Class and the American Novelist

April 25th, 2007 · 4 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

There is no doubt that judging literary merit takes on an eye of the beholder quality. One judge’s treasure is another’s muddled mess. Art, by nature, is subjective. Selecting the best of something often comes down to judgment calls and aesthetic choices that seem to defy reason. Thus we consider Granta’s “Best of Young American Novelists” issue, available right now.

Maybe the definition of “Best of Young American Novelists” is naturally a limiting descriptor.

In this second installment, the authors are younger (presumably to fit the dictates of the issue’s title) and more ethnically diverse (America being a melting pot and all that). Already, you see, the rules are forming the outcome. Despite all the advertisements to the contrary, 35 is the new young.

That is neither here nor there. The age issue only masks another topic: subject matter. Though the authors chosen seem to have an East Coast nature, their roots are varied. Though editor Ian Jack, in his introduction, tries to compare this with the British experience, anyone who spends time in American workplaces knows that everyone seems to come from somewhere else. Had the issue focused solely on young authors in Los Angeles, they would have found the same result.

Roots and issues relating to assimilating in the American culture or finding a place in your own cultural roots, however, didn’t seem to be what the issue’s judges were seeking. We were a bit surprised to learn that the authors chosen didn’t meet the mental criteria set by the some of the judges. Rather than accepting that the topics contained in the novels by this particular set of authors represented, well, what the authors needed or wanted to explore, the judges wanted the writers to look at something different, namely class.

Laura Miller, for example, said

“Writing about immigrants saves you from having to write about mass culture,” a topic literary writers, young or white or ethnic or otherwise, generally fear.

“American novels have an extremely ambivalent relationship to mass culture and have a very difficult time coming to terms with it,” she said. “Because it’s supposed to be the opposite of all the things that people want from literature. People would just rather avoid it,” and writing about ethnicity or migration allows them to.

Miller makes an interesting argument, but to blame the messenger? Are these authors really avoiding mass culture by exploring their ethnicity? Or are did the pool of authors considered by the judges simply represent the wrong people? We ask because another group of judges was disappointed by the lack of class exploration by these authors.

Some of the issue’s judges — besides Jack and White, novelist A.M. Homes, Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke, Granta Publisher Sigrid Rausing and City Lights’ Paul Yamazaki — were dismayed by the lack of attention to social class in the work of these young novelists across the ethnic and national spectrum.

O’Rourke, for instance, noted that the U.S. is increasingly economically polarized, but the young writers she read didn’t seem particularly interested. She made a pitch to the other judges to look for writers with less posh backgrounds, or who seem interested in classes besides their own.

Again, we see this as projecting ideas of what authors should write rather than what they are writing. Or perhaps — again — this was simply the wrong group of writers. If you’re seeking a certain world view, then cast a wider net. The kind of authors so frequently considered “literary” these days are the product of a certain kind of education, a set of mores often defined by the workshops of MFA programs.

And, yes, by definition, these authors must be published writers (or so we believe), meaning they have been filtered by agents and editors and publishers and even marketing departments. It isn’t as if these authors were plucked from literary slush piles. They were pre-vetted long before the judges became involved.

Maybe American authors do have difficulty writing about class and mass culture. Or maybe American publishers don’t think the reading public is interested in these topics. Or maybe the definition of “Best of Young American Novelists” is naturally a limiting descriptor.

Perhaps the real best are the ones who fall victim to the literary class structure that these judges inhabit…

File Under: Square Pegs

4 responses so far ↓

  • Brenda Coulter // Apr 25, 2007 at 7:55 am

    Very nice post, Booksquare.

  • Greg Freed // Apr 25, 2007 at 9:42 am

    Laura Miller seems a bit unfair when she says, “Writing about immigrants saves you from having to write about mass culture.” Looking for the next F. Scott Fitzgerald, who focused on 20s Americans, she would overlook an Upton Sinclair, whose immigrant made it to Chicago and managed to give a scathing and palpable critique of our culture. Further, discussions of the segragation of Mexicans in the south and the lingering distaste for European immigrants in the blue-collar northeast could provide very good vantage points for discussion of class. Whether or not the author decides to take the opportunity to explore the issue is their perogative, seconding what you had to say: We see this as projecting ideas of what authors should write rather than what they are writing.

    Immigration is a cliche only if you let it: the class of issues it presents is not void of meaning yet, nor can it be since it brings to bear particular moments of the human experience stronger than any competiting topic: isolation and alienation.

    I agree with Brenda: nice post.

  • Brian Hadd // Apr 26, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    Your disappointment comes from the judicial lax right? Not so much their choices but the fact that in choosing they disavow, don’t make any.

    Topic? Modern topic forms right, functions?

    I think changing or even talking about these books as objects that have subjects yet critiquing these best subjects politicizes the award fiercely right? Political book best. Best become

    The Hood Company

  • David Queenann // Apr 27, 2007 at 5:56 am

    Writers write about what interests them, what disturbs them, and what they think makes a rip roaring good tale; publishers filter for what they think interests the public, what the disturbs the public, and what they think makes a rip roaring good tale; and the public purchases what interests them and what disturbs them in the hopes of finding a rip roaring good tale. If the critics are not interested and disturbed by the same rip roaring good tales that the author-publisher-reader is interested in then they should stop criticizing and start writing.