Saturday, January 5, 2008

Class Struggle

I write the class struggle. I feign ignorance about it, but there you go. I don’t understand it. I try not to think about it. I’m no Marxist red or Capitalist swine. Honest: I don’t care about those things. Least not in my fiction. I’d like to have some cash and I wouldn’t feel bad about it. I don’t want to work hard labor or watch NASCAR or join a bowling league. I’m an aesthetic elitist. I worship Nabokov and think he’s right that the only thing fiction should be about is fiction, “aesthetic bliss.” If I ever realized I was writing something to evoke the class struggle, deliberately, I’d take the Hemingway exit. Have an “accident” cleaning my gun.

Not saying I have a gun. Not saying I don't. I’m just saying.

But proof abounds. I write the class struggle. Nearly all my characters are working class, paycheck to paycheck. They play out their desperation that way. Took me a long while to realize this. I just wrote, story after story, novel, another novel. Then it hit me. Probably never would’ve hit me if I wasn’t seeped in higher ed lit theory all day long—kind of Marxist/Freudian/Feminist mumbo-jumbo that leads one to ponder one’s own work on a lonely night after too many drinks. Theory is the devil, product of European cultural elitists. Sold my soul to it, so I know. Go talk Lacan in a dive bar and see what it gets you.

I write class. Why, I don’t know. Maybe because I’m first-generation college. Maybe because almost everything I’ve written takes place in fictional Hammersport, NY, a place which, by necessity and “truth,” is depressed—economically and actually. Maybe it’s because of my strong conviction that good fiction is conflict, real scraped-to-the-bone conflict. Not the meandering milquetoast musings of some put-upon upper-crust housewife in her vacation beach home that just makes me want to yank my teeth out from boredom (yeah, I’m talking to you Woolf, but we’ll save that fight for another blog). I ain’t against inner turmoil, but it’s got more bite when it’s fueled by life: piss-poor wages, bad breaks, late child support, trailer park tiffs, black eyes, tooh decay, air conditioning on the fritz, mouths to feed, medical bills, dirtbag relatives, cockroaches, kids in jail, DWIs, AA, layaway, hard work back pain, temporary layoffs, easy credit rip-offs. That’s conflict. That's also a lame list of stereotypes, but you get my point.

Ain’t because I write what I know. I’m a poseur. Sure, I’m a thirty-something poor-ass PhD student who rents and has to watch his checking account, but I stew in academia all day talking Foucault and the Affective Fallacy with theorists. I go to parties where cheese from other countries is served. I personally know vegetarians and have seen the inside of a couple art museums. But I don’t want to write that shit. I want to write about people who’d never bother to read what I write.

I told you I don’t know why. I’m no activist. I don’t care to see things change. After all, if we were all comfortable, what would there be to write about? Yeah, that’s sick but I said it. It’s because my torch is aesthetics. Got a friend here in grad school, name of Melissa. We have debates, lots of debates. She tells me I only care about aesthetics because I can afford to care about aesthetics. If I had real problems, I’d care about real problems. She’s probably right. She’s also happy to do her lit crit karate on my fiction: tell me where I’ve been culturally and ethically blind. Turns out my novel Pyres demonizes the working class. Who knew? Not me, not till after the final edits.

“But I care about story and words and people—not society, not culture,” I say.

“And that's because you’re an asshole,” she says.

Maybe she’s right about that, too. Maybe it’s guilt. I came from hunger, but my family broke away before I got sucked into the grinder. Mom met a guy with a college degree, he lifted us out, the rest, as they say… but part of me feels like I can’t forget. The Proddy work ethic part. See, Biodad still breaks his back for weekly wages. He bought my book but admits he won’t get around to reading it. Why? Because he works sixty hour weeks and his eyes shut when he gets in the house at night. Because some people can’t read a whole fucking novel, not because they’re stupid or illiterate, but because they’ve never felt the need to work up the mental endurance for endless steams of words words words going nowhere but their own sweet way.

That’s what I do for a living. Well, "living" is the wrong word. But I feel guilty. So maybe that’s why I write class. Or maybe it’s just a desire to know, to understand what might have been and what it means to need way down at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But I can’t say I don’t enjoy me some elitist fiction myself, Virgee Woof excluded. I chuckle at the joke about how many surrealists it takes to change a lightbulb (answer: fish). I like a good Wes Anderson flick. So the truth is probably more pedestrian. I write class because people with real problems make for more exciting stories. Is it that simple? God, I hope not.

1 comment:

Gregg Olsen said...

Of course, I write true crime and popular fiction (or at least, I'd like it to be popular). This is the stuff for the masses. I just thought I'd let you know that my dad has NEVER read one of my books -- and I've written ten. He's just not a reader. Even if your biodad doesn't read your books, he'll look at them from time to time and he'll brag to everyone that your a "book writer."

Best to you Derek for a great 2008. I'm really looking forward to your next novel. Hope we don't have to wait too long!
Gregg