Think Piece

October 10th, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Cover of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila LalamiLaila Lalami (known to many as MoorishGirl) has written as essay for Powell’s about the strange relationship American fiction has with poverty. Or rather it’s about the lack of relationship. She asks:

And yet, despite the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots that affects the entire world, where is the talk of the state of fiction in the age of poverty? Where are the novels that address class divides? Why aren’t people wondering whether fiction can truly reflect a reality where the richest monopolize media attention while the poorest are seen only in times of crises?

Since reading this last Thursday, we have considered how poverty is treated is various novels we’ve read over the past months. We are more likely to encounter a description of a grisly murder than a true picture of living in an inner city’s projects. What poverty we’ve encountered has been couched in historical terms — contemporary fiction tends to treat poverty with romantic flourishes. For example, the character of Mather Williams in Kirby Gann’s Our Napoleon in Rags represents for the poor, yet he’s more or less gainfully employed, housed, and fed. In the same book, homelessness is viewed as a lifestyle choice. This is the world of this particular novel, and it’s the closest any of our recent reads come to addressing the realities of a certain portion of the population.

Lalami continues to explore her question:

Poverty has receded from the list of popular themes of the American novel. No longer do we have a John Steinbeck, a Richard Wright, a Theodore Dreiser, or a Zora Neale Hurston writing about the working poor. Who today would write that “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage”? It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in the last decade, American fiction has been fixated on the middle and upper classes. The suburban novel dramatized their love affairs, their existential crises, and their boredom with a life of carpools. (The Ice Storm, Little Children.) The chick-lit novel enjoyed tremendous popularity by featuring women who worry about their weight, their shoes, and dating the right man. (The Devil Wears Prada, Bergdorf Blondes.) The campus novel brought us academics’ anxieties over racial discrimination or tenure or old age. (The Human Stain, Wonder Boys.) Meanwhile, the poor were stuck with silent or supporting roles. Something very tangible happened to American protagonists in the last ten years. Unlike a great many of their fellow countrymen, they stopped worrying about making rent.

There isn’t necessarily an answer, but it’s time we started considering the question in our writing.

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