How are we supposed to succeed in a system designed against us?
‘The UK is inherently class based’, writes Joelle Taylor in her 2022 Poetry Society essay (https://ypn.poetrysociety.org.uk/features/at-the-coal-face-of-poetry-joelle-taylor-on-class/). I have been working in the creative industry since 2016 – pretty much as soon as I stepped into Manchester. Living in England, most people have experienced class divisions in some way: whether it’s the train carriages which are still divided into First Class and Standard, the stark differences in social housing versus suburban living, or the increasing amount of full time employees lining up at food banks.
The arts might feel like some sort of liberal utopia where we “don’t see colour” and “don’t see class”, especially with new initiatives to provide access for working class and marginalised people. I believe it is time for people like myself to share our experiences of getting into work, specifically publishing – and, how it can often feel as though everything is stacked against us.
Michael Schmidt, the founding member of PN Review, states in PNR’s Issue 268 editorial that a certain level of corporate conformity is expected of contracted employees (PNR 268, ‘Editorial’, paraphrased). This rigid, profit-based style of work can benefit a business in the long term; however, in a creative setting, it is important that this does not dilute the artistic message.
We have seen in recent years that despite “flagship sellers” bringing in steady profit (e.g. fast sales but a lack of loyal readership), innovative and unexpected works can sometimes draw in loyal and dedicated fanbases. For example, Warsan Shire, a relatively unknown poet (especially outside of Britain), was propelled to fame after featuring on Beyonce’s Lemonade in 2016. How do employers balance new starters? Do they opt for visionaries, who take risks and could potentially transform the company? Or is it something else altogether?
Networking and email etiquette
If anyone reading this is fresh out of Uni and starting to look for jobs, please do not scroll past!
I am part Northern, part Londoner. I come from a family of dry, sarcastic, blunt people. Unfortunately, that is pretty encoded into my DNA, alongside my love for scones and cold weather and my hatred for the London Tube. This has been somewhat of a learning curve for me. Over the past few years, I have learned what they often forget to teach you at school: email etiquette.
At first, I could not think of anything more revolting. Surely expression is the most important thing here? That is, conveying what you want to say in a succinct and thoughtful way.
No! Instead, this dreadful thing we have all come to accept in the digital age is some kind of Frankenstein’s Monster in between a text, a letter and a monologue. I’ve found that implementing an automated signature works very well.
In the beginning, I found it very difficult and I often got snarky email responses from well-meaning lecturers and mentors. Rule of thumb: start off ridiculously formal – so formal, it looks as though you are writing with a quill and adjusting your ruff as you’re typing.
Here is an example email layout:
Dear [Insert name here],
I hope you are well. [Polite inquiry about something they are doing].
[Humble request or exchange of words].
Thank you so much for your time, I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Come back to this layout later. You’ll thank me!
A year or so ago, I was sat on Zoom in a 30+ person interview, watching as the time ticked by and everyone on the screen in front of me discussed summers internships abroad, working for family friends, and their wealth of low or unpaid internships. A few thoughts came to mind: Will I stand out? Is my First Class degree enough, despite that being a privilege in itself? Does my accent jar, or can I pass as eloquent? Does my passion for standing up for marginalised people actually work against me? Why don’t I know things that these candidates view as common knowledge?
The “Experience” Paradox
Most people who work in publishing or the arts either acknowledge their privilege or benefit from it. In the Bad Form x Dialogue issue, Dialogue Books founder Sharmaine Lovegrove declares ,’It’s so much easier to hire a highly organised person who has a hint of experience rather than take a chance on someone who is box-fresh and bursting with ideas, who may need some training’ (p.4). With initiatives such as Creative Access, marginalised hopefuls may stand much more of a chance. The evidence shows that there has absolutely been an increase in representation across the board, but wealth disparities still remain. There will be no quick fix until there are permanent, structural changes. For now, I can suggest a few things.
How working for NES could help you
At present, I have just finished working as an Events Coordinator at Nottingham Trent University’s Student Union. Whilst I look for a full time creative job, I am volunteering and participating in a few roles: an Editorial Assistant with Young Identity; a member of Roundhouse Collective; I am participating in a local screenwriting course and I write articles for No Extra Source. I came across No Extra Source via Linkedin, and it’s pretty revolutionary.
Many copywriting jobs require a portfolio, and those in the industry who were kind enough to get back to me stated that my portfolio was not developed enough. Projects like No Extra Source give writers the freedom to develop the type of writing portfolio that they want, including editorial guidance and feedback. With this type of voluntary role, you gain as much as you put in. After a writing dry spell, articles such as these are perfect to see me through the winter months.
If you are a working class person trying to find their place in the creative industry, please hang in there. The world needs more people like you. And, if you happen to fall into the right set of circumstances, why not set up your own publishing magazine? I am the type of person who is spurred on by setbacks, and if I endure enough rejections, that may well be what I end up doing. All I’m trying to say is: create your own opportunity. Those who aren’t ready for you yet will be soon.