Manchette, Simenon, Topor, Izzo. Names we do not know here in the United States. Maybe Simenon, but then only through his Maigret novels, not his dark, psychological explorations, such as The Clockmaker (1955). In Europe—particularly in France—these are the names of major writers. What the hell, we could even add the name Albert Camus to the list—notably his most famous novel, The Stranger (1942).
In the United States, we call similar writers genre writers, crime writers, pulp fiction authors—well, maybe we don’t even call them authors. We might call them “hacks.”
We pigeonhole such writers, we use taxonomy to categorize them, we label them—like avid zoologists naming a new species of bug—Family, Genus, Species.
All our nomenclature seeks to peg such authors into some secondary status—a notch, or much more, below serious American literature.
In “Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War,” Woody Haut writes “hardboiled writing has been marginalized precisely because it is a class-based literature.”
Meanwhile, Swedish Academy member Horace Engdahl (one of 18 who vote the Nobel Prize for Literature) has said that American writers are “too isolated, too insular” and “they don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”
While few would argue that Europe is the center of the literary universe any longer, Engdahl has a point—mainstream American writing isn’t either.
Literary fiction in the US has become de facto conservative. Even the most corporate contemporary American visual artists, such as Jeff Koons, are more adventurous than US writers that emerge from MFA programs, largely the refuge of the rich and the privileged.
About a year ago, a recent college graduate approached me at a university cocktail party. He wanted to be a writer. He told me that he was very frugal, that he had saved $80,000 on his own, and he was trying to decide whether to get an MFA or travel around the world. I was impressed with his ability to save money, not necessarily my strongest point. I took out my phone and began to show him the cost of flights to Japan, Vietnam and other faraway places. The choice was clear—to me anyway.
Engdahl calls the professionalization of writing insular. He’s right, though his framing of the issue is incomplete—Europe may be insular by history, but America is insular by will.
In our literature, as in our society as a whole, we prefer to ignore the poor, despite their growing number. We cling on to our stubborn and insane belief in a classless country.
The new American canon is upper middle class—Franzen, Chabon, and others—all competent writers who write about a world most people in the world can never know, let alone care about.
To make up for the gap of writing about the poor in the United States, the mainstream literary reviews have increased their coverage of Latin American and African writers and very recent immigrants with clear links to the struggles of their native lands. This is a good thing. Writers like NoViolet Bulawayo and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among many others, need to be read.
But where do you read about poor Americans? Where are the Algrens? The Wrights? The Ellen Glasgows?
A few years ago, in an interview in France, I said that NWA’s Straight Outta Compton (1988) was the best LA novel of the past 25 years (this well before the Hollywood movie came out). I was mostly serious, but I further meant to point out that some of the talent from poor and working class communities was finding media other than fiction writing to express themselves.
On television, David Simon’s The Wire (2002-2008) depicts inner city turmoil as well as anything in print.
But the proliferation of new media hardly suffices to explain the fact that we recently halfway emerged from the Great Recession (most poor and working class Americans have not) without a Grapes of Wrath (1934), or Waiting for Nothing (1935), Tom Kromer’s little-known, but piercing [End Page 6] first person novel of Depression-era vagrancy.
When I want to read...