A War on Working Class Fiction?

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?


  1. I live paycheck to paycheck, and I know lots of blue collar workers and lower middle class types.

    As a group (those of us that read) we tend to read thrillers, horror, and sci-fi. Genre books, NYT bestsellers. Generally we don’t read books that reflect our experience, rather we read books that provide escapism. So is there a market for literature set in poverty?

  2. Chuck D (coming to a panel discussion near you) once described rap as the “CNN of Black America”.

    For all the years we looked like clowns
    The joke is over smell the smoke from all around

    That, and Phil Donahue discussing with NWA’s “Fuck The Police”, both prior to the LA Riots that “shocked” America. CNN, or low-watt public access?

    So what to make of “hip-hop fiction”? Literature from the streets (for the streets?), or exploitation & cariacature? Haven’t read any, but I suspect somewhere in the middle. Could just be a sign of the times, though. Hip-Hop’s latest poster child Kanye West could be a relevant example: the tormented flossin’ dandy with a conflicted conscience:
    Couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis.

    My guess is that the literature can’t do anything to curb / raise awareness of poverty. It’ll either be preaching to the choir or provide a slumming reading experience to the well-off, check J.D. Daniels’s essay on “wife beaters” & trucker hats, “John Thomas and Lady Jane” in the latest N+1.

  3. Speaking only for myself this romantic notion of blue collar life gets a bit tiring. What’s wrong with Ford and Updike, both of whom write beautifully about important issues? There’s plenty of good fiction about working class people, however, ranging from Joyce Carol Oates, through Harvey Swados, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. It’s just that this isn’t what makes these writers great, but rather the way they handle character, theme and, of course,their language. To put it another way, subject is the least important thing about a work of fiction, middle class or otherwise. Readers like to identify with characters in fiction, naturally, but the genius of great literature is its ability to forge similarities between dissimilar groups. I have little in common with Russian aristocrats, for example, but find much to admire and learn from Tolstoy.

  4. There is much truth to be found in the words of D. Milofsky, above; true true. I will say, though, that Ms. LL does touch on a point. Check the rolls of the literary award winners and nominees of the past few years, for instance. And the novels the publishers push as the “big” books. With some obvious exceptions, many many many of them fall into the middle-class navel-gazing category. Personally, I don’t think it’s a product of readers, but rather a product of publishers and the media.
    To answer your question, D. Milofsky, there is NOTHING wrong with Ford and Updike, nor those who the publishers tout as the “new Fords and Updikes.” But I’m with Ms. LL in asking the publishers and media: howsabout touting the new Steinbeck.

  5. I’ve said my piece about Vollmann elsewhere, but I’d just really like to know how many of the downtrodden are reading that guy. As for Christian’s comments, sure, it’s the publishers but it’s also a function of the market. That is, publishers will publish anything they think there’s a market for. The fact is the most book-buyers are middle-class women, hence the publication of books that in the opinion of publishers will appeal to that group. The publishers may or may not be right about that, but if they thought there was a large working class market for novels, you can bet books on that subject would be crowding the shelves.

  6. How would you enjoy reading a book written by a sparrow? “Yesterday I scrambled like hell to find enough to eat. Today I scrambled like hell to find enough to eat. It’s pretty cold. Tomorrow I will scramble like hell to find enough to eat.” As Jim Goad said, the working class doesn’t write a lot of novels—that’s because the working class is kind of busy working. An honest novel about contemporary poverty would not resemble what we think of as a novel. It would look a lot more like a gun.

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