Recently, Jason Arthur published a piece at The Millions titled, “Sweet Bitterness: Why We Need More Novels About Work,” in which he laments the absence of both the working class and the act of work itself from much of contemporary American fiction. In examining a handful of recent novels (among them, Ramona Asusbel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty and Emma Cline’s The Girls), Arthur cites their ability to “be about decadence without also reproaching conspicuous affluence . . . by ignoring work and aestheticizing idleness.” Ausubel’s daughter of ease and plenty, Fern, frets over her place in the given social order with a vacuity only bourgeois feminism can afford—all while being posed to inherit a fortune made from slaves and steel. Cline’s girls are angry at the sort of vague amalgamation of hegemonic forces typical of high schoolers, lacking any pointed material analysis. Arthur sets up these idle and largely apolitical novels as a way of shifting his focus to one that actually gets work right, Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, which follows a year in the life of Tess, a fresh-faced waitress at a high-end New York City restaurant. He writes, “Reading Sweetbitter will cure you of your romance with idleness, with the first-world downtime social media engines need us thinking we love so that we will continue to generate free content.”
I happen to agree with Arthur’s assessment of the literary landscape. It seems to me that an astonishing number of the contemporary fiction I encounter both seems to take place in what David Foster Wallace called the “Platonic Always”—a nebulous time/space free from references that would date the product—and/or favors characters in the more intellectual and artistic professions—painters, professors, musicians, writers, etc. It may be revealing of my own cultural blind spots, but the novels I do find that focus on the working class and how they spend forty hours a week tend to take place in a bygone era. Lately, been tearing through the selected stories in Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women—her switchboard operators, emergency room nurses, and titular cleaning women being exactly the characters I’m desperate for. Still, with the most recent stories coming from a 1999 collection, they hardly feel current.
So then what about the proles of 2016? Arthur doesn’t get at the reasons behind their conspicuous non-presence in the current crop of fiction, nor does it necessarily fit within the project of his essay. I have, however, would chalk it up to the shifting identity of the “working class” within our evolving economic landscape and the market principles that dominate two major sites of US literary production: the NYC publishing world and the MFA program.
What Does it Mean to be “Working Class” in 2016?
I would posit that, for many, the phrase “working class” evokes black-and-white images of soot-covered factory workers or elderly women hunched over sewing machines—the stuff of Jacob Riis photographs or Upton Sinclair novels. And for much of the US’ industrial history, this rings true. Yet the rapid de-industrialization that began in the ‘70s, reached its peak form in Reaganism, and continues on today has only helped to dismantle a cohesive sense of working class identity. In fact, one of neoliberalism’s central designs is the cheapening of labor and collapsing of sites of collective action and political struggle, like the factory. As David Harvey, writing about Reagan’s overseeing of market expansion, notes:
Tax breaks on investment effectively subsidized the movement of capital away from the unionized north-east and midwest and into the non-union and weakly regulated south and west. Finance capital increasingly looked abroad for higher rates of return. Deindustrialization at home and moves to take production abroad became much more common.
What remnants there are of these quickly vanishing sites of production enjoy little of the protections or bargaining power they were afforded during the prior period of embedded liberalism. For example, warehouse workers for Amazon, the largest online retailer in the world, are electronically monitored by the minute as they toil away in grueling conditions, all while their employer bars them from full-time employee status, blocks any unionization attempts, and threatens governments that even hint at maybe implementing some regulations.
As our economic landscape has shifted, so too has the label “working class.” It might now be more accurately comprised of those in food service, retail, and transportation, (i.e. low wage service work). A sizable swath of these laborers, especially those in that latter category, might also find themselves lumped into what tech pioneers call the “sharing economy”—an economic model that touts online marketplaces and free peer-to-peer exchange of goods and services. In reality, it operates on wage theft, lack of labor protection, and discriminatory practices (as, say, Uber drivers and Airbnb users have found out). “Working class” has never been as nebulous an identity as it is now, and those that can and should rightfully claim it are increasingly being encouraged to re-envision themselves as free-agents in the marketplace, where all they supposedly need is a smartphone and some determination to set the terms of their own labor.
None of this is to fetishize the industrial practices of old, which, of course, had their own sets of problems regarding workplace safety, environmental degredation, and racial discrimination. At the same time, it’s no great stretch to suggest that a group with precious little political power might also have trouble securing literary representation. This is especially true when the two major avenues to literary production—the publishing world and the MFA program—also operate according to a similar market logic.
MFA & NYC vs. the Worker
It’s possible that the reason so many books coming out of the major NYC publishing giants revolve around the upper classes is that those are the same type of people running those very houses. Diverse representation has been, and continues to be, a problem for the publishing industry for as long as it’s been in existence. And, as Adam Fleming Petty points out in a somewhat recent Electric Literature article, while publishers have done a better job of at least paying lip-service to the lack of queer voices or voices of color, class, and the way it determines people’s daily lives, has been largely absent from the conversation.
One might argue that there isn’t really a market for these kinds of stories—who wants to flip open a book where the protagonist is sweating over a deep-fryer, having just put in ten hours doing the same thing for starvation wages? But this viewpoint lends the market more autonomy than it truly possesses and underplays the role these literary gatekeepers have in creating and influencing those very markets in the first place. There wasn’t exactly a vampire/werewolf/romance/young adult market either, that is until Little, Brown and Company unleashed Twilight into the world. (This is not a plea for a working class version of Twilight.) And while these markets are so often stuck in a self-fulfilling cycle—in which money and advertising is dedicated only to those titles proven to sell, thus creating little impetus for more innovative works—we can again look to Sweetbitter as an exception to the rule. Its six-figure advance became just as important to its hype as its actual content. There’s little reason to believe this couldn’t also prove successful for other, more challenging working class-centered novels.
But it’s not just fealty to their markets that makes the big-name publishers unreceptive to working class writers; it’s also the traditional, hierarchical way in which they’re organized and run. Interns, freelancers, and an underpaid editorial staff continually pass an endless stream of work up the chain of command to their more comfortably salaried superiors. It seems especially obvious but worth noting nonetheless: at the end of the day, as is the case with any capitalist business model, those with the highest salary have the most say and are ultimately positioned to make decisions that best represent their interests. And unless you are a Stephen King or a John Grisham—i.e. a proven source of revenue—you will have little, if any, say in the system. It is no wonder then that working class writers with so little capital, both cultural and literal, are continually underrepresented.
This same operational model can be found in the other major literary site—the MFA program. Even if these tend to be culturally more progressive, by virtue of being embedded within colleges and universities, they are still privy to the same market principles. As a result, they are a largely untenable option for the average working class person. While such programs have only continued to pop up across the country (and globe), at all but the most prestigious locations, funding is few and far between. This makes sense for an institution being run like a business—what kind of return-on-investment can a literary fiction writer provide compared to an electrical engineer? Why allocate funds to a concentration where the primary goals and values are largely aesthetic?
The MFA program I’m enrolled in—Emerson College’s—offers three fellowships to each incoming year of fiction-writers: fully-funded, half-funded, and a third-funded. This for a cohort of about thirty, all while tuition has increased every year that I’ve been enrolled. For the 90% of us without a fellowship and/or a wealthy benefactor, we have no choice (except for, you know, not attending) but to take out an obscene loan (most likely on top of the one from our B.A.) and find a couple part-time jobs in order to eat and pay the rent. What was once the allure of the MFA—uninterrupted time to simply write—really only extends to those who are already financially comfortable.
Of course, you don’t need an MFA to write fiction—just as you don’t need to go through a major NYC publishing house to have your work appear in print. But it seems to me that those with the most skin in the game when it comes to writing about class struggle are being shut out of the institutions that would help guarantee their much needed voices be heard. And if these levels of access don’t begin to change, we run the risk of stamping out those who could be our most vital and subversive writers. With income inequality on the rise, the wage gap as pervasive as ever (and especially deep for people of color), just over 9% of Americans still uninsured, the “Fight for $15” taking place in the streets, we desperately need those writers who can authentically imbue fiction with the socioeconomic realities of our country.
Writing Towards a Better Future
I don’t intend to paint a bleak future where all literature is steeped in bourgeois decadence. I don’t think that’s entirely the case now, nor do I have that little faith in the increasingly diverse crop of young writers struggling against the status quo. The best literature—especially fiction—gives readers a window into experiences that differ from their own. And an increasingly class conscious set of millennials is better equipped than ever to produce fiction that will not only give the underserved classes their say but also critically examine the role of labor in our lives.
And here is where I want to slightly differentiate my views from those of Arthur. He concludes by writing, “ . . . We need more novels like Sweetbitter, novels that don’t give decadence a pass and that suggest that clocking in (not dropping out) is revolutionary, that the rulebook can set us free.” I don’t tend to put much stake in rulebooks, and I don’t think there is any sort of inherent nobility to work (as a leftist, I’m writing towards a future free from compulsory and unfulfilling labor). At the same time, I don’t think American fiction would benefit from featuring some Maoist ideal of a Revolutionary heroine—I’m just as averse to didacticism as I am a-politicism.
Maybe my literary desires are contradictory and undefined. Maybe these books already do exist, and I’m just not clued in to them (even as I type this, a number of exceptions come to mind). Maybe what I want is something like a young, American Alice Munro, whose characters die from workplace accidents or illnesses they can’t afford to treat; who fall in and out of love; who escape from their suffocatingly small towns or stay there forever; who beat their children or habitually attend Church; who, above all, are recognizably human. Maybe I need to do a better job of writing these stories myself. But what I am sure of is this: I can’t stomach another novel about the listless rich.