working-class novelists surveyed in Pamela Fox's Class Fictions leads me to a simple conclusion: literature is a virtually irredeemable elitist institution. (This is in fact the conclusion to which my own studies of the appalling influence of literary attitudes concerning mass culture have led me.) Promoting a working-class agenda through literature is understandably going to "expose one's lack of cultural capital," and thus to make one "feel `inappropriate' by dominant cultural norms" and suffer anxiety over achieving literary status (p. 13). In almost every case examined by Fox, from Arthur Morrison's Child of the Jago (1896), Carnie Holdsworth's Miss Nobody (1913), and Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) to Ellen Wilkinson's Clash (1929) and Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole 1933), class "pride," or the advancement of working-class politics, is mixed with shame" at the presumed corruption, degradation, and dirtiness of much of working-class life--and also, revealingly, at its cultural pastimes--such that each writer "belies a need for legitimacy within the traditional academy" and ultimately "privileges hegemonic Culture" (pp. 59, 74).

Fox, however, is not particularly concerned with the possibility that the field of literature might be inherently irredeemable. In a short review of recent literary criticism concerned with working-class fiction, she contrasts Roy Johnson's view that working-class novelists failed "to challenge the bourgeois values laden within the novel form" (such as a stress on individualism) with H. Gustav Klaus's rejection of "condemnation of the novel as an irredeemably bourgeois genre" (pp. 59, 61), and that's the end of the subject. Fox's primary concern by her own account, instead, is to use her literary subjects to launch a more general broadening of "the practices and values of resistance theories" (p. 25) associated with recent British cultural studies.

Fox does not actually "broaden" our conception of cultural resistance, though, but performs instead a cliched postmodern deflation of the very notion of resistance. The subject of shame in working-class novels is used to suggest that resistance in any form and in any era inevitably betrays ambiguity and contradictions, and thus that the contrast cultural studies tends to posit between "reproduction" of the dominant culture's values and overt resistance of them is far too tidy to correspond with reality: the "`reproductive' or `recuperative' tendencies of a particular subculture become somewhat simplistically marked out and separated from `resistance' gestures. . . . in a kind of mad scramble to uncover `counter-hegemonic or `emancipatory' practices which absolutely, categorically contest dominant cultural directives" (p. 6). Fox offers up Paul Willis as a case of excess faith in the agency of the insubordinate, an excess that other postmodernists, particularly pessimistic political economists, frequently indict as "cultural populism" (see Jim McGuigan, Cultural Populism [New York: Routledge, 1992]).

Having closely read work in British cultural studies over the years, I am mystified by Fox's indictment of the field for a...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A20590505