Laila Lalami asks, in a Powell’s essay, why the impoverished are so underrepresented in current literature. I suspect that there might be similar reasons for why the American novel also fails to acknowledge work or employment, or, for that matter, tales outside that socioeconomic rank favored by our plutocratic society.* It may be too quotidian for those hermetics accustomed to reading flaacid tales of a middle-class, middle-aged Caucasian man having yet another midlife crisis (that hackneyed literary genre best represented by Richard Ford and John Updike that I would style the “middle novel”).
Do the majority of the pepole who read books (i.e., heavy readers who are likely to buy and read at least 50 books a year) have an expendable income with which to afford these books? Is the publishing industry aware of this particular type of consumer and, in some small way, marketing directly to him? Further, are these possibly affluent heavy readers even interested in novels which deviate from their own comfortable class, ethnic and monetary trappings?
Here in America, we’re so accustomed to asking “What do you do?” to someone at a party. If one answers “plumber” or “barista,” an elitist interlocutor will often categorize that person as beneath his class and education, rather than basing his judgment on the individual. If such a mentality has been transposed to how people select and read fiction, then I hope that there’s someway it can be averted. For it’s often the plumbers and baristas who often have pivotal perspectives and important existential answers that are worth considering — particularly, if you’ve lived a lifetime without ever missing a hot meal.
* — The following observation doesn’t deal specfically with literature, but it’s worth considering. Kieslowski’s Bleu tries to explore how much one can find personal liberty while shutting one’s self off from society. But even a master like Kieslowski couldn’t do this without making Bleu‘s protagonist financially solvent. Since most people wouldn’t be lucky enough to live in such a condition, is Kieslowski’s rhetorical question invalidated because it’s not true liberty? Or did Kieslowski take the easy way out? Or have we become so accustomed to the habit of an affluent protagonist that a major overhaul of our hard wiring is in order?
© 2005, Edward Champion. All rights reserved.