Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Class Act

We are born into a time from which we may try to escape by writing beyond or ahead of our time, which is to say historical writing or science fiction speculative writing. Few readers, fewer critics looks at this as worth any serious notice. Indeed, as we find ourselves writing history or casting into future speculations or fantastic alternate universes, we begin to reflect the politics of our birth time and our present time, perhaps through an unintentional-but-revelatory observation, sometimes in what strikes us as service of the story.

We are born into a locale which we chose to exploit or write ourselves out of by deliberately changing the setting of where our writing takes place. How any of us remain regionalists, how many of us move on toward being cosmopolitan or global? Ho many of us solve the problem by inventing our own otherness, our own place in which to set a narrative? And how many of us are inventive enough to solve the problem through research of making it seem we know with some intimacy a place where we have never in fact actually been?

We are born into a social class from which we attempt escape, as surely as D.H. Lawrence was humiliated by his working class roots. We are born into a social class we attempt to exploit, writing about traditions and schools and values and families. My argument is that this accident of birth is the one that has the most effect on us. We can research the others, interview prime examples, even visit the locale, using our mind's eye to transport us back in time in that place. Coping with the effects of the class into which we were born is another matter. Dickens sensed this in Great Expectations and in many ways provided one of his most splendid examples of a single character who lived on two levels, was influenced by each, and how those consequences actually shaped his destiny.

Jack London was another case in point, Herman Melville another, each experiencing and writing beyond limitations of birth landscape, often with lasting effect, each enhancing his own understanding of class structure and making it possible for readers to experience what it is like to be other than what and how and where one has been born.

F.S. Fitzgerald, born well into the middle class, frequently described him as looking in as if through windows at the rich, and James Agee, having grown up rural and lower middle class in Knoxville, Tennessee, quickly wrote his way out of his origins and place into another, more opulent world.

None of these choices is in my view any better than any other, Harry Crews grabs me by the collar and yanks me into his story as forcefully as Louis Auchincloss, to cite but one extreme example. I feel comfortable with a range of social classes, an observation that could well be considered as self-serving on some levels, but I leaven the observation with the awareness that I can and do visit a wide range of characters, say Flem Snopes and Jeeter Lester, with the likes of Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, and Richard III.

Characters are having more and more to make accommodations in these matters of time, place, and class. The young, the adult, the middle-aged, and the elderly must perforce mix if only in response to the undeniable reality that there are more of each of us than ever before. We ignore each other at our peril and at the peril of a good story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

THe writers you have here remind me of that ever present dictum--write what you know. What is that exactly? Fitzgerald writing rich? Shakespeare writing star-crossed love? On and on.

What do I know and how do I know it?