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.