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Stay Classy, Literature

There are more vampires, zombies and werewolves than working-class protagonists in American literature today. Does anyone else worry about this?

I worry. I worry about the relative absence of workers or work or people without money depicted in literature. I worry that most of the people without money in literature are young privileged students working crappy summer jobs who call themselves “poor.” I worry that the only books that include working-class characters are books about dysfunctional families, or jail, or criminals, or drugs, or teen pregnancy.

I worry that when I bring shit like this up, other writers will roll their eyes and peg me as a dour old Marxist relic, clutching my copy of Das Kapital and shouting about production for use.

I worry because I love literary fiction and I want it to encompass all people, all things. I want it to be vast and expanding, and yet I feel its scope and readership and indeed accessibility to the very acts of writing and publishing are shrinking into a very tiny sphere. This is just one very tiny, but very telling example: as Roxane Gay says in her now very widely circulated screed about this very topic in HTMLGiant,

What I felt most while reading BASS was a profound sense of absence. Sure there was a story about black people (written by Danielle Evans, coincidentally) and there was a story about a mechanic, to bring in that working class perspective and there was a story set in Africa, but most of the stories were uniformly about rich white people (often rich, white old men) doing rich white people things like going on safari or playing poker and learning a painful lesson or lamenting old age in Naples.

Not only do we not get a true scope of Americans stories, with each anthology and each book published in America today, we are increasingly asked to find rich white people and their problems very precious and charming.

I hope you’ve read this far, because I want to make something very clear: I don’t like so-called “proletarian” literature, or the way some writers have attempted to bend literature to fit their purposes. I don’t believe in literature-as-hammer. Some of the worst offenses in art and to artists have been committed in the service of some greater good. And let’s be honest: much literature attempting to be about class is and always has been heavy-handed and obvious. The obvious is always boring. As an editor, I don’t want to read it. As a writer, I don’t want to write it.

And I’m not really talking about the indie world, because I see a fair number of working-class protagonists there and lots of writers dealing honestly with what it means to be the working poor. And I see editors publishing that work. But by and large, I don’t see that work interesting the mainstream publishing world. I don’t see that work rewarded, hanging out in the big magazines, being published by big publishing houses,  included in anthologies, made part of the curriculum (and no, working-class studies doesn’t count.) And yes, that matters, because most people in America sadly do not have access to or knowledge of what’s happening in the independent publishing world and are lucky if they can get to a Barnes and Noble or Borders. So the big guys matter.

Why does BASS and mainstream publishing turn away from class issues? Don’t you think it’s disturbing that slightly-worried rich people are apparently increasingly enticing as characters while a vast (and growing vaster) section of American life is left out? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t bought a copy of BASS in a while because I get so bored reading about rich white people and unending preciousness.  The stories are usually wonderful, not saying they aren’t, but come on. I don’t know how people can stand to do it over and over again. I don’t want to leave anything unexplored, places or people or the space in between them. I don’t want to leave many people questioning their own worth when they don’t see themselves in the places art lives.

So what do these absences in our writing signify? What does our lack of class-consciousness say about us now? Did McCarthyism initially stamp out the desire to write about class issues? Or maybe it’s because we’re a nation and a culture deeply rooted in individualism. Concern about class tends to suggest collectivism, something that has proved to be anathema to Americans raised in the cowboy mythology. We prefer our heroes singular, not plural.

Or perhaps literature has become the province, largely, of the comfortably-off. I suspect this is closer to the truth. Writers might choose to starve to devote time to their art, but they themselves seem largely to come from the middle and upper classes of American society. The same may be especially true of those working in publishing and academia, people who had to have money to pay for school or to take unpaid internships in expensive cities like New York. These folks may not be interested in—or more likely may be made uncomfortable by—class issues, since they would necessarily resist any notion of their own privilege.

I don’t have a solution, of course. I don’t know how to change this or if it can change.  I do believe, like writer Kenneth Fearing, that even if writers have no personal power to effect change, “it will be enough if the writer refuses to lend himself to the more prodigious lies that mushroom in times like these.” I think that’s all we can ask of ourselves, anyway. Refuse to spread the lies, and ask the important question about who’s been left out and why, again and again and again until maybe someone who makes decisions will hear us.

  • Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

20 thoughts on “Stay Classy, Literature

  1. I was interested in Roxane’s post on this subject too, and I like what you’re adding here. I think the glazing of life in commercial literature–everyone happily housed, fed, employed–mimics the glazing of life in most TV and popular movies. It’s as if the people responsible for green lighting projects are afraid squalor and desperation may turn off an audience, and so go for escapist happiness instead.

    1. Thanks, Tim–I agree. Working New York actors are portrayed on TV as having fancy pants apartments and maybe one other, nice job. Homeless people don’t exist unless part of the plot.

      It’s probably true–escapism doesn’t bring in the bucks, especially during a recession. Just like during the Depression–escapism rules.

  2. Not that this negates your larger concerns, but writing about class or work and writing about monsters aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a reason why zombies, for instance, repeatedly arise as a cultural archetypes at moments of economic and cultural upheaval — check out John and Jean Comaroff’s “Alien Nation: Zombies, Immigrants, and Millenial Capitalism.”

    In fact, I’d say writing about monsters can directly address your other concerns: one way to challenge the assumption that we will “find rich white people and their problems very precious and charming” is to create characters who eat them. Especially for writers who can’t “safely” or commercially write directly from their outsider position. So the question for me isn’t why no one writes about class, but rather why so many crappy books about zombies ignore their proud heritage as anti-capitalist class warriors.

    1. Hells, yes! I thought about this, too, particularly as one of the only big big writers that uses working class characters all the time is Stephen King.

      And your comment has me thinking about (though it’s a movie, not a book) Dawn of the Dead and other Romero movies.

      And here’s another question–why can zombie characters and warewolves be working class, but vampires are almost always wealthy? The whole European, Count Dracula mystique pervades? The expense of toting around a coffin and boxes of earth? The need for a really big basement?

      1. The most convincing answer I’ve ever read to that question is that Bram Stoker’s novel, and Polidori’s earlier story, were so successful that they essentially overrode all other (western) vampire traditions. So the wealthy European archetype was adopted as the default, even though there were earlier vibrant traditions of vampire stories. Also maybe vampires just lend themselves more easily to resisting social and sexual mores than class systems?

        1. That last bit is almost certainly true. After all, you’re not really going to have a zombie orgy, are you? (Though I’m sure someone has written that…) and there certainly aren’t going to be the Victorian, Western social stigmas about sex and gender and all of that to exploit among zombie and werewolves.

          1. But those other vampire traditions – like the stories among New England colonists about the tubercular dead rising from the grave – were much less romantic than the Stoker tradition. Vampires were more mindless and closer to zombies, the way Richard Matheson treated them in I Am Legend.

            Now you’ve got me going – I taught a class about monster archetypes for a few years, and I miss. :)

            1. Or like vampire-things in Omega Man.

              I would have LOVED to take your class. Someday, you, me, and my husband are going to have to sit down over a few beers and have a very serious discussion about monsters.

  3. “Or perhaps literature has become the province, largely, of the comfortably-off.”

    I mostly agree with that. It’s hard to attract the poor and marginalized when writing is no longer a viable source of income. Sometimes it feels like I’m playing polo with a pen all day.

    Yesterday I saw the film Tiny Furniture, which I hate to make an example of because it did have clever bits and it’s a first effort, but it was an intersection of the two things I’m tired of above all else: privileged-white-NYC and post-grad-existential-crisis.

    New Stories from the South usually does a very good job with the working class perspective.

    I’m waiting for the first great blue collar vampire writer. I’d like to see a bunch of them working at Delta Sonic or somewhere.

    1. Yes, NYC and post-grad crisis. Blech. So boring. And I have a graduate degree and I love NYC, but come on.

      See my comment to Steve on blue-collar vampire story–would LOVE to see that.

  4. Amber-

    I like the questions you raise here. One of the books of literary theory I recall enjoying most was Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, where she finds ways to read race into stories that are not intentionally or obviously confronting race. Because Morrison is a fiction writer herself foremost, her criticism, from what I recollect of it (it’s been some years) felt as though it honored the art involved in writing even while bringing a critical lens to bear. One might do something similar with class, no–perhaps every one of those stories in BASS can be read through a lens of class, or read through a lens that intersects with a class lens. This isn’t to overlook or endorse the lack of working class protagonists, more to wonder whether class anxieties and dynamics might lurk in the interstices of many of those stories. To take just one example, Lou’s violence in Egan’s “Safari”–his need to “win” at all costs, even to himself, and especially toward his family, might readily be seen as an outgrowth of a capitalist ethos, and so we can see (maybe) the intersection of class, misogyny, violence, etc. “Time is the goon squad” in Egan’s book, but capitalism ain’t too pretty either. Again I don’t mean to say that this gets the publishing world off the hook, just to suggest another foothold by way of one example.

    1. Tim, i had never heard of that Toni Morrison book–I’ll have to look that up, since it sounds fascinating.

      I like the idea of sort of reclaiming or reexamine these texts from different class/race/gender lens than originally intended. Theatre directors have been doing that for years, with some really interesting results. It’s one way to sort of reclaim the space, even if by force. I like it!

  5. Great post, Amber. You’re absolutely right about the lack of working-class representation in literature, as well as other mediums. Access to literature is certainly not granted in lower-class schools, so the poor aren’t encouraged to find value in literature. They don’t have the luxury of reading for pleasure, let alone writing for it. Unfortunately, ‘art’ is too often a privilege preserved only by those who can afford to commission it.

    Too, artists so often conform to markets (as illustrated in the above discussion of vampire/werewolf/zombie books/movies, despite their archetypal and socio-political relevance, which is entirely accurate), or their patrons (how many of Michelangelo’s sculptures or paintings, for instance, would not have been done if not to satisfy the commissions of Pope Julius II?). Capitalism is, as Tim stated, a big problem for that reason (and certainly not that reason alone): it essentially removes freedom from the artist in favor of market forces.

    So ‘art’ inevitably reflects a certain bias toward people ‘educated’ enough to appreciate its vastly myopic complexities (myopic, as they’re more often focused or geared toward the above-mentioned demographic). It’s rich white people who determine what is or is not ‘art’. Capitalism justifies inequalities in all facets of society, allowing (perhaps prompting) the exclusion of these issues in ‘art’ as they detract from upper-class concerns—concerns which the lower-class unfortunately uses to ‘share’ the upper-class experience, if only vicariously, to act out wish-fulfillment fantasies of lifestyles they’ve been bred to desire.

    Here’s an essay I wrote based on a Toni Morrison class I took this semester about race and class in literature, movies and the educational system: http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/ebeeny/2010/11/on-the-other-side-of-the-white-wall-a-post-colonial-reading-of-real-life/

    1. Eric, that essay is a really interesting read, and raises so many questions that I, as a (now) upper middle class white woman find myself asking all the time. I want to write black people, and/or blue-collar families, into my stories, not in small part because I grew up in a heavily white working class neighborhood but because of bussing about half of my school was black, about half white. (Later there would be Latinos, but long after I was gone…) So I grew up with a lot of great stories that I wanted to tell about my black friends and my white friends, but I find myself hesitant now to tell their stories because who I am to do so? Will people be furious? Will I render these people authentic? And furthermore, how will readers know that I have this history, that I’m not just some privileged white bitch trying to capitalize on the stories of minorities and the “other?” Am I just some privileged white bitch? Clearly I am–I have an MA and make good money and live in an expensive city and am educationally prepared to discuss topics like this–so have I lost my authenticity as a working class person? I work for a labor union because of that childhood–does that matter? Or no? My family moved out of that neighborhood and up when I was a kid–we got out of there and joined the middle class. So just because I have this history–like you struggling with your own, Eric–I wonder, does that mean dick if we got out? Who cares? What do I know? And yet, I write about other types of people (rich people, Southerners, aliens) who I don’t know much of anything about–far less than, say, the working class whites I grew up with. So what does that mean? Is that racist, or classist, to shy away from things like race and class in our pieces? And finally–in regard to your professor, to writers writing about these subjects even if they haven’t lived them…shouldn’t we do so anyway, because there aren’t as many black writers or working class writers and don’t those stories need to be told? Or can we ever tell these stories in a way that does them any justice? Is it an insult or, as you wonder, is it an extension of the white colonial system to do so?

      I can’t answer any of these questions, and I suspect no one really can. But I think the only way to move forward in awareness and try to address the inequity in our world is to keep asking them, and keep reminding ourselves that they exist. I guess that’s the least we can do to at least not become caricatures of ourselves and our cultures.

  6. This is a fantastic post, Amber. Matters of difference, be it class, race, gender, sexuality, make people uncomfortable. For whatever reason, people seem to internalize these things as if addressing these issues through writing is implicating them somehow. I don’t understand that at all but I would definitely like to see writing that deals with these issues despite the inevitable reactions from people who want their fiction to be comfortable, predictable, and well mannered.

    I’d also say that for the most part, literature has always been the province of the well off because those who are not well off are busy trying to keep their heads above water.

    1. Thanks, Roxane. I mostly sort of just riffed off of your terrific post. When it comes to matters of difference, it’s so true, people feel so personally however they feel about these issues that’s it’s hard to have an honest conversation. But I agree–I do not want my fiction to be predictable or well-mannered or comfortable. Never.

      And yeah, it’s true–it’s not just matter of resources. The sad truth is that there is a reason the term “leisure class” exists. We have leisure. Others just do not.

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