Simon Poulter et al, Life Chances: A work of sociological fiction

Simon Poulter, Sophie Mellor, etc., Life Chances: A work of sociological fiction, Life Chances, 2016, ix + 214 pp, pbk, 1 5272 0374 7, £10

Is this a novel? Yes, sort of. It has a cast: a journalist and her commissioning editor, a social worker and her clients, a social work student, a cleaner, staff and board members of G4S (sorry, ‘G4N’), Iain Duncan-Smith (sorry, ‘Ivan Dunhouse-Jones’), civil servants, computer coders/hackers, community workers, members of a new Community Interest Company, Universal Credit and its computer ‘Deep Hole’, … Plot-lines occasionally emerge (particularly the relationship between some computer geeks and the problematic Universal Credit roll-out: I won’t reveal what happens in case you decide to read it). But there are lots of ways in which this is not a novel. It’s written by a committee (sorry, it’s the ‘product of arts based practice coming together with social science research in co-produced ways’), which means that we do not hear a consistent authorial voice: one of the prerequisites of a novel. Some of the dialogue is believable, but some of it isn’t: much of it is neatly formulated social science statements. One or two of the situations described read like spoofs ( – the prize for the least believable goes to a description of an event during Ramadan in which a teacher of English as a second language is explaining to his class how to order food and alcohol in a pub). And much of the ‘journalism’ isn’t believable as journalism, although some of it would fit nicely into social science students’ essays. But having said all that, much of the book is an absorbing read, and some of the characters are believable even if what they say is not.

Citizen’s Income (unfortunately called ‘Basic Income Guarantee’) has a cameo part, but unfortunately in the context of confident assertions about a future jobless economy. It would have been more to the point to regard Citizen’s Income as a useful response to the issues facing our current economy, society, and benefits system.

The most interesting and hopeful sections of the novel recount the establishment of a Community Interest Company by a group of women who make jewellery, and some joined-up assistance for asylum seekers and refugees.

I suspect that all of those involved – academics, commissioned artists, and participants in the kind of ‘life chances’ projects described – had a really creative time writing the novel. The purpose was the process: so the book should probably be read as an invitation to other groups to do something similar, both in terms of localised ‘life chances’ projects and in terms of collaborative literary ventures.

A similar project with a Citizen’s Income centre stage could be particularly interesting.