Because I have class issues, I was interested in the closing exchange in Dan Chaon‘s recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. (I enjoyed his 2004 novel, You Remind Me of Me; haven’t read his new one, Await Your Reply)
In an interview, you spoke about the working class today being portrayed in fiction as “TV-watching, Twinkie-eating hicks.” You said you’re trying to show “a searching intellectual and emotional life in people who aren’t educated or rich.” Why don’t more novelists find inspiration in the working class?
There’s not as much contact between people of different social classes as we like to imagine. We’re not living in Oxford, Miss., where Faulkner was able to hang out with extremely rich and extremely poor people. Except in small towns, people are really divided. Most people who grow up in poor communities are not becoming writers. I have students who are the first generation to go to college. They may be great writers, but they want to improve their lives, and becoming a writer is probably not the best way to do that.
Seems like a simple enough point—we don’t have much fiction about working-class lives because there aren’t many working-class writers, and we don’t have many working-class writers because writing, when you’re hovering around the middle of the class ladder or two-thirds of the way down it, is a risky venture. (If you grew up that way and aspired to write, you were more likely to pursue skilled-tradesperson status as a journalist or PR professional. Easier to explain to the parents. I suppose journalism is off the table in that regard, now.) There are exceptions, of course, like Raymond Carver, Richard Price, Stuart Dybek, and Dorothy Allison. You know you’re an exception because you make a point of it: The first line of Allison’s official bio stresses that she is “the first child of a fifteen-year-old unwed mother who worked as a waitress.”
Perhaps it’s not so much that there’s a shortage today of good writers with working-class backgrounds—there’s a shortage of good writers from any background, after all—as a shortage of writing about work itself, and about what “working class” means today. Blame it on a hobbled American manufacturing base, or a fear that any writing about labor will become The Jungle; or, most likely, that work itself is a dull subject to write about. Regardless, American fiction about work is often fiction about finance and offices, as I’ve scribbled about before. Working-class jobs are more often things ripe for satire—like the carnivals in George Saunders‘ “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and Wells Tower‘s “On the Show.” Both are short stories, as if a book about getting your hands dirty couldn’t clock an eight hour read. Even a fine recent novel on the subject, Stewart O’Nan‘s Last Night at the Lobster, is strikingly slim, barely 150 pages. And though O’Nan has admirable respect for his characters, the overall tone is one of defeat—the Red Lobster in which the novel is set is about to close forever, the snow outside is miserable, and nobody cares to thinks much about the restaurant itself. If you think about it too hard, it’ll just remind you of the futility of life at the lower reaches of the corporate org chart, something the manager considers as he opens for the day:
If he never opens, he thinks, they can never close. It’s a kid’s wish. Whatever happens today, tomorrow the place will be a locked box like the Perkins up the road (and he’ll still have to show up in uniform for a few hours and hand out gift cards to the disappointed lunch crowd, as if this was his fault). For the last two months he’s been carefully managing down his inventory, so they’re low on everything fresh. Corporate will inventory what they can use and send it to Newington—the spoils of war. The rest, like the glass-eyed marlin, they’ll have hauled away. Probably gut the place, leave it to the mice and silverfish he’s fought to a draw for so long.
Why not just burn it to the ground? Whoever comes in is just going to want to build new anyway.
Update: A tipster directs me to this excellent four-way commentary about working-class writers from 2004 between Chaon, Susan Straight, John McNally, and the late Larry Brown. Among other things, the roundtable adds more recommended writers to the pool, including Kent Haruf, Tim Gautreaux, Pete Dexter, and Lynda Barry.
On an unrelated note—though books about music are often stories about failing to get paid properly for your efforts—I have a review of four books about the music industry in today’s Washington Post. It starts this way:
The music industry is supposedly dying, but it’s not going away quietly. A contentious debate this year over online radio royalties turned on who gets paid what in the pop economy. Congressional hearings on a proposed merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster delved into whether one company would monopolize a corner of the concert business. Michael Jackson’s death not only prompted a massive sales boost for his recordings but also brought a rare moment of agreement between fans and critics on the musical icon’s legacy. As four new books make clear, these stories are just the latest iterations of decades-long arguments over how music gets played, heard, admired and paid for.
The four books are David Suisman‘s Selling Sounds (the one I liked best out of the batch), Greg Milner‘s Perfecting Sound Forever, Elijah Wald‘s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Greg Kot‘s Ripped.