What is “proletarian literature”?
Let’s start with a couple of examples. One of the first books I read at school, A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines, was published in 1968, with the film version directed by Ken Loach, Kes, appearing in 1969. A reviewer, marking half a century since the book’s publication, wrote: “This was an era when there was an appetite for working-class, regional writing. It was an era when writers from humble backgrounds had access to networks, so scarce today, that could open the doors of opportunity.” Precisely. Nowadays publishers have no interest in such writers. All we get is “heart-warming” (i.e. sentimental) pap.
But it need not be grim reading. The book I read with most pleasure later in life was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, a comic novel based on the fictionalized lives of real painters and decorators in Hastings, on England’s south coast.
We all know the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston. But how many know that the book on which the films is based was first published in 1927 as Der Schatz der Sierra Madre and was written by the exiled German revolutionary, B. Traven?
Both The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre contain very simple explanations of Marx’s economic theories. But they appear as natural parts of the story. That is the essence of good proletarian literature.
But proletarian literature can take any form. Novels, autobiography, polemic, poetry … It need not be written as intentional “propaganda”. The author is usually, but need not be, “proletarian” himself or herself. And the author need not necessarily have a particular political persuasion.
Really, there are only two criteria that matter: first, that the work advances class consciousness, and second, it is a bloody good read.