Anis Shivani and Eric Miles Williamson Stir Some Shit

Boy howdy, would I like to read more of this kind of inter­view. Anis Shiv­ani rakes some good muck at Huff­in­g­ton Post.

Eric Miles Williamson is the author of five crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed books: East Bay Grease (Pic­a­dor, 1999),Two-Up (Texas Review Press, 2006), Oak­land, Jack Lon­don, and Me (Texas Review Press, 2007),Wel­come to Oak­land (Raw Dog Scream­ing Press, 2009), and the forth­com­ing 14 Fic­tion­al Posi­tions(Raw Dog Scream­ing Press, 2010). East Bay Grease, a PEN/Hemingway final­ist, intro­duced a rad­i­cal­ly fresh voice in Amer­i­can fic­tion, deal­ing with the ago­nies of poor peo­ple with­out any fail­ure of courage. Two-Up is a gut-wrench­ing book about the gory world of the gunite work­er (once Williamson's own pro­fes­sion). Oak­land, Jack Lon­don, and Me is unlike any oth­er recent book of criticism–it is a raw per­son­al response to how the recep­tion of Jack Lon­don (always under­es­ti­mat­ed by crit­ics) reveals more than we wish to know about our cul­tur­al blind spots. Williamson's best book to date is his nov­el, Wel­come to Oak­land, which picks up on T‑Bird Murphy's tra­vails in East Bay Grease, tak­ing us to his ear­ly youth in the ghet­toes and garbage dumps of Oak­land. If read­ers have rea­son to com­plain that Amer­i­can fic­tion is too gen­teel, and gen­er­al­ly only an aca­d­e­m­ic exer­cise to feed bour­geois desires, then they need look no far­ther than Williamson's fic­tion for a brac­ing cor­rec­tive.

Shiv­ani: There are very few books about the real work­ing class in Amer­i­can fic­tion, and this has always seemed to be the case, with the rare excep­tion. Near­ly all fic­tion address­es the com­fort­able mid­dle class. Why is this so? Are there writ­ers address­ing themes of work and mon­ey at the low­er socioe­co­nom­ic lev­els that we aren't aware of? Is it a prob­lem with pub­lish­ers? Or is it a prob­lem with writ­ers?

Williamson: I'd say there have always been books about the Amer­i­can work­ing class. What'sMoby Dick if not a great work­ing-class nov­el? A group of hard­work­ing sailors enslaved by their posi­tion in life, work­ing for the boss­man Ahab. It'd be easy to see Huck Finn as a work­ing-class nov­el as well, except Huck and Jim are even low­er on the social lad­der than work­ers, a white trash orphan and his run­away slave friend. Jack London's works sure­ly count as work­ing class, as do the works of Frank Nor­ris, Theodore Dreis­er, Upton Sin­clair, Sin­clair Lewis, Nel­son Algren.

To be sure most Amer­i­can fic­tion address­es the mid­dle class–and, for that mat­ter, most fic­tion of the West­ern world address­es the mid­dle class. After all, it's the mid­dle class that usu­al­ly reads and writes the books.

What's inter­est­ing is that these days, in the Unit­ed States, our work­ing-class fic­tion is increas­ing­ly writ­ten by minori­ties. As edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties open up and as minori­ties become eco­nom­i­cal­ly and edu­ca­tion­al­ly viable, they're telling their sto­ries. Their works, how­ev­er, are cast off into the cat­e­go­ry of "minor­i­ty" fic­tion. They're stuck on the Lit­er­ary Short Bus. Fine authors like Dagob­er­to Gilb, Mark Nes­bitt, even Toni Morrison–they're not called great writ­ers. They're labeled Minor­i­ty Writ­ers. The blue col­lar world is usu­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with white peo­ple, Irish­men and Ital­ians and Jews and so forth–peoples who were dis­crim­i­nat­ed against in the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies. But we're not build­ing rail­roads any­more, and if we ever do so again, it'll be His­pan­ics and Blacks doing the dirty work, and they'll be writ­ing the nov­els about their tra­vails.

There are plen­ty of authors writ­ing what you call work­ing-class fic­tion. Lar­ry Fon­da­tion writes about the under­bel­ly of Los Ange­les. Dagob­er­to Gilb writes about work­ing class Mex­i­cans. Michael Gills's char­ac­ters are poor white trash from the Ozarks, as are Marc Watkins'. There's Glenn Blake, who writes about peo­ple who work in used car lots and the oil refiner­ies of East Texas. M. Glenn Taylor's books are set in the coal mine coun­try of West Vir­ginia. Paul Ruffin's char­ac­ters are just reg­u­lar work­ing-class peo­ple.

There's actu­al­ly been a resur­gence of work­ing class-authors in Amer­i­ca, result­ing from the cheap­ness of a uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion for peo­ple who went to col­lege before the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion. We got to col­lege for prac­ti­cal­ly noth­ing. This ain't so today. These poor kids have to shell out ten grand a year to go to a crap­py state school. They won't have the lux­u­ry of writ­ing books. They'll be too busy being cor­po­rate automa­tons, slav­ing away to pay back their stu­dent loans, America's ver­sion of inden­tured servi­tude. We'll be back to noth­ing but mid­dle-class fic­tion in no time. For now, though, we'll have anoth­er 20 years of real­ly good work by peo­ple who in the past wouldn't have been edu­cat­ed, and in the future won't be either. We're in the hey­day right now.

It isn't the fault of pub­lish­ers that our work­ing-class authors aren't on the Wal-Mart book­shelves. Pub­lish­ers are in busi­ness to make mon­ey, and work­ing-class books don't sell. Because work­ing-class peo­ple don't read. The sales of today, how­ev­er, don't mat­ter at all if the project is to cre­ate Art. Work­ing-class writ­ers are pub­lish­ing on small press­es, but his­to­ry won't care where a book was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished, and I ven­ture that when the crit­ics of the future look back at us, many of these writ­ers will find their place in the canon.

Many of the writ­ers here I'd not heard of or not heard enough of, so I blew some of my mid­dle-class pay­check at Ama­zon to cor­rect that. You should too, wher­ev­er you buy books.

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