- Welcome to the Working Class
Daniel M. Mendoza, ed.
Down and Out Books
253 Pages; Print, $14.95
Daniel Mendoza couldn’t work at Pizza Hut forever. When he lost his book-loving stripper roommate, he realized saving his food-chain wages for a deposit on a place to live wasn’t feasible. Ranch work seemed a possible career choice, so he headed to a Texas community college bent on earning a welding certificate. His advisor, Fred Garcia, got him talking about books and explained he could major in English and teach. Mendoza was hooked.
“I said, well, I can get this degree and get a job where all I do is talk about books instead of being out in the hot sun all day. Shit, sign me up,” Mendoza tells his mentor, Eric Miles Williamson, in a conversation in his new book Stray Dogs, Interviews with Working-Class Writers. Through his college work and his time at American Book Review, Mendoza became fascinated by writers with a unique perspective on the working class. He found the smaller presses, particularly those in his home state, were publishing work that defied description in the literary mainstream. Influenced by William Hastings’s anthology Stray Dogs, Writing from the Other America (2014), Mendoza set out to learn from these writers, and the result is a collection of fourteen interviews and transcripts of two panel discussions that open up the world of working class fiction.
“Working” class may itself be a misnomer. Some of the characters created by Mendoza’s interviewees are barely working, if at all. But what ties these works and these writers together is a focus on the common man or woman, shades of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, or Erskine Caldwell, a league away from what Ron Cooper has described as “fiction that’s been high-jacked [sic] by the New York literati for about fifty years.”
“Originally we like to think that books are for the people, of the people, by the people. Now we have a lot of books that are for the rich, of the rich, by the rich,” Larry Fondation said. “Most of the shit that is in the New York Times Book Review, on the front page, is very thin. It’s popular fiction in the guise of literary fiction as opposed to agreeing that literary fiction includes things like working-class fiction: the ninety-nine percent.”
Williamson said he thinks the Norton should add a working-class fiction section because it’s been ignored: “Because it’s written by guys. Mostly by white guys. The working-class has been neglected in the same way Steinbeck is falling out of the discussion, London, Erskine Caldwell. There is a heavy upper-class elitist preference for their own kind of fiction.”
The divide is both economic and cultural. The actor Sarah Jessica Parker has a new book publishing imprint, and according to the New York Times, “expressed keen interest in ‘voices from far away, people who are different, people from other lands that seem as distant as can be and voices and cultures that are unfamiliar.’” However, there’s no need to cross an ocean to hear these voices. They are as close as Joseph Haske’s Upper Peninsula, Michael Gill’s Arkansas, Juan Ochoa’s Rio Grande Valley, or Cooper’s South Carolina low country. Think Steinbeck’s Oklahoma, Faulkner’s Mississippi, or O’Connor’s Georgia. What’s been missing, Mendoza’s writers agree, is the recognition that people want to read about real people and their struggles.
The irony is that the working class, as defined by Mendoza and others in Stray Dogs, have eschewed labels. Lumped together in their poverty, lifted out for a novel here or a play there based on race or sexual orientation, they are as marginalized in the literary world as they are in the real world, kept in their “place” by the business and government establishment.
Williamson calls the literature of the working class “Red-Neck Noir,” but Mendoza rightly recognizes the genre goes beyond that. He includes...