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The current state of housing in the UK has inspired young writers to address the issue of secure and affordable homes, which often seem like a fantasy.
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The current state of housing in the UK has inspired young writers to address the issue of secure and affordable homes, which often seem like a fantasy.

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People who have experienced living in a shared house are familiar with the sensation of having to move quietly in their own space, as if they don’t truly belong there – the ongoing small discussions, both real and perceived, that define living situations that are based on need rather than choice.

Holly Pester’s new novel, The Lodgers, captures the eerie feeling of being a ghost lingering on the fringes of one’s own life. The story centers on a woman who returns to her hometown and rents a room that overlooks her mother’s house. While there, she spends her time imagining the lodger who has taken her place in her previous temporary residence. Upon arriving at her new sublet flat, she is struck by its similarities to the packaging of the sandwich she just ate. The small, cheaply furnished space reminds her of the empty triangular box and its inside that seems to mock her current situation. She even notices a window, adding to the surreal atmosphere.

The Lodgers by Holly PesterView image in fullscreen

“Pester, who is both an academic and a lecturer, wrote the poetry collection Comic Timing which also addresses the various challenges faced by those living in precarious conditions. Pester explains that her goal was to examine the unsettling mental state that arises from constantly living in unstable housing, and how it alters one’s voice and self-expression. The protagonist in her novel reflects on how she has learned to adjust and conceal her needs instead of asserting them, ultimately becoming a passive occupant rather than taking root and asserting her presence as a tenant.”

Several new novels are addressing the housing crisis in the UK and how it affects our lives. Some examples include Glass Houses by Francesca Reece, which explores gentrification and second homes in north Wales, and Goodlord by Ella Frears, which takes the form of an email to an unethical estate agent. Other recent novels such as Close to Home by Michael Magee and The Peckham Experiment by Guy Ware also touch on the housing crisis and its impact on characters striving for stability. These are just a few of the many contemporary novels by young writers that highlight our distorted relationship with property.

In my younger years, I had a different perspective. Looking back on my late teens, when I first began reading books, I was drawn to them for a few reasons. One was the romantic idea of becoming a writer, and the other was the belief that in the world of novels, characters had comfortable homes that they didn’t have to worry about losing, homes that they personally owned. At 17 years old, living in Shard End, a neighborhood in Birmingham where money was always tight, the grand mansions and rural estates described in Evelyn Waugh’s stories seemed like a desirable escape. I also found myself yearning for the glamorous cityscapes portrayed by Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. Even the humble living spaces of Henry Miller and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own had a strong influence on my teenage mind, evoking thoughts of independence, freedom, and endless opportunities.

Michael Magee’s recent novel Close to Home,

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In the past, I was unaware of the limitations of my knowledge. I did not realize that I was primarily reading from a collection known as the “canon,” which focused on portraying the concerns of the bourgeois class such as property, wealth, marriage, and propriety. I was also unaware that Woolf suggested that a writer only needed a servant and an annual income of £75k to survive financially. Additionally, I had no knowledge of the housing crisis in Britain that had been ongoing for three decades and would greatly impact not only my adult life, but that of those around me. It often felt like the main topic of conversation, with many of us feeling like Ancient Mariners, constantly retelling the same story: rising rents, stagnant wages, and increasingly exploitative landlords taking advantage of the market’s dynamics.

The consequences of the crisis are both frustrating and far-reaching, affecting not just material and psychological aspects but also the arts. Many now feel like they are trapped in a never-ending Hunger Games when it comes to the housing market, all while being told, whether directly or indirectly, that it’s not as bad as it seems. However, let’s be clear, it is indeed that bad. This was never the agreement. Whether one supports capitalism or not, its fundamental promise was always along the lines of: give us your labor and time, and in return you will have a share in the system. It may not be a fair share, but it’s still a share. But nowadays, even that meager offer feels like a cruel joke.

Francesca Reese’s Glass Houses

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When speaking to individuals under 40, who have witnessed the economy struggle repeatedly for the past 20 years while those who own assets and collect rent continue to benefit from a system that was created, maintained, and adjusted for their advantage, the perspective is vastly different. In the midst of a social safety net that is becoming increasingly fragile, growing inequality, and the likelihood of never being able to retire due to financial struggles, the question that arises is: why am I sacrificing most of my waking hours to work, only to hand over 75% of my meager income to a landlord who happens to possess multiple properties in east London that they purchased for a measly five pounds back in the mid-1980s?

If you were a property owner during this time, when it was typical for homes to appreciate more than people, it may be hard to comprehend just how harsh the current rental market is. However, for everyone else, the consequences are significant. It’s no surprise then, that in addition to experiencing it and feeling hopeless about it in social settings, we are also writing about it. This is certainly the case for me. In many modern novels, it’s common for the main characters to live in a state of scarcity and insecurity, where the concept of home has completely detached from its traditional associations of stability, security, comfort, and permanence. I am no exception in this aspect. In my recent novel, I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning, the new housing development serves as a symbolic center of gravity that overshadows the characters’ lives.

After reading numerous books by these contemporary writers, one may feel overwhelmed by the collective impact. The prevailing mood is one of unease, a prolonged state of wandering adolescence, where characters are excluded from the future and eagerly anticipating the start of their real lives.

In Milk Teeth by Jessica Andrews, the main character’s longing to escape from bleak and cramped living spaces contributes heavily to the novel’s romantic sense of claustrophobia. Even in stories where housing is not explicitly addressed, it remains a constant underlying force, shaping and distorting the characters’ lives. Susannah Dickey’s Common Decency may seem like a typical story of mismatched partners, but it also exposes how the economic system has numbed the minds of both protagonists, leading them towards a solitary and self-centered existence. As modern readers, we question why a character is not visibly troubled by their living conditions. Are they secretly wealthy, or is the supposedly realistic world we are reading about actually a work of magical realism, where housing was not sold off by Thatcher?

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Frequently, these novels depict a conflict between social classes. Many discussions about the housing crisis, led by those who are not greatly affected by it, conveniently ignore the fundamental moral truth that there is no such thing as a “good” landlord, just as there is no such thing as a “good” mugger. The mere fact that some muggers may behave more courteously does not make them good individuals; it simply makes them slightly more desirable than those who choose to physically harm their victims.

The notion that landlords participate in a fundamentally exploitative and unethical activity was once widely accepted and not limited to those on the political left. Figures such as Churchill, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo, who are revered by conservatives and advocates of free-market principles, all recognized the common-sense argument that hoarding essential assets and profiting from them without earning it is not morally justifiable. Even individuals who do not align themselves with a particular political ideology would likely agree with this concept. However, if this idea were ever expressed by a member of Parliament or discussed on a popular television program, it would likely be portrayed as an extreme and fringe viewpoint.

Susannah Dickey’s latest novel, Common DecencyView image in fullscreen

Unfortunately, it is a disheartening reality that the publishing industry perpetuates and amplifies these inequalities. This includes underpaying and exploiting its employees, including writers, and expecting those without financial stability to sustain themselves through the intangible currencies of gratitude, passion, and social status. As large publishing companies become increasingly consolidated, they often allocate disproportionate financial resources to a select few writers, leaving the majority to compete for meager earnings. With the average author’s income plummeting to only £7,000 per year and entry-level salaries in publishing companies being unreasonably low, it is difficult to ignore the feeling that something must change.

There are also formal consequences to consider. A few years ago, Joyce Carol Oates caused controversy on literary Twitter by describing contemporary autofiction as “wan little husks”. Many thought-provoking essays have been written on this issue, but I have often wondered if there is a more fundamental reason behind it. Most novelists now have day jobs to support themselves, squeezing in writing time during their commutes and stolen hours before or after work. If they do manage to finish a novel, they then submit it to an overworked and underpaid editor who reads it on the weekends. Is it unreasonable to suggest that this situation may lead to shorter, more fragmented books that simply reflect the current environment in which they were created?

This is not an instance of making a special exception. Instead, it is an effort to show that when a fundamental need of life is taken over for the purpose of creating excessive profits for a select few, the consequences will be widespread. Regardless of shareholders and famous writers, it is not advantageous for anyone to uphold an economic structure in which writing and publishing are primarily pursued by wealthy hobbyists or overworked and drained enthusiasts.

Currently, books like The Lodgers are essential as they depict the humiliations and psychological damage caused by the current state of affairs. As the protagonist in Pester’s novel states, “Why not just climb inside the sandwich box once and for all?” However, in the long term, widespread artistic representation of a failing system should serve as a warning. We have the ability and responsibility to write about our living conditions, but we must also fight for an economic system that guarantees basic dignities such as secure and affordable housing, rather than leaving them as mere fictional concepts for many individuals.

Source: theguardian.com