Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Identifying with their class

Dorothy Rabinowitz advances an interesting (if highly contentious) proposition in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. Namely: the growing disenchantment with President Obama—in the Gallup Daily poll, more Americans now disapprove of his performance in office than approve of it—has its source in his failure to identify with “the nation and to all that binds its people together in pride and allegiance”:

A great part of America now understands that this president’s sense of identification lies elsewhere, and is in profound ways unlike theirs. He is hard put to sound convincingly like the leader of the nation, because he is, at heart and by instinct, the voice mainly of his ideological class.Whether Rabinowitz explains the President’s upside-down poll numbers is a question that I am not qualified to answer. If you swap the word intellectual for ideological it may explain the condescension toward President Bush and Sarah Palin. But I am less concerned with politics than literature.

And it strikes me that Rabinowitz’s explanation fits the decline of the “serious novel” or “literary fiction” (two terms that make my feet itch) like a missing piece of the puzzle. It is a better explanation, because more comprehensive, that my own claim that a “nationalized bureaucracy of writers [that] stretches from coast to coast” accounts for American fiction’s loss of interest in American places.

It is hard to imagine a living American novelist writing a passage like the last four paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, summoning up the “fresh, green breast of the new world.” American novelists by and large do not identify with ordinary Americans any longer, nor with the American dream (“the last and greatest of all human dreams”), but with their intellectual class—the people with whom they went to school, whose minds are furnished with the same authorities and assumptions, who share a similar understanding of the world. The American continent no longer compels them into an aesthetic contemplation they neither understand nor desire. What moves them are the envies and ambitions, the disdains and irritations, of their class.

Thus all their characters sound like literary intellectuals. Thus they cannot even imagine what their own non-writing spouses, nor anyone else for that matter, do every day at work. Thus the world outside literature and academe is a vague blur, if not entirely invisible. Thus human decency is identified with the correct (and partisan) political opinions. Thus fiction becomes little more than an occasion for ventilating anti-American grievances.

And thus the American novel, once a lively voice in the national debate to specify the American idea, has devolved into the voice of a homogeneous intellectual class. It is just another means, like similar work, training, and lifestyle, for promoting class solidarity.


Kevin said...


You write, "American novelists by and large do not identify with ordinary Americans any longer, nor with the American dream (“the last and greatest of all human dreams”), but with their intellectual class—the people with whom they went to school, whose minds are furnished with the same authorities and assumptions, who share a similar understanding of the world."

Two comments:

One, the phrase "ordinary Americans" strikes me as somewhat flabby. Does it refer to Americans in specific geographies or socio-economic strata, or to Americans who have certain values and identifications? For instance, if I admit that I'm an "ordinary American," what have I revealed about myself, if anything? Does it just mean I'm a dude with a job? Confused.

Two, I struggled to make your claim specific to C. McCarthy, Roth, DeLillo, M. Robinson, and Pynchon, but failed. If you have time, perhaps you could substantiate your claim in light of their work.


D. G. Myers said...

The meaning of “ordinary Americans” is clear in the context of my argument. They are anyone who does not belong to the homogeneous class of workshop-trained writers.

As always, Roth and Robinson (and Francine Prose) are exempted from these criticisms. Few others are, however.

Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

A thought-provoking and emjoyable post!

"...but with their intellectual class—the people with whom they went to school, whose minds are furnished with the same authorities and assumptions, who share a similar understanding of the world."

Prior to the end of the Second World War, when "ordinary Americans" first had access to colleges and universities in large number, wasn't this already the case? Whether out of Boston, New York or the political unrest of the inter-war period, hasn't much of American fiction (of the kind you describe) always reflected shared assumptions and understandings foreign to those for whom college wasn't a common experience?

Jane Jacob's critique of American cities has recently been examined with the author concluding that Jacobs' model was a neighbourhood in a "transitional and unsustainable, if golden, moment".

Is it possible to conflate the aspirant and newly-educated post-war readership (similarly "transitional and unsustainable"?) that engaged with serious fiction, with a longer-term relationship between authors and readers?

Maybe it's the readers, after a golden post-war period, who have returned to a more characteristic disregard similar to that always held by the writers.


D. G. Myers said...


Fascinating reference to Jane Jacobs, and not merely because The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been one of my favorite books since first reading it, in a course taught by Professor Michael Cowan, as a freshman at Santa Cruz.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Susan Messer also alludes approvingly to Jacobs in Grand River and Joy. For Messer, Jacobs represents the alternative to the white flight and urban decline her novel sadly chronicles.

But more to the point, Messer herself represents the alternative to American novelists who speak only for their own class. Jacobs’s defense of diversity and variety, of both architecture and human pursuits, as the the source of “urban vitality” has its corollary in fiction too.

EmKay said...

Well said.

Ideologues have mucked up the universities, mucked up study of the humanities, mucked up literary theory, and consequently I suppose, mucked up the American novel.

And Saul Bellow is dead, and Philip Roth is closing in on 80. Forgive my pessimism, but eh gads, I'm not seeing from where the response and/or counter-movement to this "homogeneous intellectual class" will come.

panavia999 said...

What EmKay said - I agree. I am currently reading "The Cruel Sea" by Nicholas Montserrat. Nothing to do with the topic except that it's the "newest" novel I have read in some time. It's so sad I had to stop reading for a few days because I was tearing up and could not see the page. (The ship had been sunk, few survivors.) Very absorbing and compelling. I read about new novels and short stories and nothing attracts. Of course, I have not attended college so my intellect is coarse and unevolved. ;-)

R. T. said...

Roth, Robinson, and Prose are sufficient by themselves to serve as some kind of mitigation for the trend, but who beyond that trio do you see as writing about and for the "common man" (and "common woman")?

Isn't it somewhat true that "literary fiction," if that is a workable label, tends to exclude the "common man and woman" (both as subjects and as readers)?

Perhaps, though, as I sense from my reading of small independent and university press authors, the kinds of writers we seem to be seeking are more easily found in those imprints. (I would point to Hillary Jordan (MUDBOUND) and Jerry Gabriel (DROWNED BOY) as two examples from my recent reading.)

At any rate, please consider adding to Roth, Robinson, and Prose.

R. T. said...

Postscript: I should also add Jack O'Connell (THE RESURRECTIONIST) to my short list of authors who deserve notice.

Anonymous said...

When I recently read "Snow Falling on Cedars" by David Guterson I did have a feeling for that "sense of place" I believe you are referring to. It managed to bring back memories of that period for me, though obviously distorted by time, and of a geographical place somewhat distinct to America - that off-mainland isolation found in a coastal community but one with the culture of small town America. Found that same feeling in isolated coastal communities on the north coast such as Mendocino, Trinidad, etc.

Kenneth Griggs said...

Great post.

Lane Eliezer said...


To respond to the name dropping of Bellow in the comments: how in the hell did that old yid have anything in common with "ordinary Americans" or distance himself from ideologies?

As much as I love him, Bellow writes elitist, künstlerromanne; highly intellectual stuff that is stereotypically "not for" the "ordinary."

As far as his ideology is concerned, it seems absent. It seems as if Bellow, and EmKay is right about this, only builds an ideology in reaction to newer ones he dislikes--a stance I cannot condone.

D. G. Myers said...


In one sense, you are right. Even Bellow’s less educated heroes, like Augie March and Tommy Wilhelm, are better educated—or at least better spoken—than you and I.

On the other hand, though, as I have said elsewhere, Bellow’s preoccupations are bookish, and so too then is his style. With Bellow it is not a matter of failing to identify with America, and sounding the internationalist note of academe instead (and in spite of himself).

Rather, his intellectuality is the vehicle of his identification with America.

Susan Messer said...

D.G. Myers,
Thanks for taking my book so seriously both here and in your review of it a few weeks ago. And thanks for noticing/remembering the reference to Jane Jacobs.

Re: place. In my book events, I have again and again been asked something along the lines of "Aren't you limiting your readership by writing about Detroit?" or "Do you think anyone not from Detroit will be interested in this book?" Sometimes it's Detroiters who ask this question (because they have decided that they have been abandoned? no one is interested in them any longer? they are too "ordinary"?); sometimes it's non-Detroiters (because they don't like to think about Detroit or about what can happen to a great city?). All books have to, of course, take place somewhere. I wonder whether people asked these questions of Roth's Newark. What about William Kennedy's Albany? or Alice Munro's tiny towns in Ontario?

Lane Eliezer said...

Yet so often do his protagonists fail to fit in! Even the goy Henderson has to get out of America to find himself.

Have you read Humboldt's Gift? I think it's my favorite.

D. G. Myers said...

Miss Messer,

Many thanks for the thanks. And I hope my readers will seek out your book.

I give you Roth’s Newark, but not William Kennedy’s Albany, mainly because I have never been able to read much Kennedy at a sitting. He is, in fact, antithetical to what you are trying to do, which is to locate human stories in a definite milieu. Kennedy has the location, but not the stories.

The other thing I like about your book is that I can’t guess your politics from it. Many contemporary writers who are unable to identify with America would ascribe their incapacity to a certain politics.

D. G. Myers said...

Have you read Humboldt’s Gift? I think it’s my favorite.

Sammler is mine, then Herzog. But so hard to choose!

dixon steele said...

D.G., you sound authoratative in your comments on American novelists.

As I understand it, 10,000 works of fiction are published in the US every year. That's 100,000, give or take, over the last ten years.

I'm curious to know how much, in percentage terms, you have read of this fiction.

Reading two works of fiction every week would work out at roughly 1000 books in ten years. That's 1% of what has been published.

Presumably, given how confident you sound in your opinions, you've managed to read much more than a mere 1% of what's been published.

How do you do it?

D. G. Myers said...

I don’t get much sleep.