Reading on the Job & Writing Your Values

27 Apr

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”?

28 Responses to “Reading on the Job & Writing Your Values”

  1. Matt Sailor April 27, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    I think you make a decision when you write the kind of work that you write about who your potential audience will be–the size of that audience, the socio-economic background of that audience. Do working class people read indie lit? I’m sure some do. I doubt many do, but a great many people don’t read indie lit (or increasingly, any lit), regardless of their class. I think as writers and readers, we try to segregate ourselves from the working class–but if I were to look at many writers’ paychecks, you’ll find you’re not far off. I bet most tenure-track writing professors aren’t making more than a master plumber, and I know for a fact that this woman who works 40 hours a week or more in retail makes as much as I do (likely more, if she’s above minimum wage) as a graduate teaching assistant. The question in my mind is not whether those people read it, but how do you write something that is honest, that doesn’t exploit or condemn or belittle those working class people, that wouldn’t make them ashamed to read it (confused, annoyed, dismissive all fine, just not ashamed).

    But then, it could be Ms. Menard is supporting Romney, in which case all she’s reading is the comments section on Fox anyway, so who cares what she reads.

    • kmwinkler April 27, 2012 at 8:31 am #

      I’m not entirely sure I was talking about class as economics, though that does matter, and I’m sure she does make more than me, but I was also thinking about the culture working people are raised in. Even if she does read Fox News, why does that make her outside a writer’s purview. If anything, that makes me want to find out how I could get to her, move her, understand her point of view.

      This, too, is what I mean when you say ” how do you write something that is honest, that doesn’t exploit or condemn or belittle those working class people, that wouldn’t make them ashamed to read it (confused, annoyed, dismissive all fine, just not ashamed)”?

      A great question. One I subconsciously try to think about every day.

      • i'm helping April 27, 2012 at 8:51 am #

        THIS IS THE PROBLEM: even thinking or asking the question

        “how do you write something that is honest, that doesn’t exploit or condemn or belittle those working class people, that wouldn’t make them ashamed to read it (confused, annoyed, dismissive all fine, just not ashamed)”?

        betrays your bias – that you approach working-class people AS LESSER, that you DO think of them as people who should expect to be ashamed, who should anticipate feeling stupid, who should know by know to feel dismissed. a group to be exploited. i think the whole premise is gross and that you need to check yourself.

        • Matt Sailor April 27, 2012 at 9:03 am #

          Speaking for myself–and you quoted me in your response to OP, which is fine, as OP was quoting me too–I don’t consider myself separate from the working class, but I think it would be naive to assume that a great number of working class people read this kind of work. In my opinion, you’re confusing the description of differences with the assumption of superiority. If people think a piece of experimental literature is pretentious and overblown, and would rather read Nora Roberts…I’m not convinced by any means that they don’t have a valid point of view. But, the solution to class separation is not insisting that we’re all the same, but elucidating what makes us different and trying to do productive work with those differences. I think lionizing working people as writers tend to do is just as destructive as belittling them.

          For the record, I come from a working class family, and economically speaking am not exactly sitting in a place of privilege. But the original question I posted, which OP quoted and then you quoted, is (I don’t think) a condescending question to ask, nor is it a particularly problematic one. For me, it is my honest way of reconciling my background with my intellectual concerns as a writer.

          And KM, the reference to Fox News comments is just my shorthand for someone who is not interested in exploring exterior viewpoints. The comments section in particular…the network has its issues, but the comments section is almost entirely filled with racist twaddle; don’t ask why I’ve bothered to find out. Do I want to know what those people feel? Maybe, as a writer, I should, but as someone with a family full of those people, not particularly.

          • ohbabyohman April 27, 2012 at 9:18 am #

            Using phrases like “those people,” displaying how much separation you try to impart between yourself and them, is a great defense for condescension.

          • Matt Sailor April 27, 2012 at 9:23 am #

            You mean like this?

            “Those people” specifically meaning people who make racist comments on Fox News, as is pretty clear grammatically and contextually from what I said. Do I separate myself from “those people” who read and make such comments? Most certainly.

          • i'm helping April 27, 2012 at 9:28 am #

            yeah matt, that’s what he’s saying. he’s saying you should pander to racists.

            people who feign willful misunderstanding in order to preserve a stupid non-point are a group i’d like to distance myself from. always save face no matter what bro

          • Matt Sailor April 27, 2012 at 9:30 am #

            I’m Helping: I was just trying to lighten the contentious mood with a funny video. I guess it didn’t work…

          • Matt Sailor April 27, 2012 at 9:35 am #

            I’m also not entirely sure how mine is a “stupid non-point.” I just don’t fully understand the desire to insist on a complete lack of any separation among socioeconomic classes and backgrounds. If I’m misreading, then I would like to know why, but that’s what I’m reading into the comments here, that even addressing potential differences between the subcultural elite of the “writer” and the working class of this country is some kind of third rail that shouldn’t be approached.

          • Matt Sailor April 27, 2012 at 9:40 am #

            And in all honesty I did think he was just referring to my use of the term “those people”; if there is a deeper comment about what I wrote being condescending to the working class, I am willing to engage it. I don’t think I am being condescending in my comments, but I thought the poster was taking issue with loaded language that I didn’t feel like I had used.

  2. i'm helping April 27, 2012 at 8:27 am #

    this thought process is how Poetry Slam is said to have come about, although the story as i heard it was written much less lugubriously than this baroque horrorshow.

    • kmwinkler April 27, 2012 at 8:31 am #

      Why is baroque a bad style?

    • kmwinkler April 27, 2012 at 8:33 am #

      Also, Poetry Slam just brings in more of the same people that I’m talking about. I’ve had to sit through a few. Mostly students in college desiring to preen for others.

      • i'm helping April 27, 2012 at 8:45 am #

        the point was not to suggest that you begin beating the dead horse of slam, just to point out that such considerations are hardly new in the history of artmaking, by way of, i don’t know, obliquely suggesting that you could probably learn more by looking at past examples than by unfurling a two-foot post laden with curlicues ruminating on the content and complexity of your own navel lint.

        in re: baroque, i’m just pointing out that by affecting these prissy verbal flourishes you’re excluding the very market you’re considering.

        both of which are paltry concerns when one considers the grotesque volume of privilege this article is positively dripping in. the whole post is like a bloated, listing “shall we let them eat our cake?’ moment. disgusting! this is why i no longer have time for the precious insular circle-jerk that most small publishing houses comprise.

        • kmwinkler April 27, 2012 at 9:20 am #

          I appreciate your point of view, but to assume that I’m privileged is false. I may teach at a private school, but it doesn’t mean that I’m elite. In fact, it’s not “private” in that way. Many students can’t write or read well. They’re in on scholarship or money from their own family. And many of those students aren’t well-off, either.

          And I don’t see what makes the language “prissy.” I chose this rhetorical stance because it fit my thoughts. If you want to get into political judgements via language, read Orwell, who, to some extent, had it right, I suppose. But I feel like you are saying that there are certain words that aren’t allowed, excluding the obvious words of hatred, racism, etc.

          To quote Matt Sailor above: “If people think a piece of experimental literature is pretentious and overblown, and would rather read Nora Roberts…I’m not convinced by any means that they don’t have a valid point of view. But, the solution to class separation is not insisting that we’re all the same, but elucidating what makes us different and trying to do productive work with those differences. I think lionizing working people as writers tend to do is just as destructive as belittling them.”

          He said it better than I could.

      • I AM SHAUN GANNON April 27, 2012 at 10:23 am #

        yes, rip on poetry slams, that will make you seem less elitist

        • kmwinkler April 27, 2012 at 11:09 am #

          So everyone should love poetry slams? Why is elitist a bad word? A fast food grill cook can be elitist.

  3. ohbabyohman April 27, 2012 at 8:46 am #

    Once again, a writer condescends to the working class. Good job, Mr. Private College.

    • kmwinkler April 27, 2012 at 9:22 am #

      How am I condescending? I asked if anyone considers those left out by the automatic audience of indie lit, etc. This is an inclusive post, not an exclusive one.

      To assume that someone like the woman in the post NEEDS Melville is dumb, of course. But how do we know she wouldn’t like it? I suppose if I walked up to her and asked her, it would be the equivalent of a religious solicitor. And in that way, I see where you’re coming from.

  4. Brett Elizabeth April 27, 2012 at 8:48 am #

    I dislike the sentiment I picked up here that WRITERS are somehow “outside” of class. I’m poor and I work a poor person’s job, and I read and write whatever I want. Should the fact that people like me watch FOX news or read Stephen King affect the way that we write?

    If anything, I think this post builds walls up between working people and WRITERS. This post leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    • ohbabyohman April 27, 2012 at 8:52 am #

      THANK YOU!

    • kmwinkler April 27, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      For the record, I too read Stephen King. And much else besides. And I’m not saying that writers are outside of class. Far from it. I’m not rich, not even middle class. Adjuncts make little for a lot of work.

      What I’m concerned about was my own bias in my preconceived audience. Who am I assuming I’m writing toward? And why? Why not
      write toward that woman I saw? What’s wrong with that? How is that condescending?

      The language I used is seen as high-falutin’ because it’s not common. What’s wrong with that? If all language was reduced to a set word bank, we’d be more diminished for it.

  5. ohbabyohman April 27, 2012 at 9:26 am #

    Personally, it feels nice to be from a working class family and not have a bunch of issues about it.

    • Matt Sailor April 27, 2012 at 9:31 am #

      I imagine it would feel nice to not have a bunch of issues with any aspect of identity, but I wouldn’t know from experience.

    • kmwinkler April 27, 2012 at 11:11 am #

      Again, no issues with working class–whatever your definition of that is–but with what is read and whether or not people who aren’t me or in my close circle of friends are taking all possible readers into consideration.

  6. Russ W. April 27, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    I work at a public library. I buy indie lit books for the library because I want to support small presses and get the word out. I’ve had conversations with auto mechanic dudes about poetry. I think the majority of people read popular things, otherwise they wouldn’t be popular things. I think it’s a bit of an oversight to assume indie lit people all come from middle-class-and-up backgrounds. I’ve never read Moby Dick. Lots of people like creative stuff and seek it out. Indie lit is relatively small. Budgets are small, distribution is small. The people who get into it are people who get deep into contemporary writing and want to know what’s going on right now. Usually these people are writers because being interested in that usually stems from having some sort of motivation to be involved with contemporary writing. Or else they first find out about it and then they get pumped and want to start writing. That’s what happened with me. Reading Mark Leidner and Zachary Schomburg made me want to start writing poetry. I grew up in a small town in southern Indiana (shout out to the 812!) and I know, as a lot of people do, that there are plenty of poor people who are very curious and dig really deep into what they’re interested in whether it be books or music or film. The ones that end up getting into indie lit specifically are going to be few because there are hundreds of thousands of pockets that marble of interest could plink down into and indie lit isn’t one of the major ones. Maybe that lady doesn’t know a thing about Melville (I also don’t know a thing about Melville, though I liked Bartleby the Scrivener when I read it in english class) but she could talk your arm off about 60s Calypso music. To me it’s all the same. I like when people go deep and expand their knowledge. If it’s not in the particular way I do it, that’s awesome because I could learn about something new from them. I say all this to comfort you: we’re doing fine. We’re doing our work. We fulfill a good space. Yes there are people in the world who would enjoy indie lit that we are not reaching out to. But there are also types of art in the world that you would enjoy that you have not discovered yet and the people passionate about those things wish they could reach out to you and show you how great their thing is. We’re doing a good job. I like us. We’re here and there will be people from all backgrounds who find us and all we need to do is follow our muse and make things we love. So long as we do that, that’s what’s important.

    • kmwinkler April 27, 2012 at 11:20 am #

      I like your positivity, Russ. And I agree. She may’ve been able to school me on calypso or jazz or old 30s radio programs, whatever. But isn’t that the point of what this blog is about, and what writers ultimately want? Coverage, exposure, readers?

      The post originally started as a meditation on how having a grueling job like my wife, and I supposed by her demeanor, the woman I saw, really saps your energies for other activities that classically “enrich the soul” and on and on. I was lamenting the lack of time available in the modern world for people to enjoy their passions when they have to spend most of their time working. It’s a function of our society of course. We work to live, most of us.

      I just wonder how people got caught up in the idea that I was trying to say that I was some rich bitch who felt sorry, or worse, pity, for people who are “lesser” than me. That couldn’t be further from the point I was trying to make. Oh well.

      Best to you.

  7. OP's wife April 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    no, really. he doesn’t make a lot of money. no, seriously. he doesn’t. i know. i see his checks. i basically support him. he makes $2100 per class. per semester. so, really, not rich. he barely makes over poverty. no, really. i know this. i am a social worker. no, really. i am.

    i’m being serious. no, really i am. so please, misinterpret me. thank you. oh look, house hunters is on tv.

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