How The Literary Class System Is Impoverishing Literature
On the Systemic Economic Barriers to Being a Writer
One of the things I was taught as an elementary school student in Illinois was that America differed from Europe in that it was founded as, and has remained, a classless society. These days, if politicians such as Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders bring up the disparities among the classes in America, they are accused by their political opponents of conjuring up class consciousness in order to foment class warfare. Unfortunately, of course, Obama and Sanders are right, and my schoolteachers were wrong. And while class disparity manifests in all sectors of society, for those who seek careers in literature, class differences have a huge impact on who gets hired and who gets published. This, in turn has a real effect on the portrayal of class in literature, and in media depictions of the writer’s life.
In the past few years, countless essays, articles, charts, graphs, and surveys have been published making the case for greater gender and ethnic diversity in the literary world, that our literature might present back to us a truer accounting of the society in which we actually live. There remains a long way to go but we have slowly come to understand that by publishing more writers of color, by increasing the number of women’s bylines, by being more inclusive, we will increase the quality of our collective storytelling.
But very little has been explicitly articulated about the exclusion of the great American underclass, that perpetually poor group on the bottom tier of society that includes all races/genders/creeds. And as we winnow out opportunities for art about poverty, we lose so much potential for change.
One doesn’t learn to be a writer in college and then graduate with the same opportunities as everyone else. When it comes to looking for a job, or having the time to write, social stratification determines who gets the internships, and by extension who gets to forge the connections that help one find an agent, or get a job with a publishing house.
A colleague and I have the same argument at least twice a year, usually at registration time when he bumps into me in the office and complains to me about our students’ unwillingness to go after off-campus internships. Most of his scorn is directed at students who only want to do an on-campus internship, during the semester, rather than taking an internship over winter or summer breaks.
And, given that the college where I teach is a four-hour drive from New York City, he is brutal when discussing the failure of the students to feed at the Golden Corral of publishing internships that is Manhattan. And so, each semester, I have to remind him of the reality of our students’ lives. I start with the fact that NYC internships often pay at most a token salary of perhaps a thousand dollars per month. Apartment rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn cost more per month than that highest token salary, and even if you can find a sharing sublet for summer and live on Ramen, rice, and mac-n-cheese, most of our students must spend summer working as many hours as they can so that they can get by working part-time during the school year. A summer internship that has a negative impact on summer savings is out of reach for any student not supplemented in some way. Some students luck out because a relative lives in one of the boroughs and is willing to house them, but once again, while it’s not a guarantee of money, it is still the accident of having a relative live within commuting distance of New York City.
It is true that many worthwhile literary outlets rely on this annual influx of cheap, qualified labor, just as it is true that for the motivated student, New York city internships open doors. Of course, they don’t guarantee a job after college, but even among my small sample of friends who have media jobs in New York City, I have heard stories of internships with Marvel Comics, Nickelodeon, Salon, Harper’s, and Seventeen. This is not to call into question the merit of those who land these coveted internships, but rather to ask how many people never even bother to apply for an internship because there is just no financial way to swing it?
Last year, I went to a writing conference in Boston. One of the first panel discussions was about how a writer claims authority, how it is that a writer asserts that he or she possesses the expertise to write about a topic, and how concomitantly the editor reading through the submission slush pile can determine whether the writer is someone who can claim authority as a writer.
One of the panelists, an editor, offered that the first thing he looked for when skimming through the cover letter was whether the writer possessed an MFA. He did this, he hastened to qualify, not because it guaranteed that the submitter would be a better writer, but because taking a year or two off out of one’s life to dedicate oneself to writing proved that one was serious as a writer. I came off my chair in anger—how could he assert such a thing? My friend pulled me back down, but I continued to fume. Who has more dedication: the person who has the financial wherewithal to spend time in a writing program, or the writer who writes despite having to work full-time, early in the morning, with absolutely no one but themselves for motivation? As another panel member offered their method for detecting “dedication,” I flashed back to sitting with Fred Busch as he recounted stories from his early days of working all day and spending time with his wife and son in the early evening and then taking the typewriter into the bathroom, so as not to wake his sleeping family, and writing as much as he could before fatigue demanded he go to bed. How much more dedication did one need to prove beyond that? But that’s not exactly something you can put on a resume. That panelist’s misguided assumption, that an MFA necessarily connotes greater dedication to writing, reveals an all too common blindness to the easy privilege of those with financial security.
Of course, this blinkered perspective isn’t helped by representations of the writer’s life on TV or in movies, where it appears that most writing professors live in large Arts and Crafts houses, or in multi-room, Midtown buildings with doormen. When set designers for TV shows have struggling interns living in lofts in the newest hipster neighborhoods and act as if the multi-thousand dollar rents are accessible to real interns, is that a reflection of the set designers’ subsidized experiences and thus genuine ignorance of the real cost of things? Or is it some cruel fantasy that sells struggle as if we are all able to pursue our passions without ever having to worry where our next meal is coming from?
The double-edged sword for the students in the writing program where I teach is that they recognize there is no way for them to afford to do a summer internship in New York. And yet, when you talk to them about what they intend to do after graduation, at least two-thirds of them say the same thing: “I’m going to move to New York and spend time looking for a job and trying to write.” It’s been drilled into their heads that real writers in America live in New York City, and that the only decent jobs, if you’re not heading to an MFA program, are to be found among the magazines and publishing houses, many of which are located in Manhattan. What many of these students don’t recognize, or haven’t recognized yet, is that they will not have the advantage of forming any of the connections that are used when finding jobs. As I said, it’s not often that one has an internship and then, after college, walks into a position with that same company, but I do have at least one friend who did that very thing. And that internship with a baby magazine your junior year may help you secure an assistant editor’s job at one of the publishing houses.
One of the most compelling arguments for literary diversity has to do with the people who are following behind. If a little Mexican-American girl grows up with dreams of being a poet, what happens when she looks at the prize winners each year and doesn’t see anyone who looks like her? Can a young African-American man aspire to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist if he doesn’t know that there is someone like him out there? I would argue the same thing happens for working-class kids, especially those in families more concerned with putting food on the table than getting to the symphony, families who see the arts as the sole pursuit of the rich (as my own working-class immigrant father did).
And here, this starts to get personal for me, and I confess I have yet to shed a certain resentment, even anger, about this divide. I was watching a documentary about Susan Sontag and much is (rightly so) made of her studies at Berkeley, Chicago, Oxford, and how she went off to live in Paris. But a question hangs over her story, which is never addressed in this particular documentary: where did the money come from? She was not working. And yet she could afford to live in Paris. At one point, as a young woman, she needed money and a friend arranged for her to get a walk-on part in an avant-garde film. But again, that’s not so much about money as it is about class, about being born into a system that tells you it is all right to do something artistic. But for those on the outside of that system “being artistic” is seen as throwing away your one chance to make something of yourself. And even when you make something of yourself, there can be a stigma about being “disloyal” to your class.
When my relatives knew people who had come into money and had chosen to move away, or to buy an expensive thing like a fancy car, there was always rumbling about those people thinking they were “better than we are, or forgetting where they came from.” And until I read Jeannette Winterson and Caitlin Moran, writing about making their way out from working-class families, I’d thought this was something that only happened in my family. If I’d been exposed to stories like those of Winterson and Moran as a teenager, reflecting my own experience back to me, I might have felt more comfortable writing about my own working-class life. And even as an adult, the relief I felt when I interviewed Moran, and realized that there was a successful writer whose experiences of being the working-class girl who loved books, came as a relief after years of interviewing writers whose lives were nothing like my own. Moran made me feel less of a fraud.
If literature is to mean something in the lives of those who read it, it has to do more than open up a new world of possibilities. Many of us have been the child (and adult) who was mesmerized by dreaming about doing the things that a book’s characters are doing. But, as I teach my students, reading is also about resonance, that moment of connection when what the writer is feeling in the words is being felt by the reader, that strum in the chest that signals that someone “gets” it. And while I might feel emotional resonance, I find myself longing to know that someone else understands what it feels like to know that the plain breakfast cereal in the cupboard is all there is until a parent gets paid. Literature should not function as a dividing line between the haves and the have-nots, just as the expansion of the literary world to more fairly represent a world in which people are more than white or male or straight has added untold riches to the canon, so too would the stories of working-class folk go a long way toward improving our representation of and understanding of the greater world. Most important, at least for me, knowing that it’s not class or money that determines whose writing is worth publishing would make me feel less like a fraud when I encourage my students to pursue a career in a publishing field where they’re already steps behind those whose economic privilege has already opened doors.
I have been hesitant to write this essay, lest it come across as mere personal complaint—if there’s one thing most working-class folks have little tolerance for, it’s complaining when there’s nothing that’s really wrong. At the same time, the creation of literature demands a certain honesty about one’s experiences, that we might narrow the gaps between our fellow human beings. In making art, writing about my experiences gives me a space in which to create resonance, and be truthful. There have been times in my life I’ve wished I had the money or the connections that would allow me to travel around the world for a year, to write a book about everything I’d seen and felt. And then I remind myself that I come from a long line of men and women who have survived being poor peasants, and then survived working down in the mines, and on the floors of the factories of Manchester. My father was a little boy when his family moved out of the Manchester slums and into a semi-detached house away from the urban-industrial grime. That’s a legacy to be proud of. And so, as I go forward, I choose to keep writing about that kind of working-class experience, to continue carving out a place for that kind of story in what we think of as literature.