At the nadir of my walk yesterday, I witnessed a carline abandon a withered Chevy Lumina and achingly waddle up the weedy walk to her home. Her countenance stoned me. It was grave and stygian, as if Charon still sat in the passenger seat smoking a Kool. A deceptively happy cerulean smock still covered her front. Rainbow letters said she worked at Menard’s. Her scruffy ponytail fell out of the band, lopsided and sad.
She didn’t notice me. Her head was down. I would’ve felt like a schmuck if she had, because I cradled Tuesday’s New York Times and a Modern Library edition of Moby-Dick under my left arm. Such a rube I am! Would it not be an offence to her, holding these bourgeois symbols of free time?—because surely the Times and Melville aren’t priorities for an eight-hour-a-day worker. Reading is behooved by sustained silence and solitude. It is instigated by curiosity or the need for Otherness: spies, fantasy, wizards, 18th c. dames and lords, and so on. Ms. Menard didn’t have an eggshell’s worth of free time from the look of her pained gait. Her curiosity: obliterated.
The workaday world is rough. Long shifts, where cubicles reign hard all around and fluorescent lighting pushes down. Micro-managing and tiny tyrant jefes. From what I glean, boredom is worst. Dull and mossy: boredom kills. Though, some folks stand all day in big box stores or in swanky retail chains, chanting, “Thanks for shopping blank, please come again.” Some work construction or farm or sweat on the line in a kitchen. What do they do when they get off work?
At Vouched, we spend a lot of time promoting small press fiction, independent fiction, and new authors. I spend a lot of time asking who reads our site, and further: who reads independent fiction? Grad students and adjunct professors with MFAs? College grads who once played in an emo band? I’m generalizing, obviously, but I do wonder. How broad the cast? How wide the seine?
Writers consider audience, presumably. Who’s left out is an oddity to me. I plotz endlessly over who won’t like my work. Ms. Menard could possibly enjoy Herman Melville, despite her lack of knowledge on whaling. Perhaps she’d enjoy Matt Bell, Blake Butler, or Brandi Wells and Roxane Gay?
Do working class people read small press fiction? If not, why? And why not?
Lower-class values are different than upper-class values. On the whole, what are the values of independent writers, whether raised as lower, middle, or upper class–and does it matter if we don’t share them? The grand plan of “capital-A” Art is to transcend those differences, but I think it’s harder now than ever to do so. Poetry and fiction are stonewalled by certain denizens just because it is poetry or fiction. I’ve heard my own students, at a private college, say that theater isn’t “real life,” so it “doesn’t matter at all.” Poetry is for “fags” or “girls.” Etc. Do we, as John Gardner claims, have a moral obligation to write toward those people who are excluded from the obvious audience of independent literature, or literature in general? Or are we only having fun making the small “in” group laugh at the larger American situation?
If given a solid book sold by Vouched, would Ms. Menard shrug, laugh, cry, or simply call us a circle jerk?
I imagine our crabbed woman engaging in one of the following after work: care of a family, yard work, laundry, various domestic chores, going to the local for a beer and a chat with friends, propping the feet up and watching television or a Redbox selection, napping, or cruising the internet.Transposing sadness on Ms. Menard is unfair. I don’t know what she lives and feels. Perhaps Ms. Menard possesses a solid sunny disposition. Though I would wager that her face spoke all. Reading sits firmly on a blue back burner.
What struck me was how little time a full-time worker has to read, if they want to. If they want to. This phrase is essential because reading is so active, so in need of will and agency. My dear partner and wife, who works long days with insane demands, loves reading, but has no time. Reading has chilled into a slimy soup for her. It’s unattractive and matte. After reading reports all day, and talking to clients on the phone, she has no need or desire or energy for reading. I didn’t realize how the rationalization of the day’s hours into work units ruins the availability of reading time.
I know many people read Kindles or Nooks or books on trams, trains, buses, and such. Adamant readers sneak in sentences and phrases under cover of diligent work habits. Lifelong readers always will, and maybe that’s all a writer has to worry about: the reading reader, the already-converted. Or the Wal-Mart reader: Nora Roberts, bestsellers, Stephen King, etc.
Still, I wonder what can be done to get more working people reading indie lit.? Is it a worthwhile endeavor? Will they want to? Should we let the working folks graft hard all day, then come home and slide into sleep?
Philip Larkin said he wrote for those “who drift, loaded hopelessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observances, into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet.”
Is this not Ms. Menard and her ilk? Is she not like Larkin’s Mr. Bleaney?
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.
I don’t want them to not know. We want our writing to make everyone a part of those whom Larkin calls “the less deceived.” When writers think of audience—if they do at all—do they think about Ms. Menard? Should we? Why? And if writers will, how do they reach her, Dear Ms. Menard, deep in aisle twenty-three of a huge hardware store, listening to the drone of Save big money at Menard’s!, grasping a packet of 60 watt light bulbs on a high shelf for an ambling grumpy-ass fucker who never says “thank you”?