Phoebe Maltz Bovy has written an essay on class diversity in fiction: namely, the lack of it. She raises a lot of good questions, though her conclusion seems to me to be overly pessimistic.
In her first paragraph, Bovy equivocates on the meaning of the word “representation.” In discussions of diversity, representation means that people from different groups are represented in the group of people doing something. In art, representation, of course, means something different. Representation means showing people who belong to a certain group, or a certain type. It also refers to the way in which they are shown. Bovy conflates these two meanings in order to suggest that what people who call for diversity of novelists really want is to see people like themselves in fiction or in films, and to allow her to explore the latter question. I do think this question is interesting. I’m not in a hurry, though, to tell people who are asking for, say, more women novelists reviewed in important venues, that they should be satisfied with really good depictions of women by male authors, much less that a meditation on why “representation” is important is something on which they should spend their time.
She next gets to the meat of her argument: the representation of socioeconomic class in fiction. Specifically, she is riffing off recent essays by working-class writers who’ve discussed issues of personal import to themselves. They’ve felt uncomfortable in writing programs, or felt compelled to censor themselves, or they find it difficult to combine their concerns about class with their concerns about race. Bovy rewords their concerns in the following fashion:
When reading both of these essays, though, I wondered whether class is, in this context, just one more box to check, one more injustice to correct. Is it simply a matter of locating structural obstacles and raising awareness?
She is going to combine the political question with the aesthetic one. Representation promises a way of better understanding the way class concerns interact with aesthetic considerations.
The meat of Bovy’s essay begins as follows:
It seems to me that socioeconomic class is a tougher sort of diversity to bring to writing. Unlike the other varieties, it’s at odds with what readers are used to and what they’re likely to want—namely wealthier, more glamorous, or just less drudgery-having versions of themselves. Which is to say: What does aspirational look like? As a rule, I suspect, those of us who aren’t white men don’t dream of becoming white men, (and more to the point, becoming a white guy because they sure seem to have it easier isn’t an option). But rich isn’t an identity, exactly. You get to be yourself, but you can afford a hi-tech Japanese bidet-toilet.
This is certainly true to some extent. People who work in the music industry, say, want to see movies and read books about very talented people in the industry. People with families like entertainment that depicts people with happy families. Of course, this leaves out movies and novels about “problems,” but even in those cases, for the most part, everything else is heightened or improved—and the problem, of course, is resolved by the end. People, generally, like to see pretty people onscreen, healthy people, strong people, happy people, rich people. The typical movie house isn’t a modest ranch, but a roomy split-level, garrison Colonial, or contemporary, with a big yard. The default, especially in film, is the ideal (just as the default bad person is the worst possible: a movie that could have been about a club kid is made about a prostitute instead).
This kind of thing helps readers and filmgoers identify with the characters and with the essential aspect of the story. Freud had a lot to say about this kind of thing. He pointed out that in classical drama, we don’t see stories about ordinary families. Instead, we see family dynamics playing out in a heightened fashion among kings, queens, and princes. Freud believed that this was the best way to get playgoers to experience the feelings that would let them fix their own lives. We don’t write literature about royalty anymore—the novel is the literature of the middle class (though we would now say “upper middle class”)—but Freud’s theory is still influential, in certain circles.
This isn’t the same thing, however, as the idea that people of different types like to see idealized versions of those types onscreen or in the books they read. Freud wasn’t talking about people of different types. He wrote about psychologies he believed were universal. It’s true that people don’t like to see types they identify with made fun of. It’s also true that what constitutes “making fun” differs from person to person and from group to group. Some people might feel that a geek who acts like a geek is being made fun of, while others might feel that a geek who acts like a club kid is disrespectful of actual geeks. Moreover, books and films for a broad audience have to consider what that broad audience will like. If a geek who acts like a geek—or a working-class person who acts like a working-class person—screams “bad” or “weird” to people who aren’t geeks or working-class, it will actually give the message that geeks or working-class people are themselves bad or weird.
And anyway, people who write “mainstream” literature do tend to be fairly well-off, as Bovy and her sources observe. They write what they know, and moreover, they write what will sell. And the audience, too, for that kind of fiction, tends to be well-off, one supposes. They’ve gone from college to grad school to published novelist, in many cases, without having much workday contact with non-writers, except to the extent they themselves have jobs, which tend not to be in the broad middle straddling “barista” and “CEO.” To the extent they’re successful, the non-writers they come in contact with are usually members of a cultural elite that’s itself increasingly an economic elite. If people who fit that description would like to write about ordinary people, they can do research, or write about their childhood and the lives of their less-privileged ancestors, or they can pick up an ideology like Freud’s that tells them it’s actually best to focus on people who are at one extreme, that the best art has the most attenuated connection with the real, everyday or workaday world. And people who don’t fit that description can find themselves wanting to do things that don’t fit the generally accepted patterns.
A few years ago a woman writer, I forget who, said something about the need to realize one’s reading has been aspirational in a bad way, that one has been reading things written for, intended for, only making sense for, the very wealthy. I think it’s possible to go too far in that direction. You run the risk of dismissing all fiction as trivial, fluff, something only for leisured ladies in between rounds of bonbons. You run the risk of allowing the wealthy—rather than the elite of the spirit—to take over the realms belonging to literature. (In the US these have historically been separate.) It’s possible to decide one doesn’t want to read books, any longer, about rich people.
And in one way, this can make sense. At some point in your life, you decide that books about people just out of college who are deciding whether to go to Europe without a job or to Japan are saying less than they could be saying about the things that are important to you. You realize that coming-of-age novels can perhaps be written to appeal to readers from any background, regardless of the milieu in which they’re set, but that novels for older people don’t work as well that way. You just get tired of the same thing, over and over again, and you lose interest in the minutiae of upper-class fashion and its changes from year to year. You find it more difficult, as you mature and the demands you make on books evolve, to find something meaningful in what’s being published.
And this somehow ends up seeming related to the fact that books (maybe increasingly) tend to be set among an economic elite.
It’s too bad.