Sunday, December 26, 2010

How did I miss Ms Amber Sparks

Her name sounds a bit like a drag queen, in which case I am that guy in the front row of her show applauding a bit too much.

Amber Sparks has a great post over at Big Other from earlier this month, about the lack of working class representation in literature (which I found via Daniel Pritchard's The Wooden Spoon, in which Pritchard follows the consideration through to poetry). I really appreciate seeing her raising the question of class, or the lack of consideration of class, in contemporary fiction, and the connection she makes between that gap and the economics of publishing and writing (to quote at length):

So what do these absences in our writing signify? What does our lack of class-consciousness say about us now? Did McCarthyism initially stamp out the desire to write about class issues? Or maybe it’s because we’re a nation and a culture deeply rooted in individualism. Concern about class tends to suggest collectivism, something that has proved to be anathema to Americans raised in the cowboy mythology. We prefer our heroes singular, not plural.

Or perhaps literature has become the province, largely, of the comfortably-off. I suspect this is closer to the truth. Writers might choose to starve to devote time to their art, but they themselves seem largely to come from the middle and upper classes of American society. The same may be especially true of those working in publishing and academia, people who had to have money to pay for school or to take unpaid internships in expensive cities like New York. These folks may not be interested in—or more likely may be made uncomfortable by—class issues, since they would necessarily resist any notion of their own privilege.

And now I am DYING to know where she got that great Kenneth Fearing quote. Ms. Amber, if you're out there...???

For the record, it is this concern with contemporary literature that made me greatly appreciate when I finally discovered Daniel Woodrell, whose own writing on class is being increasingly recognized after the amazing film version of his novel, Winter's Bone. The opening of his novel Tomato Red is a great take on class in modern America.

I suspect there are many interesting intersecting issues going on, some of which are touched on by Sparks, as noted. The reality is, it's hard to talk about difficult topics in a way that people who are not directly impacted by those topics want to read about. Editors assume working class people ain't buying books, but middle class and wealthy folks (hello, Oprah fans!) are. That's the demographic. And it's assumed that people want to see themselves reflected in their fiction. The book is a product to sell, and many houses want to reach the most consumers. There's a certain pessimism involved in that thinking.

I'll have to follow Sparks' link to Roxanne Gay's piece on this topic, as well. Glad this conversation is happening!

1 comment:

Amber said...

Hi, Brian! I personally think the name's more apt to conjure up a high class stripper or maybe a Showtime late night star. :)

Thanks for the kind words about my post on Big Other. It's a tough subject with no easy answers, and I'm just glad to see the discussion happening. I LOVED Winter's Bone, and shamefully have not read the book but need to. I'm glad you read Roxane's post--I'm reading Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self right now and it's terrific.

Oh, and the Fearing quote? I got that from a great essay Fearing wrote for Poetry magazine. The jstor version is here:

Cheers and thanks again for applauding the loudest.