On Proletarian Fiction

This was supposed to be the prelude to an essay about Marianne Fritz’s novel The Weight of Things, my translation of which is coming out soon, but it got away from me. I am interested in Fritz, among other reasons, because she strikes me as one of the few writers to ask, in a painstaking and earnest way, in what way literature is a corollary of repression and what kind of writing is necessary for the adequate expression of the proletariat condition; and when I have time to continue with this essay, I hope to consider the idea of proletarian fiction with relation to literary form.

To define proletarian fiction first of all would mean to locate the areas at which the epistemological model subtending the view of life put forward in the bourgeois novel occludes the possibility of accurate self-perception on the part of the proletariat.

Bourgeois and proletariat: these are old words, almost obsolete, and it is hard to use them earnestly without looking ridiculous. Yet to forego them, and to pretend that the welcome surcease of nominally communist governments in the late twentieth century obviated the categories of Marxist aesthetics, is either vanity or lassitude; not only because the pretense that literature exists in a sealed, sovereign vacuum, impervious to asymmetries of power and opportunity and immune from criticism that makes reference to the same, is a craven and cursory view that reduces the grandeur of its subject, but also because the writing borne of such pretense has grown increasingly myopic, provincial, and humdrum. It is doubtful whether anyone not already inured to the sterile repetitiousness of contemporary American criticism could possibly lend credence to the ceaseless intonation of the words “brave,” “poignant,” “gripping,” “deeply felt,” “rollicking,” “deft,” and so on as an expression of actual thought rather than a sort of court ritual or religious observance for the enervated mass of middlebrow readers.

Among the proper functions of criticism is the projection of expectations that insure literature against the decadence and smugness that are the natural fruit of any human enterprise by means of which wealth and prestige may be accrued. Sadly, this mechanism is broken in the United States today. Our greatest critic has reduced his métier to enumerating the ways a given author under examination is or is not like Shakespeare, while our second-greatest critic seems incapable of writing an essay in which he does not re-explain, for the umpteenth time, the meaning of “free indirect style”; Jonathan Franzen passes muster as a public intellectual for progeroid grousing about cell phones, tweeting, and the baleful influence of Ulysses; and Joyce Carol Oates, apparently without sarcasm, is mentioned year after year as a worthy contender for the Nobel Prize.

Just as the nominal differences between political groups in America may be summarized in a few token postures brought up in conversation or shared on social media, while their patterns of consumption, which are, in the present era, their most defining and consequential characteristic, are shockingly uniform, so the situation of this country’s literate class, which by and large thinks itself ideologically distinct from the mainstream, mimics America’s larger hubris: the hayseed who blabbers about the “greatest country in the world,” seemingly ignorant of its scandalous public health standards, its rotten infrastructure, or the 50 million people without secure access to food, has his counterpart in the monoglot reader convinced that a thorough acquaintance with a debased pantheon of largely white, largely male English-speaking authors from the twentieth century is sufficient to constitute literary culture. The vast gulf represented by this rarefied form of erudition and the concerns of the world at large is in ample evidence at virtually any literary event, where white faces in the audiences contemplate white faces before a microphone speaking in shibboleths that have no meaning to anyone who has lacked the resources necessary to be tutored in their concerns by the faculties of liberal arts institutions.

Overt political fiction has fared poorly among Americans in general. Our impoverished educational system and our rampant anti-intellectualism have made the intellectual range and rigor required of such an enterprise nearly unattainable –– who can imagine an American counterpart to Musil or Jelinek? –– and those, like Norman Rush, who nonetheless remain so inclined find themselves slowly schooled in the gentility of inoffensiveness (a derivative of the old American axiom that one doesn’t discuss politics or religion at the dinner table) until they, too, home in on careerism and cohabitation as the signal problems of our time, or else become downmarket, disreputable cranks like Peter Sotos or Andrea Dworkin.

Use of the epithets “bourgeois” and “proletariat” reached its peak in English in the early 1970s, and since that time its decline has been uninterrupted. Curiously, this coincides with a period during which the traditional notion of the bourgeoisie as owners of means of production and the proletariat as manual laborers gave way to newer, hybrid models of wealth less amenable to the crude categories of Marxist analysis: increasingly, in the West, the wealthiest individuals are represented by the management class, while the offshoring and mechanization of industry has led to a proletariat composed mainly of low-skilled service workers, though by means of technology and market chicanery, increasing numbers of skilled laborers are also finding themselves in this category. If the attempt to revive these terms without a rigorous analysis of the complex class structures emplaced in the contemporary world would smack of nostalgia for the broad-brush clichés of Soviet dialectics and a concomitant attraction to the violence of erstwhile communist regimes that goes against every liberal tenet, the converse, to assume the existence of a classless society simply because the mechanisms of wealth creation and pauperization have changed, would be a profound error; likewise, the assertion, unimpeachable from a consumerist perspective, that so many have never had it so good, ignores a clear tendency toward the coupling of automation and free-market ideology to monopolization, wealth-concentration, and the en masse divestiture of human actors from the field of labor, not only in traditional industry but also, and perhaps more so, in the soft knowledge fields of skilled professions.

If literature is to be concerned with truth, then an ignorance of class politics, meant here not as a clash of ideologies but as the moral fact of rendering hundreds of millions of human lives obsolescent and invisible while for millions of others, the truly pressing matters of the day are encapsulated by the Dining and Lifestyle sections of the New York Times, represents a glaring absence that calls our entire literary enterprise into question. To approximate the effects, the import, and the spiritual implications of the economic upheavals of the present era is a signal task for the literature of today, and one for which our most illustrious voices, with their six-figure advances, Brooklyn brownstones, and Ivy League sinecures are singularly ill-equipped.