Monday, June 2, 2008

Talking About Class

I have finished the essay Josh sent me on the lower middle class and read the posts here on the Wiscon identity panel and done some thinking out loud by myself. I am wondering if it might be worthwhile considering a group blog on class.

What I actually started thinking about was the early days of second wave feminism, when we had consciousness raising groups, because many women simply could not think about sexism. It was right there in front of them, but they couldn't see it clearly. Remember "the personal is political?"

My experience of the Wiscon class panel is -- when people start talking about their own class background, the panel disappears into a black hole.

But in reading the essay Josh sent me, I kept thinking, "that isn't the way I have experienced life" and "if that is true, how do you explain my father?"

So personal experience does matter. But it probably can't be handled in a 75 minute panel.

Which leads to the idea of the group blog...

I'm also thinking it might be a good idea to have discussions of the topic at next year's Wiscon -- an hour or two in a room, where people begin to explore the topic. What is class? How does it influence our lives?

I think we may have jumped a whole stage of exploration in trying to do class panels that come to a conclusion.


Josh said...

A couple of thoughts:

a) Felski's experience of class occurred in another country; I think she'd be please with U.S.ians protesting "That's not what I've seen" and using her essay as a jumping-off point for such discussions.

b) My impatience with the level of WisCon discussions on disability and (to some extent) on class had something to do with the fact that I saw race and gender being addressed with a lot more acuity.

c) Just as it's best to teach by engaging students with a text or a scientific problem right away and using the theory to answer questions that arise organically from their approaching that problem, a class panel, contrary to the one that frustrated us, should start with something like "How do you write w-c characters differently?" or "How do readers receive your w-c characters?" or "What is Rebecca Ore doing?" and the personal will come in naturally after that.

d) Barzak and McHugh would be invaluable participants in a discussion on class. Can't be all white folks, though.

Maureen McHugh said...

I'd be fascinated by such a blog--although my life is kinda complicated at the moment and I don't know how much I could contribute.

And yeah, a blog full of white people talking about class would be a bad thing. One of the books that most resonated with me in the discussion of class was Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Although we are not very similar, still, the exploration of the journey away from the culture and class of one's family was something I recognized.

Anonymous said...

There is a debunking class community on LJ, but I'm not sure if it's addressing what your needs are.

Anonymous said...

I think longer discussion would be really helpful.

I'll mention that one of my frustrations with the Wiscon panel was a cumulative frustration with fiction I've read where it's clear that people have no idea of how people live outside the suburban (and--sometimes--urban) middle class. They might say 'and then they stayed in a cheap motel' when it's clear the write has no idea what a non-chain local motel might be like.

And the problem when you (or in this case me) want to talk about the individual details of a life and the panel is either talking about definitions of class as a group or about the personal issue of not-belonging to said group, neither of which really get to the issue of how to write working class characters and also don't reflect one's personal experience, then not only don't we learn more about how to write working class characters, but it also feels like being disappeared. [Wow. That was a long and convoluted sentence. I hope it makes a bit of sense.]

And it's a big complex issue because, among other things, rural working class people do not have the same lived experience as urban working class people. And yet, in some ways they share common experiences that the urban middle class (and I suppose the rural middle class though in many places there isn't much of one) don't share with them.

Timmi Duchamp said...

charmingbillie: I stopped going to WisCon panels on class a few years ago because the same situation you describe occurred every time I attended such a panel.

My own sense is that it's almost impossible to convey the reality of class differences either in a discussion about it or in fiction. (Actually, I think it's easier to convey/portray in fiction.) For me the most frustrating aspect of the usual portrayals of working-class characters in fiction is the assumption by most writers that such characters are at bottom the same as middle-class ("normal") characters except that they're poorer and thus more vulnerable to the slings and arrows of fate. And it just isn't so. While they are of course poorer and more vulnerable, their expectations and ethics and values and value judgments are distinctly different. So for me the question is: How is it possible to represent those differences in fiction?

People who write fiction absolutely must follow the models that exist for their stories to be intelligible-- models that take middle-class interpretations of reality and motivations as givens-- regardless of their class origins. What makes it even harder, though, for writers who've left their class origins behind is that they have likely assimilated and thus have taught themselves (and been taught by their new friends or the family they've married into) the "correct" responses to various social situations, so that even if their first, automatic response is incorrect, they will realize their mistake and produce the appropriate response. Which is why, of course, that they (we) have no difficulty in portraying characters making the "correct" responses. I do this pretty well now, 38 years after marrying a lawyer's son, but I still have the tendency to lie awake at night struggling with my hard-wired "intuitive" response even when I know something I'm feeling is wrong. (Not surprisingly, most arguments I have with Tom usually involve my making the wrong response to a situation.) In order to assimilate, you have to seriously pretend that middle-class values are more correct than the ones that are written onto one's body. But honestly? I'm not sure that they are. I know only that I function more effectively in the world when I override what my gut tells me.

Now suppose a writer portrays characters with the kinds of responses I am still, all these years later, trying to suppress in myself. Most readers won't understand (since most readers of fiction are middle-class) and are likely to see the character as implausible or in need of psychiatric attention. I do know that for years I interpreted all these discrepancies between my family and other families (Tom's for instance) as psychological rather than sociological. But that's what we do in the US, isn't it? Interpret everything in psychological terms. That's certainly what most fiction does-- even science fiction. I do think that my fiction writing, especially my novels, has helped me to see that it isn't simply psychological.

Josh: I think you're right about the contrast in acuity at WisCon.

Maureen: I haven't read Richard Rodriguez's book. I'm wondering whether he talks about the pain of a kind of double-consciousness when with his family. I certainly know what that is, and the anxiety and guilt that feeling has inevitably engendered during many of family visits over the years...

Jeanne said...

Well, y'all don't know me from Eve, but I'm an Eleanor Arneson fan, I grew up working class, have my own blog about Quakers and social class, and have been to WisCon once. I came to this blog because of a post Eleanor made on my other favorite social class blogger Jane Vangelin (over at Education and Class). But here's my two cents if it's worth anything here.

Timmi speaks to my experience! I write fiction from what I know, and my characters are all working class and do things that middle class people don't understand.

Amazingly, *I* do a lot of things middle class people don't understand.

I know these things because I've thought for a long time there was something wrong with me that I couldn't seem to relate to middle class people by their rules. And then I went to Metropolitan State University and got my BA at 40 (in writing). Most of the students at Metro are working adults and therefore many are working class. THERE I found that my gifts and talents and participation was VALUED in a way they'd never been among middle class and owning class folks.

I no longer think that there's something wrong with me. For the most part anyway.

All these words to get to this: I have a book recommendation. It's a non-fiction book called Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams, by Al Lubrano, who writes for the Philly paper. It's about what it feels like to have been raised working class but live in or work in a middle or owning class world. His book gets at some of the conflict that can come about for a working class person, as well as illustrate some of those hard-to-describe differences between working class and middle or owning classes. I think it would be a good resource especially for middle class writers to get a handle on this issue.

Anonymous said...

timmi duchamp: Yes, yes, yes to all of that! I loved your GOH speech about intelligibility, BTW, especially as it spoke directly to some of the things I was thinking about after the working class panel. Very timely for me and great, great stuff.

When I write stories about rural experience one of the things that's always on my mind is that so very, very few people in the US have any experience with farming or ranching. And I want to reach that audience (the one without that experience), but I also want to say I get this, I understand this, I know this, too, to people who do have or have had that experience. And SFF has helped me do that because (if I'm successful) I can set it up as--yeah, this is a different world, watch what I'm saying here--but it's v. tricky.

A book that helped me understand where I live in the world (because I didn't, or hadn't ever articulated it well to myself) was Alfred Lubrano's Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams. I don't know that I'd even really thought that it was about me when I started reading it, but as I read it I realized--oh yeah, I completely understand that.

Anonymous said...

Timmi, This is a great thread. I'm a little confused by what you call your "intutive" incorrect responses to social situations. I presume that you are talking about something more than etiquette. Could you perhaps give some example to clarify?

Eleanor said...

I'm going to continue this thread, rather than do a separate post.

I moved to Detroit in 1968 and got a job an a downtown office. Detroit in those days was a factory town, 60% African American and pretty much 100% blue collar. Even the office workers came out of the blue collar working class.

When I started my job, a year or two out of graduate school, I could not communicate with my fellow workers. We were all native speakers of English and speaking the same dialect most of the time. But they didn't understand me, and I didn't understand them.

Underlying meaning was not getting through, even though we agreed on what each word meant.

After a while -- maybe several years -- I began to understand the people I worked with. At the same time, more or less, a lot of middle class conversation began to sound like bullshit or insane.

This was long ago, and I'm not sure I remember accurately. But this is my memory of what happened.

I will admit that I'm never sure how well I communicate with other people. I have the typical fannish belief that I have ended on the wrong planet, and no one gave me a guidebook.

But the experience I had in Detroit -- of having the English language become opaque -- was special.

Barbara Jensen has written about class use of language and the way that members of different classes think. I hear she has a book out or coming out.