A Bourgeois Sense of Commitment | Pushing the Wave

A Bourgeois Sense of Commitment

Opinion, 27 October 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Nuevos Ministerios station, Madrid, Spain
Passing through: Nuevos Ministerios station, Madrid, Spain
This week I wanted to talk about something that plays on the minds of many people who would become a writer, particularly of books.

I realise this has been said before: As soon as you say you’re a writer, you are one.

But what people generally mean when they say ‘become a writer’ is to live by their pen, as it were: to be able to generate enough income from writing to not have to take on any more paid work, and spend their days concerning themselves solely with character development, plot lines and sentence structure.

Now, this is not the 1980s, with huge advances and enormous sales that mean anyone with a decent audience can get by. Those days have long gone; the internet took care of that. And even back then, being a full time writer could involve a long slog, with many hardships along the way.

Yet the ability to commit fully to writing and dedicate your life to your art, to the exclusion of all else, nevertheless remains a seductive dream to this day.

It is also considered by many to be the only way to fulfil your potential. They say committing yourself adds an element of danger and risk that forces you to fight harder, strive more and be better. That, it is said, is the only way someone can truly succeed.

This notion is a little in abatement, as the remuneration of creative endeavours has plummeted and that reality has filtered down, but it still has a strong hold.

It remains a compelling and neat narrative, and one that adds an additional danger and risk, as it automatically implies anyone who any commits less than fully to writing, by taking other paid work or remaining in their job, is less driven than a someone who gives it their all. And by definition, so the story goes, they can never be as good as they might have been otherwise.

And then there is the added spice: What if you do commit yourself fully to writing and still fail?
It’s a complex issue, but one I find falls along class lines.

You see this in many walks of creative life, but there is an over-representation of bourgeois, or middle class if you prefer, people in the world of letters compared with those from what used to be called the ‘working class’.

(Let’s leave aside the issue of middle class people trying to appropriate a working class identity. Let’s say that working class includes all first-generation middle class people, meaning those who are the first in their family to, say, go to university or have a profession or white collar job, as they are still ingrained with working class attitudes to money and risk-taking. However, their children are middle class because they did not experience the working class life first hand.)

The reality is bourgeois people are much more likely to take the plunge to be ‘committed’ writers, with no other means of earning money, than their working class counterparts.

Now, this may reveal itself as a class distinction, but of course the underlying factor driving the difference is money, and attitudes towards it that have been laid down over generations.

To be explicit, children growing up in middle class families are much more likely to feel they have a safety net, should everything should go wrong. And what I mean by that is people are much more likely to take apparently risky and ‘committed’ decisions to something as precarious as writing, or creativity in general, if they are not in fact risking everything but know that, if push came to shove, they could be bailed out.

Crucially, someone who grew up with that wonderful asset behind them at all times can never understand someone who did not, and they way the lack of it shapes their relationship with the world.

It puts me in mind of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and in particular this line, which helped to illuminate so much of what I experienced when moving from the deeply traditional working class milieu of rural Lincolnshire and then Leicester to the rarified world of Cambridge University.

“How can you expect a man who's warm to understand a man who's cold?”

Or to look at it another way, I have said before I like turning to song lyrics to examine social structures and beliefs.

A perfect example here is the 1995 classic Common People, by Pulp, which talks about a wannabe working class woman studying at St Martin’s College in London. And it is this verse in particular that illustrates my point:

Rent a flat above a shop
Cut your hair and get a job
Smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you'll never get it right
'Cause when you're laid in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all, yeah

This song may expose and mock the hypocrisy of middle class people wanting to self-identify as working class, but it also crystallises the thinking of many working class people around money and opportunity.

Put bluntly, if you have no safety net, no family to fall back on, no daddy to call should it all go wrong, you simply cannot make choices that would put your day-to-day life at risk. The danger is too great, to yourself and even more so if you have dependents and a family, as their life is on the line as well.
But when you think about it, a complete dedication and commitment to art and creativity, in this case writing, is a bit of a misnomer. A vanishingly small number of, particularly white, people who claim that dedication and commitment are actually putting themselves and their life on the line, with no way out and onwards the only direction.

Most could step away at any time and go running back to the family cocoon. A bit, or maybe a lot, of humble pie may need to be eaten to do so, but one can get used to all sorts of flavours after a while, especially when necessity is the driving factor.

There are of course some examples of people with truly nothing and no personal backing who gave their all to their art. In the modern world, these people tend most often to come from marginalised communities, where the dedication they show is all the more impressive, and yet in some ways all the more understandable.

I come from a working class family that had very little, but which nevertheless saw itself as part of the overall social hierarchy, which came with a pre-established route for betterment, no matter how fictitious. But if you have nothing at all, zero status and no hope of being accepted by wider society, really the only way is up and you are forced to do it on your own terms.

One example that shines out for me every time I think about this topic is the remarkable artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

I say remarkable, partly because he had an utterly unique worldview and an ability to express it in some of the most compelling art of the late 20th century, but also because there was nothing in his early life that implied he would end up where he did, apart from a love of art bestowed upon him by his mother.

But he suffered from having had no preparation for the complexities and contradictions of fame, or for the vicissitudes of the art industry, or for what must have been the intense pressure of being a black man in a white-dominated world.
Personally, I have been criticised in the past because I continue to work full time and strive to build a future for myself and my family while trying to ‘become a writer’. They argument says I will never reach my potential unless I give it my all and stop taking on other work.

Firstly, I don’t believe that at all. I truly believe I am as committed as I would be if I quit my work, maybe more so. It’s just taking me much longer to get there than it would have done otherwise.

Of course I have the excuse of having a family and a mortgage, but I had opportunities to commit fully to writing before and never took them.

Why? The simple answer is because I am not bourgeois, or middle class.

I do not have that mentality, which I have seen in so many other people with more privileged backgrounds, of thinking everything will work out and there will always a way through.

And I don’t have it because I know from bitter, painful experience the buck has to stop somewhere, and resources do run out. If there is no one in the background with a blank cheque and a comforting hug, the buck stops with you. Full stop.

So I plug away, day after day, week after week, trying to carve out an hour here, a half hour there, and noting down ideas when I can, all with the hope that, in the end, I achieve all of which I think I am capable (see, no preposition at the end of that sentence).

Maybe, one day, I will ‘become a writer’, although in many ways I already am.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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A Bourgeois Sense of Commitment | Pushing the Wave