“Never Give an Inch” — Gerald Howard on Social Class and the American Novel

Tin House #45, out in September, focuses on “Class in America.” You can read Gerald Howard’s essay from that issue, “Never Give an Inch,” in full now. The essay discusses shifting ideas of the social class of the American novelist, with an emphasis on “working class” writers. Howard discusses Raymond Carver and Russell Banks at some length, as well as Richard Price and Dorothy Allison (he also mentions Gilbert Sorrentino, whose work seems to be enjoying a late reappraisal). From the essay–

I don’t suppose anyone has ever done an in-depth study of that interesting form of literary ephemera, the author dust jacket biography. But if they did, I’m sure they would notice a distinct sociological shift over the past decades. Back in the forties and fifties, the bios, for novelists at least, leaned very heavily on the tough and colorful professions and pursuits that the author had had experience in before taking to the typewriter. Popular jobs, as I recall, were circus roustabout, oil field roughneck, engine wiper, short-order cook, fire lookout, railroad brakeman, cowpuncher, gold prospector, crop duster, and long-haul trucker. Military experiences in America’s recent wars, preferably combat-related, were also often mentioned. The message being conveyed was that the guy (and they were, of course, guys) who had written the book in your hand had really been around the block and seen the rougher side of life, so you could look forward to vivid reading that delivered the authentic experiential goods.

It’s been a long time since an author has been identified as a one-time circus roustabout. These days such occupations have become so exotic to the average desk-bound American that they serve as fodder for cable television reality shows—viz., The Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs, and Ice Road Truckers. Contemporary dust jacket biographies tend to document the author’s long march through the elite institutions, garnering undergraduate and postgraduate and MFA degrees, with various prizes and publications in prestigious literary magazines all duly noted. Vocational experiences generally get mentioned only when pertinent to the subject of the novel at hand—e.g., assistant DA or clerk for a Federal judge if the book deals with crime or the intricacies of the law. Work—especially the sort of work that gets your hands dirty and that brands you as a member of the working class—no longer seems germane to our novelists’ apprenticeships and, not coincidentally, is no longer easy to find in the fiction they produce. Whether one finds this scarcity something to worry about or simply a fact to be noted probably says a lot about one’s class origins and prejudices.

One comment

  1. Tom Darling · August 26, 2010

    One of the reasons that literary bios shifted towards academic institutions is that publicity departments want to create connections for buyers; that hey-I-went-to-Oberlin-and-want-to-know-more hook. Books were escapes, and the bios sold that because everyone knew that a Scribners title was already heady. You were buying the edge (Hey, the Hemingway sure has an interesting life!). Jane Smiley wrote a nice piece about why women authors are paid lower advances, which she argued was because male authors could swap their experiences (cowpoke, combat GI, gambling addict) for cash with dull office editors while no male editor was interested in swapping with a woman’s life (or giving her cash for living them vicariously).

    Books are still an escape, but literary titles depend on some intellectual connection (another reason for a list of academies), unlike the beach book that does not press the credentials (other than the person is in marketing or publicity of some kind, which sound glamorous enough but not particularly challenging to think about). And, yes, reality television combined with an overly clever and ironic society makes being a circus clown seem more like a gimmick than a true hard-knock or transcendental life experience.

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