There was a whole generation of writers out there that everything they wrote was centered in class. Then the pendulum began to swing, as we thought about our lives, and as we thought about destiny, things happened that had to happen. The women’s movement had to happen, and suddenly it just seemed kind of old-fashioned be thinking in terms of class when the conversation seemed to be about gender and race. People can’t think about two things at once —we replaced something important with something of equal importance.
You write about class and I write about class. It felt like, for a while, we had the field pretty much to ourselves. To the handful of writers who were oriented in that way, class issues were important to us at the time that we were growing up.
Where you see class being talked about now in literature, it is often in emerging cultures and writers of color coming out of metropolises like London, like Monica Ali, who wrote Brick Lane, or Zadie Smith, who wrote White Teeth. For them, class dictates destiny in much the same way as it did for Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis and those other proletarian writers in American in the 30s and 40s.
AD: I never step into a piece of fiction, short or long, with a thematic goal. I never stepped in and said, “I want to write about capitalism and democracy” or “I want to write about the downtrodden or the blue collar.”
Well, let me take that back — I did when I was writing Townie. I grew up in this weird world in a rented house with a single mother in poverty in blue collar neighborhoods, and all my friends were the sons of single mothers on welfare or fathers who were tradesmen or semi-employed. I always identified with the working class. But I’m the son of a writer and a social worker, and my rented house that we never owned was full of books. So, when I’m with blue collar guys, I’m very comfortable, but I’m also very comfortable with my PhD friends who grew up in the upper-middle class.
I think that maybe one reason class shows up in my fiction is I tend to travel among them all and feel comfortable, but not quite completely an insider with any of them. I find that whenever I do read a novel that’s only focusing on the upper class or upper-middle class, I feel a little left out of the party.
RR: I would probably take it one step further. I feel the same sort of bifurcation that you do because, through education, I have never been able to leave the kind of little towns where I set my fiction. My papers are still in order, but I still travel in that fictional world.
I love the guys who did the kind of work that my father did. I can still travel in those worlds, but I can also talk the language of the academy, because I was in the academy for a long time. It may be ideal for a writer to be able to travel in different worlds, and I’m very grateful for that. But also, a part of me knows that something has been lost. A part of what I’m writing about in this memoir is whether or not I have a home. Very often, it seems to me that I don’t.