Books

Where have all the rural voices gone from English fiction?

Urban life dominates contemporary fiction. When will regional voices be allowed to flourish?

Image: johnwoodcock / Getty

In the early days of the novel, English writers were known for their tales of the rural countryside. Bronte’s moors, Hardy’s chalk downs, the rolling fields of DH Lawrence’s Norfolk, and Austen’s great estates. Even today, American films use an establishing shot of a car struggling along country lanes to tell the viewer they’re in Limeyland.

But by the start of the new millennia, the novel in England became the home of the big city, with scarcely a pleasant pasture or cloudy hill in sight, and with that change, large parts of the country are now facing cultural invisibility.

It would be wrong to say publishing completely forgot the countryside. Helen Stanton, owner of Forum Books in Northumberland, suggests there has been a “brace of non-fiction” in the region from Pip Fallow’s Dragged Up Proppa to James Rebanks’ English Pastoral. In fiction meanwhile, readers can’t resist the allure of a handsome stableboy or a cosy hilltop murder, after all, the rural north “is a great location for crime fiction”.

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It’s in the literary novel, award-winning, state-of-the-nation books, where the disappearance of England’s countryside is felt most. Will Smith of Sam Reads, Grasmere, sums up the situation, “urban life rather than rural life dominate[s] contemporary fiction. Books set in small towns, villages or just showing rural life feel few and far between.” A handful of rural books stand out, such as Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 or Ben Myer’s Cuddy but when nearly 200,000 books are published yearly in the UK, the list is short. Shorter still when thinking about high-profile novels with meaningful things to say about country life.

The move away from the hinterlands wasn’t unexpected. The UK drifted from field to town during the industrial revolution and today is one of the world’s most urbanised countries with 84% of us living in cities, compared to around 30% in Austen’s day. Yet the division between urban and non-urban is messy, and what’s odd about publishing’s rural drought is how counterintuitive it is.

The average reader in the UK is older – a recent YouGov poll found that over 55s read for pleasure more than any other group, nearly five times as much as 18- to 24-year-olds. Equally stark is the age gap between urbanites and country bumpkins, for example, the average age in Birmingham is 34 while in Dorset it is 51.

And when we look at those rural areas, we find a community of sophisticated readers. England’s official book town Sedbergh is in Cumbria, major literary festivals such as Cheltenham, Theakston, and Petworth have pastoral settings, and many of the country’s most beloved bookshops are in small towns and villages.

What’s less odd is why publishers would be so focused on urbanites — it’s a neat reflection of the industry. The ‘Big Five’ publishers have their headquarters in London, and a report from the Publishers Association shows the workforce skews young, with 61% of the industry aged between 25 and 44, around 20% higher than their slice of the UK.

It also shows an overrepresentation of people from affluent backgrounds, with two-thirds coming from ‘professional families’ and nearly one in 10 having attended Oxbridge. It seems unlikely the children of haymakers or poultrymen are selecting what we read. Will Smith suggests this problem goes further, as when people from rural backgrounds do enter publishing, they are held back by a “sense of risk in publishing or examining rural stories”.

In getting my novel The Borrowed Hills into the world, I encountered literary veterans who were unsure about a farmer as a main character or a hardboiled Western set in the fells, and it was surprising when US publishers, 3,000 miles from Cumbria, were more comfortable with the material.

Without a wide range of voices telling stories, the media that should have its finger on the nation’s pulse is simply feeling its own

The issue with publishing being removed from readers is one familiar to people from unloved regions. The world outside large cities is viewed as homogenous, with writers from market towns in Staffordshire, seaside resorts in Essex, or a village in the Pennines seen as interchangeable. So interchangeable, they can conveniently be represented by, say, an Oxbridge graduate from Buckinghamshire.

To many, the UK has become a country divided across multiple lines – with each sliver unable to understand any other. Without a wide range of voices telling stories, the media that should have its finger on the nation’s pulse is simply feeling its own.

There is, however, hope. In recent years, small presses, the biggest champions of regional voices, have regularly beaten the ‘Big Five’ for awards and prestige, and publishing giants have responded by opening offices outside London, with Hachette operating in Sheffield and HarperCollins in Manchester. Change will come when the people publishing our books are in step with those reading them, and there are signs they are beginning to be.

The Borrowed Hills by Scott Preston is out 11 April (Hachette, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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