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Where’s Literature’s Class Diversity?

For writers, socioeconomic class is still hard to talk about.

Michael Stroud/Getty

In every field, the answer to the question of diversity tends to hinge on questions of representation. With the arts and media especially, there’s the question of seeing a version of oneself (or one’s actual self!) on a magazine cover or onscreen. With written stories, there’s the hope for diversity not just among authors and characters, but stories themselves. 

Writing—both fiction and the various forms of personal writing that now occupy that same storytelling space—is, like most everything, easier for the rich and upper-class. While the act of writing is technically cheap enough to accomplish (it’s to oil painting what jogging is to skiing), getting published is less of a hurdle for life’s haves. The end result: a lot of stories about people with fairly similar lives and concerns, albeit, these days, with disclaimers tacked on about how the author is very aware that surely things are much harder for the less-privileged.

The call for literary diversity is now beginning to extend to class. In a Literary Hub essay from last month, Lorraine Berry describes the alienation she’s experienced as a writer from a working-class background, and makes the case for adding socioeconomic status to the “essays, articles, charts, graphs, and surveys”-driven conversation. “[J]ust 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,” she writes, “so too would the stories of working-class folk go a long way toward improving our representation of and understanding of the greater world.” 

Meanwhile, at Hazlitt, Andrea Bennett described the extent to which writers from less-posh beginnings aren’t so much excluded as invisible—it only seems that writers are all upper class because the ones who need to work for a living aren’t, she explains. Bennett discusses “making the reality of my background invisible,” as well as her own seasonal night-job at an unnamed chain bookstore, and specifies, “I didn’t embed myself […] in service of a tell-all; when I clicked apply four months ago, my intention was to pay my rent.” (It’s worth noting that both Bennett and Berry acknowledge that socioeconomic diversity is intersectional. Neither piece is a class-is-what-actually-matters argument, along the lines of what Alana Massey recalls putting her off of an already-lacking first date, where the pseudo-concern about class just amounts to a dismissal of the continued existence of racism.)

When reading both of these essays, though, I wondered whether class is, in this context, just one more box to check, one more injustice to correct. Is it simply a matter of locating structural obstacles and raising awareness?

It seems to me that socioeconomic class is a tougher sort of diversity to bring to writing. Unlike the other varieties, it’s at odds with what readers are used to and what they’re likely to want—namely wealthier, more glamorous, or just less drudgery-having versions of themselves. Which is to say: What does aspirational look like? As a rule, I suspect, those of us who aren’t white men don’t dream of becoming white men, (and more to the point, becoming a white guy because they sure seem to have it easier isn’t an option). But rich isn’t an identity, exactly. You get to be yourself, but you can afford a hi-tech Japanese bidet-toilet.

But aspiration doesn’t quite cover it. There’s a special hate-reading joy to stories about the rich, or, more accurately, the richer-than-oneself, wherever that may fall. (I always come back to Alessandra Stanley’s observation: “Someday there will be an anthropological study of that other exotic tribe: privileged people who devote their lives to exposing their even more fortunate neighbors.”) Whether one attributes this to protest or to envy (or—because reading is complex, to an unknowable mix of those sentiments and others still), this is a form of reading that’s if anything growing more popular. That tension—ooh, shiny!, but tsk-tsk, not relatable!—explains, or at least describes, the continued appeal of stories that seem as if they shouldn’t capture our attention. The ugh-rich-people genre both condemns and drives traffic to its inspiration.

This ambivalence extends to the persona of The Writer. Structural factors—such as the fact that work even peripherally related to writing tends not to pay—are a factor, but so too is a cultural fantasy of what an author’s up to behind the scenes. To produce escapist literature, you certainly don’t need to be from a wealthy background. But as Bennett points out, writers “trade on prestige, and talking about how little we’re paid lessens that prestige[.]” I’m thinking of writers’ bios—on Twitter, in articles—and how they focus on publications. This gives the illusion of either a full-time writing career, or a full-time lounging career, with a book or article effortlessly tossed off whenever convenient. The side work a writer has or needs won’t come up. It’s just not sexy. Berry denounces “representations of the writer’s life on TV or in movies, where it appears that most writing professors live in large Arts and Crafts houses, or in multi-room, Midtown buildings with doormen,” but this is, given all that discretion, an understandable misconception.

And I wonder whether, if the economics of a writing life were rendered transparent, this would lead to outrage and remedy or, conversely, to resignation, and aspiring writers without millions in the bank not even bothering. I’d like to think it would be the former, but have my doubts.

Next is the question of whether readers want, or could be prompted to want, a shift in the social-realist direction. Put another way: Is wealth and ease what’s irritating about the irritating books about whiny rich people? Is the genre Alexander Nazaryan called “a 30-Something White Guy in Glasses Writing a Metafictional Novel About a 30-Something White Guy in Glasses Writing a Novel While Living in Brooklyn and Wearing Glasses” tired because it’s boring to read about someone without real problems? Or is it more about that landscape getting old, even for those who live that life and suffer/benefit from a touch of narcissism? Is it the wealth that’s off-putting (for even if dude is broke, he’s still found a way to pay for that brownstone and those glasses), or the fact that we’ve met too many variants of him before? Might a story with a different but wealthier setting (like, say, the super-wealthy ethnically-Chinese community of Singapore; and yes, I’m thinking of Kevin Kwan’s delightful if unfortunately-titled Crazy Rich Asians) also function as an alternative? Or—for a less extreme example—a novel like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which depicts some financial struggles (as well as Lagos, Nigeria, which isn’t on the F train), but which is ultimately about elites.

Which brings us to the question of why, exactly, representation matters. Is it about familiarity, or about equal opportunity for daydreaming? Both, I think. But the fact that the latter enters into it already skews the results. There are echoes—faint ones, I’ll grant—of certain fashion-industry debates: Is it a shame that fashion models are not particularly representative in the hotness department? Perhaps so, but a sort of consensus emerges around a particular idea of justice: We aren’t owed mirrors of ourselves, but we’re all, ideally, entitled to some kind of ridiculously good-looking version thereof. Diversity means getting a sense of how whichever clothes would look on us by seeing them on a tall, stunning, 19-year-old who happens to share our build, skin color, and hair texture.  

It’s not, to be clear, that great works can’t be about poverty, or just being broke. Many are; more should be. And a decadent romp doesn’t require a wealthy protagonist (although the counterexample first coming to mind, Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel Animals, involves a working-class woman’s debauchery sustained by a rich friend-landlord who doesn’t ask for rent). And escapism can, as fans of genre fiction would surely point out, involve other planets, say, and need not be limited to financial comfort here on earth. But the rich-but-troubled character isn’t going anywhere, because there’s something appealing about a situation where life’s more usual obstacles are stripped away, leaving only the petty or romantic ones. The allure of the not-quite-relatable scenario—and of the at least seemingly aristocratic author—is likely to persist.