Let’s talk about class, baby…let’s talk about you and me…
Class - social class.
Class - economic class.
Class - school.
Class – elegance, style, refinement.
Advanced Beginner Class
Disappearing Middle Class
What you got? What you bringing to this table, baby?
What you learn in school? What classes did you attend? Was your school fancy? Was it rat-infested? Did you get a scholarship to a fancy school and not have the clothes? Did you get a scholarship to a fancy school and not have the “clothes”? Even if someone was willing to lend you her outfits, did you feel strange? Did you not know what to do? Did you not know what to say or how to say it? Did you feel like an animal in a zoo, a curiosity, or like a homeless person on the street, looked at with a mixture of pity and repulsion or just, you know, ignored.
Do you write about pools and meadows and Spring…do you get published in the New Yorker because you do this well? If you grew up in projects or just low rise apartments behind say a department store in Waterford, Connecticut, and the only pool you saw was a crumbling little stone one behind the apartment house or the water that collected below the dumpsters in the parking lot behind the Howland’s and the Friendly’s while you and your best friend were scavenging for change, can you get published in the New Yorker? Wouldn’t that be considered – you know – uncomfortable?
And what if you sent such stories and poems out and had them rejected over and over and say on top of this you are oh I don’t know female so you aren’t listened to anyway…would you keep writing? Would you keep trying?
Would you read A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf in your fancy college you attend on scholarship and think/wonder…hmmmm…can I write? She says I need a trust fund and a room of my own to write in the ‘right way’…I don’t have a trust fund. I work and scrape to have a room of my own right now, but no trust fund…so, no writing?
No writing because no proper ‘detachment,’ which is apparently necessary to write correctly, to write in a way that may be published in the New Yorker…or, perhaps, you get a scholarship to an MFA program, and you learn the ropes, and you find a way to polish your experience into the acceptable forms and you do get published…what then?
What about the many who don’t? What about the ones who can never see themselves in any of the literature, because in the end it is written from a place of privilege?
Are we to be silenced? That is - the great majority of us…
No, no, no, wait…we’re meant to like reality television or crappy books, that kind of thing and then be mocked for less than genius political choices. Is that right?
Oh, but see, my tone. My tone. My Tone!
It’s too angry…too angry…too angry.
And then there is the issue of psychology. Especially the pernicious psychology of success. This psychology is written by the winners, have you noticed?
“Do what you love and the money will follow.” Will it? If you don’t have access to people through some kinds of social networks that have money, is that possible?
I have been in both situations, and I guarantee you, without access to people with means, this will not happen.
The insanity of mixing up correlation with causation in terms of positive thinking and positive psychology is kind of a national (American) epidemic. Are you successful because you are happy? Or are you happy because the choices you made – coupled with the access you had to capital (social, economic, cultural) – have made you successful?
See what I mean?
Think of the millions of stories of people who don’t have this happy outcome. Where are their rousing tomes to failure, or just middling success, or just you know getting by, by the skin of their teeth?
They don’t exist. UNLESS, written about by a privileged person as a kind of ‘case study’ – and then they are conflated with similar ‘others’ to protect their anonymity or are on PBS documentaries by well-intentioned privileged people to tout the ‘problems with poverty’ etc.
But our own voice?
Oh, darling, no, I don’t think so…I mean, look at those sentences? And you’re just making us all So Uncomfortable. Please stop…Humankind cannot bear very much reality, wasn’t that what T.S. Eliot said? He was right, dear.
Oh, have you sent that thank you letter yet to the donor who gave the money for your scholarship? Thank you, dear. It would be great if you could do that.
This is why I think that Bernie Sanders is covered so poorly – or not at all - by the mainstream media. This is a guy who actually came from very little, and he hasn’t used his success as a politician to shaft other people who have very little, but instead to give voice to the vast majority of Americans’ plight. He’s a voice shouting in the Stockholm Syndrome wilderness to those who have been bamboozled by the Reagan mythology that poor people are sick or wrong or criminals or just bad. That there is no such thing as structural poverty or the many losers in capitalism that a compassionate state may want to you know help…Those in control of media – as Studs Terkel always said – are now allied with the powerful. Because of salaries and of course Stockholm Syndrome.
The most profound statement that comes from people interviewed by reports who support Sanders is, “I know I’m not alone anymore.” People hearing their actual stories in the crowds and on the stage, beginning to realize that they are Not alone, not sick or wrong or bad because they can’t pay rent, healthcare bills, mortgages or even sometimes for food. That there are forces larger than them that create these conditions, that unlike the American delusion, we are not in fact all born equal. We are born in very specific places and under very specific conditions that have a huge impact on who and what we can become, who we think we are and what we can do with that self-image and reality.
The trendy phrase “intersectional” basically means – you have to take into account all these issues, not only on gender and race – which are discussed now much more openly – but also the one thing that dare not speak its name in a country (where we still believe in Santa Clause and that everyone actually does have a “shot” ) and that is Class.
I have a very tortured experience with class, having moved many times and spent most of my childhood with caretakers in precarious financial positions. I don’t have a memory of anything else. I was given a scholarship to attend a private school starting in 8th grade and then a boarding school in 10th. I was terrified of losing my scholarship and was told by many students – most of who were mind-bogglingly wealthy – that I was too tense. I thought this was a personal failing until I got to college, studied some Marx and radical politics, and looked back and realized, wow, yeah, well I was in a kind of tense situation.
But then suddenly when I turned 17 my mother ended up with someone who was stable in many ways, including financially, and that had an impact on me, too. He was not rich, but stable middle class for sure. That was a novelty. There are choices I made in college that may have gone differently otherwise. On the other hand, I still didn’t have any of my own money, and when I left undergraduate college, I was on my own financially and had no idea how to navigate this.
I have had many opportunities since then, some academic, some creative, many of my own creation – combined with access to information through proximity to privilege - but not all. I have found, however, underneath all these ventures a deep-seated insecurity when attempting to address in my work financial realities as they affected me then and affect me now. I spent eight years in the UK, long enough to undo the brainwashing about shame about not having money and not having come from money. However, I’ve now been back here long enough (almost 5 years) to feel ashamed to mention to some people that I’m on Medicaid. I can feel the rush of judgment coming towards me, and it’s stifling. Never mind that this is in part due to Adjunct Professor wages, which means I qualify for Medicaid, and my own struggles with ‘selling myself’ as a writer and artist. None of this comes naturally.
But even on a subtler level the issue of what and how to write comes into play. In the same way that there is growing awareness about gendered and racially biased coding in language, I think there is class coding in literature, too.
It all comes down to discomfort. How uncomfortable are you as a reader willing to become? How far will you stretch? Since most of the ‘literary’ guardians come from privilege, the fact is, regarding class issues, the answer is: not too far. No one wants to give up on the idea that they have reached their place in leadership somewhere based solely on merit (which 99% of the time is not true – you may be qualified but you also probably had a lot of help – schools, mentors, colleagues, relatives who loaned you money, etc. – that helped get you there). No one, especially in America, wants to cop to privilege, because it pokes at our core narrative – that we are all born equal, etc. But these are myths, and the reality is far more complex. Because of our lack of social safety net and the language around poverty since Reagan having shifted, our income inequality in real terms is worse than most (if not all) developed countries. We have more poor children, worse nutrition, more people in jail, a falling life expectancy amongst poorer people…
In other words, the lack of words coming from the rest of us is Killing Us. Literally.
Until people who are comfortable in the top 1% - and even the top 10% who guard the interests of the 1% zealously because they get more scraps from the 1% table than the rest of us – are willing to be discomfited by the stories of those of us out here dying from unfettered capitalism, we’re going to keep dying, and you’re going to keep wringing your hands and writing mystified op-eds about why people my age are offing themselves and overdosing so often.
I can’t speak for everyone, and as I think I’ve made clear, I do have some privilege and in no way am a contestant in the tragedy sweepstakes, nor am asking for a medal. In fact, I think I am in the middle of all this. In the non-existent middle class, so therefore I am poor. Even with Obamacare, if you qualify for Medicaid, you are poor. I am frightened to even write these words. This is the level of the shame.
I am afraid – irrationally – that no one will want to publish my book about my grandmothers because I am poor. Because that means there must be Something Wrong with Me, because why else would someone with all that education be poor? Maybe she’s on drugs??? (I’m not, in case you’re wondering – not a drink even for over 29 years.) Maybe she’s Unstable??? Maybe she’s … hmmm… Something!
That level of shaming shows you how effective the Stockholm Syndrome is. I’m meant to care A Lot about wealthy people’s problems. If I want to be published in The New Yorker, I have to write about my problems as if they are wealthy people problems, or if I want to write in a more avant-garde way and get published by more obscure – usually non-paying - publications, I need the privilege of that coding (which I do have…and am in state of discomfort with at the moment because am so aware of this class issue…), but then So Does my Audience…
On the other hand, I’m not a working class hero. When I was in the many public schools I attended, I was bullied (we didn’t have the term then, but that’s what it was), harassed, called “the brain” (not meant as compliment, I can assure you), ignored, or just laughed at…etc…Any kid who moved a lot knows this drill, but in more working class areas, there is no softening of this harassment. In private school the discomfort moved underground, and was used to criticize instead of my person, my writing style and such…I was made to feel like I didn’t know anything. So I went from knowing “too much” to knowing “too little.” Etc…
So, this all caused a lot of confusion in a young - and now not so young (!) - writer. I have burrowed through a lot of this, but run up against it time and again. What are issues of craft and what are issues of class? What is it I want to say that’s being squelched by a reader’s (real or imagined) discomfort? What am I Not saying for fear of being judged or discomforting someone? I have written and know a lot about this issue from the gender angle, but the class angle is if anything more potent, because it dare not speak its name.
I wonder what background do agents or editors who are looking at my work come from and how does that affect how they read it? When you realize the orchestras have more women in them when judges listen to them blind playing behind a screen, you realize how often unconscious bias comes into play…at least with gender. But what about class?
Any European friends or anyone from most other countries will find this whole post mystifying most likely, because most countries know they have classes or castes and are used to this kind of discrimination. There are steps taken at least economically to mitigate the problems, but I know from my own experience in the UK anyway, culturally, it’s still a big problem. In some ways I had it easier in the UK, because being American, I was such an Other, I didn’t factor in the internecine culture wars…sometimes Being An American was a problem all by itself, but that had a different flavor, and in some ways was so overt as to be comical. Such as – a personal favorite regarding drafts of my PhD, which I received there (on scholarship), “Your writing is too American.”
Finally, the oddest part of my life, as I see it, is that having gone to fancy schools, I learned a kind of rich person drag…like the Barbizon ads used to say “Learn to become a model or just look like one!” I now tend to attract like others who have done the same. We know certain kind of sophisticated art stuff and whatnot – aka cultural capital (see Bourdieu) – that implies we are rich, but look down and – whaaaaaaat – no money! The people I know in similar situations have a harder time getting their creative work off the ground and getting it into the cultural conversation.
Proust – an insider if there ever was one – wrote about this beautifully in In Search of Lose Time – how cultural shifts happen in rich people’s drawing rooms, etc. He was very overt about the process. I love him for that.
Because this is the thing: I know a lot of privileged people, some of them are my best friends (!) I am not here saying privilege can be wiped out, but dear God, people, cop to your privilege (whether it’s about class, gender, race, sexuality…whatever) and listen to the experiences of those outside of your little bubble…even if it is discomfiting. Be aware that these experiences need to be heard and told by the people – as people not statistics – who experience them.
If you have access to platforms, give platforms to people the least like you…consider your inherent prejudices, practice radical listening…expand the conversation. Change the world.