The Grapes of Mild Outrage

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.

8 thoughts on “The Grapes of Mild Outrage

  1. The point you’ve made about the relationship between work fiction and page count is a really interesting one.

    Maybe fiction about work tends towards the short because the idea of the career — ideally, at least — flouts narrative convention, insofar as careers are supposed to go on and on, year after year, without the development or change that narrative expects. Perhaps this is why we get so many short stories about work. Short stories aren’t as driven by the need for narrative arc as novels are. And why the recent novels I can think of about work — O’Nan’s LNATL, Ferris’s Then We Came to the End — are shaped by narratives of decline and fall. Even Chaon’s work (and I haven’t read the new novel yet) avoids sustained work narration. He is as much a master of fragmented technique as any other writer working now…

    A long novel about a single job would be challenging, I think: it would look elsewhere for its narrative drive — to the family, maybe — and would come out less a novel about work than a novel about family.

    Maybe sustained work is so titanic [or so rare?] a thing that it can only be viewed at its edges.

    None of this so much as touches on your points about the scarcity of fiction about the working class, of course…

  2. 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.

    This is true for me. My mother, the only one of four siblings to attend college, left her job as a speech writer to become a novelist and short story writer when my brother and I were 4 and 6, respectively.

    For 13 years, we lived off the hospitality of family when we could; ate boiled whole chicken and white rice in the dark–the oven door open and a blanket covering the entrance to the kitchen–when we couldn’t.

    I adopted journalism in college because I was tired of poor and wasn’t good at anything besides writing and working a shovel. (I tried working the shovel for almost a year; decided that if I was going to work long hours for low pay, I wanted to sit in an air-conditioned office while I did it.)

    To the list of unverifiable reasons why there aren’t more working class writers, I would add this: The commodification of writing programs. These programs create a stove-pipe route from writing to publication, which seems to reduce (or control) the level of risk for other actors in the publishing biz.

    I would guess that working class writers (or, the poor/the uncultured/hicks/rednecks/hillbillies/crackheads/welfare babies–these are what we call “these people” when we’re not referring to them for academic exercise) are riskier to develop and harder to find due to their absence from these programs. Coincidentally, many potential working-class writers don’t have access to such programs due to their class and geography.

  3. the reason there isnt more working class fiction is because the last thing you want to do after working a double is go home and write ANYTHING, let alone fiction. woolf said it best, you need time and money to write. or shitloads of hustle. and most people nowadays dont have hustle.

  4. Actually, there’s an interesting connection between the “working class” discussion and Elijah Wald’s “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock
    ‘n’ Roll”.

    Wald claims that the Beatles “were the catalysts for a divide between rock and soul that, rather than being mended in later years, would only grow wider with the emergence of disco and hip-hop.”

    In my view, the sad current state of rock was actually caused by the genre losing its grip on the very same working classes described in your post. Whatever you think about, say Grand Funk Railroad or Deep Purple, it’s undeniable that the power and escapism of such hugely popular bands appealed directly to working class kids seeking relief from their workaday lives. As rock, post-grunge, moved into its current “sensitive artiste” period, the very core audience that supported its rise was cast adrift. The Decemberists or TV on the Radio don’t mean a thing to a kid who works at Long John Silvers and just wants to get down on a Saturday night.

    The beneficiaries? Hip hop and metal, where young listeners not concerned with the inner despair of liberal arts grads can still find release.

    Saleswise, the literary fiction market doesn’t strongly depend on working class readers, so any move away from writing to and about about that group is more a loss sociologically than financially. For rock and roll, however, the abandonment of the working class has been disastrous, both financially and (in my view at least) artistically.

  5. I’d add a few notes here. The article seems hazy on distinguishing novels about middle-class work and novels written by middle or lower-class writers. Dan Chaon seems to be talking about books about working-class characters, not working class writers. There are a couple of implications here. One is that it takes a writer of blue-collar background to write a novel about the blue-collar class, short-shrifting the imagination a bit. Of course most of us “write what we know.” Perhaps most writers who’ve bootstrapped up from the sweating professions don’t see or value the nobility of their difficult lives in the same way the privileged do, Manhattanites who’ve never seen the soil wanting to get back to it. “Finding inspiration in the working class” sounds vaguely condescending, though Dan Chaon uses that phrase, I know, with genuine admiration for “those people.” Regarding novels “about” work, work of any class, Mark Athitakis’ article implies that there is something important or even interesting about blue-collar work. Blue-collar workers, sure, as Dan Chaon suggests. Give me Gatreaux’s piano tuners, but spare me The Jungle please. Novels about work can be interesting, such as Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to The End, but such novels set in the workplace (and his was a white-collar office) are rare, which is one of the reasons Ferris’s novel got so much well-earned attention. Of the writers mentioned in “The Grapes of Mild Outrage,” only Gautreaux really writes “about” actual work. Ralph Lombreglia might be added to that list, as should William Vollman. Carver, the god of working class fiction, almost never wrote about work as such. (Is selling vacuum cleaners really the point?) One last thought on working-class writers who’ve dragged themselves up from the trenches (or not). It’s been my experience as a student in both the Iowa and Stanford programs and as a fiction writing teacher of nearly fifteen years that there’s not a huge class-gap in students who want to be writers. And if this leads back to the tired issue of MFA programs, should they live or should they die, the argument that higher social class buys one’s ticket to the game seems specious nowadays. There are so many writing programs with so much opportunity for rich and poor alike (some of the best programs are at state schools, and many if not most schools comp the best writers, rich or poor). Certainly those with privileged pre-college and undergrad educations have had better preparation for the writing life, with better teachers and more personal attention, families with greater respect for the arts, etc. But going back to Dan Chaon’s statement about intellectual working people, I can only refer to my own welfare-class background. No one in my family, near or far, spent much time searching intellectually or emotionally. Not much philosophizing going on in my clan. We were born Twinkie-eaters and tv watchers. Life meant five or six days of work and one or two treasured days off. The narrative possibilities there, with work central to a “working-class” novel, essentially boil down to the protagonist either overcoming his upbringing or congratulating himself for it. And as a writer sprung from the trap of poverty, I can’t help but resent the implication that, as part of a vanishing breed (is it really?), I should be a spokesman for a past I don’t even like to think about. It wasn’t much fun to experience the first time; I don’t want to spend my writing life re-living it. It seems to me that what Mark Athitakis really wants is to see the working class celebrated and ennobled, not accurately portrayed. There are many working-class people with ethics and integrity and deserving of respect. But there’s also a hell of a lot of Twinkies and tv, and few but the better-off (say, Oliver Stone) would suggest that poverty is noble. Please allow me now a catty observance: I notice that Mr. Athitakis read Dan Chaon’s interview in The Wall Street Journal.

  6. One thing I’d add, though I haven’t figured out an interesting interpretation: while contemporary fiction may not deal much with work, contemporary TV does to a remarkable extent. The most critically acclaimed TV in my lifetime – The Wire, Mad Men, Homicide, The Sopranos (not exclusively, but substantially), both Offices, 30 Rock, X-Files (the central human drama is basically an at-work relationship) , West Wing – is primarily about work. And a lot of the really popular dramas are as well – ER, House, the CSI shows, Law & Order and its permutations. If it’s not a traditional sitcom, chances are work is of primary importance. And then there’s the Bravo reality TV juggernaut.

    Obviously they’re not all totally about work, but work is the center around which the story rotates.

    And I can’t figure it out, honestly. It might be that TV’s become the primary conduit for realist fictional narratives, but that obviously just pushes the question back another level. Maybe it’s because TV is a more conservative medium: I don’t want to say that it’s inherently limited in terms of the narratives you can present, because who knows what’s actually possible, but it’s not a medium in which you see a lot of narrative risks taken, probably because of the economic structure. If you’re not taking narrative risks, you’re going to see a lot of realism; if you’re going to see a lot of realism, you’re going to see a lot of work.

  7. Don’t agree with the thesis here. If you look for it you can find it. Just off the top of my head I’d point you to John Casey’s Spartina. Tons of Joyce Carol Oates’s stuff deal with blue collar lives. William Kennedy. Actually the more you think about it, most literary fiction uses underdogs as protagonists, in a way pandering to the liberal sensibilities of their bourgeois readerships, quivering with guilt. It’s the popular writers who romanticize the power elites for the masses.
    Anyway, blah blah. I have to get off the internet and back to work writing novels that people want to read.
    Nice blog. Bye.

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