December 10, 2015

The Literary Class

Came across this thoughtful article, by Lorraine Berry, about the economics behind writing-class privilege.  Thought I'd share an except here (emphases are my own):
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.

Read the entire article here.

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