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What is working class literature?

filed 26 July 2002 | Chicago
by Lew Rosenbaum
"Literature is made anytime the legal apparatus is challenged by a conscience in touch with humanity."
-- Nelson Algren, Chicago City on the Make

In May 2002 a panel of distinguished writers discussed the question "Is There a Working Class Fiction?" I was very perplexed/excited by the topic of the panel. Every contemporary novel that has gripped me in the last two decades has explored working class life, its destruction and its possibilities. Take Leslie Marmon Silko's images of transcontinental eco-warriors vs. corporate/fascist capital (Almanac of the Dead). Don Delillo's description of a lyrical walk through Italian working-class New York contrasted with the grown up trash-king and the pursuit of popular culture as sports-icon-commodity (Underworld). These and other writers have invested their stories with heart-felt portraits and messianic visions. From Carolyn Chute's Merry Men to Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter, from practically anything by Barbara Kingsolver to practically anything by John Edgar Wideman. So my first reaction to the idea of the panel was: "The answer is obvious." There's writing about work. There's writing by workers. There's writing about working class life. There's writing that transcends the present by imagining, "metaphoring" what working class life could be like. What could be simpler?

But second, I wanted to hear some discussion that would assess the role of fiction when the issue of class is beginning to reassert itself in the arts and in academics. Anthologies of working class writing have emerged, in part to feed the growing industry of working class studies on campuses. Working class studies? Are we mining the rich-yet-well-disguised cultural artifacts central to our lives, or . . . are we burying our past in a tomb-museum anthropological obfuscation? Janet Zandy, introducing her excellent anthology (What We Hold In Common) says, "I have always felt that if working class culture became merely an object of study, and not a means of struggle, then it would lose its purpose."

Well, it turns out the question is not so simple, nor is the answer easy. To treat this question seriously we would first need to ask: what is class? what is work? and working class, then? Exploring these questions allows us to discuss: does working class describe the fiction, the author, the characters? And look at that unassuming little article, "a" in "Is There a Working Class Fiction." The panel was charged with answering whether only one kind of fiction may be working class as opposed to another (perhaps naturalist, perhaps expressionist, perhaps not).

Unfortunately, the panel had little to say about these questions. Instead they focused on how critics use the term "working class writer" to imply second rate, as in "He's pretty good for a working class writer." The subject of working class writing may be considered in some sense "profane"-- not dealing with universal, transcendent values, instead limited to temporal, sociological issues -- consider, for example where John Steinbeck stands in the pantheon of "great writers"-- a recent assessment of Steinbeck in his centenary year concluded that despite his popularity he does not belong on the same level as Hemingway, Faulkner and Joyce.

There also seemed some uncomfortable agreement on the panel that once the aspiring writer stepped away from his or her blue collar background, the term "working-class writer" no longer fit. Most of the panelists agreed that they write about the lives of workers, though not necessarily at work; and one panelist protested that he shouldn't be pigeon-holed as writing "working class fiction" because most of his characters don't even want to work "for the man."

Much sound and fury, not too much light.

Why classify? Why indeed establish a category called "working class literature"? The only reason to organize information is to take information that corresponds to reality and use it to solve problems. Surely the academy and other sources have used taxonomy to suppress. And categories have been chosen to segregate the good and the bad. To borrow Zandy's phrase: a taxonomy which operates as a "method of struggle." Recognizing that all taxonomy creates categories that are changing, and that the purposes for creating the categories may change, I argue that at this juncture in our history it is important to look at literature and identify that literature which is useful to a developing and changing working class consciousness. This kind of category allows us to learn from and employ the metaphor and imagination that can stimulate the dreams and visions of the emerging movement.

Starting with some definitions at least gives us some common ground about which to talk. Class is most broadly a group of individuals organized according to common characteristics. We can talk about the class of pigeon-toed people, but that doesn't yield much analysis. Terminology such as "working class" can only be understood in relation to another "non-working class." From my vantage point, "working class" is best understood in an economic, Marxist sense, the most rigorous exploration of the term. I don't mean to take the nineteenth century definition of the "modern working class," the industrial worker, the "special creation of capitalism." Language reflects life, and life is a process of constant change. Marx's methodology required studying and taking account of changes. We have to consider the "working class" in its flux, in its motion, as a dynamic concept. As separate from a non-working class, the working class is still distinct from those who do not need to work: who are surviving quite well, thank you, because they exploit others. Do not need to work because they employ enough human, technological or speculative capital to live comfortably. That they choose to go to "work" 50 or 60 hours a week is of no concern to this investigation; nor is it our concern that some people "choose" to deal drugs or engage is some alternative money-making endeavor rather than slinging big macs all day.

A snapshot of laid-off Arthur Andersen secretaries, all out of work, does not depict people thrown out of the working class as much as people ejected from the practice of working. What is it that makes them "working class" if they are not working? They are part of a class which, from time to time, according to economic vagaries, are forced into the unemployment lines. Sometimes more, sometimes less, they may be absorbed or disgorged, as if they were water to a sponge, by the expanding or contracting capacity of capitalism. But what about the fact that so many disgorged from an increasingly automated capitalism are now superfluous, will never be called back to the work force? That our prisons house increasing numbers of these disgorged "workers"? Perhaps so many have never even had the chance to be employed, never mind disgorged.

Within the experience of that most bourgeois of nations, the United States of America, this definition includes those forced to work as slaves or indentured servants as well as those merely persuaded to work by fear of starvation. It includes those in soup lines and out on strike, those left in industrial factories and those in intellectual "factories". While it includes those in unions, this definition specifically points to those who have no organizational status and declares: "you are one of us too." In other words, this inclusive definition implies better than 90% of the U.S. population. Of course you have to agree that what these folks do (if and when they are paid) is work. And you have to wonder if we stand at a node of history in which what we have until now considered "working class" is profoundly transforming into something different, unknown, undescribed even by such descriptions as "underclass."

But only by discussing this question of what we mean by working class can we even attempt to answer other questions, like: what is working class writing? Or, alternatively, is writing working class art only if it portrays the working class? Does the working class have to be portrayed heroically? Does a writer leave the working class when he/she joins a teaching faculty, perhaps obtains tenure?

Continue to part 2 of Lew Rosenbaum's essay.

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