In Class Definitions, Michelle M. Tokarczyk exhibits her passion for and commitment to advancing working-class studies in the field of literature. In each chapter, Tokarczyk interweaves an analysis of the biography and literary work of one of three working-class women writers: Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, and Dorothy Allison. Her main goal is to insert issues of class into the critical conversations about ethnicity, gender, and sexuality that have thus far comprised study of Kingston, Cisneros, and Allison's writings. Guided by Patricia Hill Collins's foundational argument that systems of oppression are interdependent, Tokarczyk makes the compelling claim that "women writers from the working class, especially those further marginalized by ethnicity or [End Page 550] sexual orientation" deliberately resist middle-class assimilation because "their overlapping identities coalesce to preserve their identification with the margins" (42). For Tokarczyk, analyzing the lives and literatures of three working-class authors from highly disparate cultural backgrounds allows her to draw attention to the experience of many Americans who contest the quintessentially American faith in upward mobility.
Offering a welcome corrective to the study of contemporary women writers who are more frequently considered in terms of racial and sexual difference, Tokarczyk concentrates on illustrating how the literatures of Kingston, Cisneros, and Allison are identifiably working class. To make her case, she looks to Janet Zandy's influential study Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work, which offers an "empirical framework for recognizing working-class writing" (23). This framework specifies such identifying markers of working-class writing as "a desire to render the material conditions of working people's lives in an aesthetically pleasing manner," and a focus on the community as opposed to the individual (24). Zandy's framework is useful as a heuristic device, yet Tokarczyk is so committed to it, that she frequently interrupts her analysis with the repeated refrain that Kingston, Cisneros, or Allison is, in fact, a working-class writer. Zandy's study sometimes proves more of a straightjacket for Tokarczyk than a guiding light; for example, she reads Kingston's Fifth Book of Peace as demonstrably working class because it is "to some extent inspired by historical events … which, as Zandy notes, is frequently the case with working-class writing" (89). Because it is possible to make the case that much literature is inspired by history, we require a more thorough discussion of what is distinctively working class about The Fifth Book of Peace, and why that specific paradigm matters.
Perhaps Tokarczyk would have been able to further develop her argument if she had made it up front, once and for all, thereby leaving room for a more thorough discussion of how considering an author's work as working class contributes to our understanding of it. In the introduction, she claims that she wants "readers to draw their own conclusions on these writers' fascinating lives and works and the impact of each on American literature" (15); however, I cannot help but wish that she, who has done such extensive research into these authors' lives and works, had shared with us her own argument. In her conclusion, Tokarczyk finally hints at what her book's innovative claim might be: that working-class literature does not have to be "rigidly realistic" to be "effective" (193). I take Tokarczyk here to mean that the "imaginative" works of Kingston, Cisneros, and Allison may, paradoxically, be even more "practical" than "stark realism" (193) at challenging stereotypes and testifying to the lived experiences of people whose very presence undermines the [End Page 551] narratives that the US holds so dear. Tokarczyk repeatedly cites Kingston's, Cisneros's, and Allison's attempts to "change the world" through their lives and writings (198); yet her book leaves me wondering how.
Tokarczyk's attempt to synthesize three very different authors into a working-class paradigm is admirable and ambitious. However, at times her reach exceeds her ability to put forward a coherent argument. Ultimately, I think the shortcomings...